February 25, 2002


Mr. Chairman of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States; Mr. Assistant Secretary for Legal Affairs of the OAS; distinguished permanent representatives; distinguished observers; ladies and gentlemen:


I am delighted to be attending this formal opening ceremony of the 114th regular session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in the company of the IACHR’s First Vice-President, Ms. Marta Altolaguirre; its Second Vice-President, Dr. José Zalaquett; Commissioners Dr. Robert Goldman, Dr. Julio Prado Vallejo, and Dr. Clare Kamau Roberts; the Executive Secretary of the IACHR, Dr. Santiago Canton; and the Executive Secretariat’s professional staff.


As you already know, this is the first period of sessions for Commissioners José Zalaquett and Clare Kamau Roberts, who were elected to the IACHR at the OAS General Assembly in Costa Rica last year. I would like to extend a public welcome to our new commissioners, who are professionals with the highest moral authority and renowned experience in the field of human rights. It is an honor for the OAS and the IACHR to have the support of such distinguished personalities.


          As the Permanent Council also knows, on February 13 of this year, Dr. Diego García-Sayán, who was also elected to the IACHR at the Organization’s General Assembly last year, has resigned from the Commission after being appointed to serve as Peru’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. The Commission understands the reasons for his resignation but nonetheless regrets it, since it denies it the presence among its members of a person with Dr. García-Sayán’s professional record and commitment to the inter-American human rights system. We wish Dr. García-Sayán every success in his important duties as Peru’s Minister of Foreign Affairs.


          We also note that the Secretary General has already sent information about the vacancy, with a view toward securing candidates to fill it. We would like to use this occasion to state once again that we are very keen to see the IACHR with a full complement of members at the earliest possible juncture.


During this session, the Commission will hold 56 hearings on a range of matters including pending cases, precautionary measures, friendly settlements, and the general human rights situation in several member states. It will also adopt decisions on the following matters: individual cases and petitions, including the adoption of reports on admissibility, inadmissibility, and merits, and their publication; the possible referral of cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights; future on-site visits; and the work of its rapporteurs who oversee different specific issues.


Comments on the human rights situation in the region 


In recent years, the human rights situation in the hemisphere has made progress with respect to some human rights while taking major steps backward with regard to others.


          Its progress can be seen in the democratic regimes that prevail in the hemisphere, which — unlike the dictatorships that held sway over a sizable portion of the region during the 1970s and 1980s — do not commit systematic, politically motivated violations of the right to life, the right to personal liberty, the right to humane treatment, and the right of free expression. Nevertheless, authoritarian regimes still arise — the one headed by Fujimori and Montesinos in Peru, for example, now happily relegated to the past. Even though they pay more attention to appearances, these are still essentially a kind of dictatorship not very different from traditional ones.


I also believe progress has been made in that we now have a more organized civil society; although there is still a long way to go, people have a better understanding of their rights; and there has been an evolution in international human rights law, which continues to pursue its mission of working for justice when it has been denied by domestic laws.


In contrast with these steps forward, some long-standing problems remain: the fact that some human rights violations still go unpunished (torture and extrajudicial killings, for example);  the inadequate development of the judiciary in most of the region’s countries, and the attacks on judicial independence and impartiality that take place in certain nations; inhuman detention conditions in prisons; and a mentality of repression, often supported by public opinion, that advocates a hard-line approach as the way to combat the region’s increasing crime levels, which thereby fails to adequately address the causes of that phenomenon and, instead, helps make it worse.


Economic, social, and cultural rights are also clearly deteriorating. I am talking about the right to work, to health, to education, to proper sustenance, to decent housing, and to social security: imperfectly observed rights that affect the entire population of the hemisphere. A very large and representative segment of our hemisphere faces extreme poverty, which constitutes a generalized violation of every human right. The poor, whose numbers increase with every passing day, cannot lead decent lives in freedom from fear. They barely survive in an existence where their most basic human rights, if they are present at all, stand on extremely shaky ground.


          In the IACHR we believe that the regime of liberties implied by democracy must be upheld, by respecting not only civil and political rights, but also rights of an economic, social, and cultural nature. That would prevent, inter alia, authoritarian temptations arising under the mantle of false populism and, worse of all, the possible return of the rights-violating military dictatorships that it cost us so many lives, so many disappearances, and so much torture to overthrow.


          As for the problems currently affecting the region, the Commission is very concerned and is closely watching to see how developments unfold in Colombia after President Andrés Pastrana announced, on February 20, that he was ending the ongoing peace talks for settling the armed conflict that has affected that country for so many years. Although we recognize that his decision was preceded by provocation in the form of kidnappings and attacks on civilian airliners, we hope that a way to rekindle the peace process can be found. We hope so because our everyday experience in monitoring Colombian affairs convinces us that the rights of the Colombian people will enjoy better protection once an end is brought to the conflict that has cost so many human lives and so much destruction. Meanwhile, the Commission calls on all the parties involved in the conflict to respect the applicable provisions of international humanitarian and human rights law.


          Another major challenge facing the region was set by the September 11 terrorist attack in the United States, which the Commission has denounced and condemned most emphatically. The Commission places great importance on the regional initiatives for tackling terrorism that have taken shape within the OAS. As we have already said, we are ready and willing to collaborate with the Permanent Council on drawing up instruments that, in addition to offering effective antiterrorism tools, acknowledge the need to uphold universal human rights standards. Within the Commission, we have made particular efforts in this regard. In order to better illustrate our deliberations and any future agreements on the matter, in the coming days we will be holding a general hearing, with speeches from expert guests. This is part of an ongoing study that will be published as soon as it is finished. The study’s starting point is that fighting terrorism and terrorists is not, in principle, incompatible with upholding human rights in democratic states that observe the rule of law.


          The Commission also continues to pay particular attention to the human rights situation in Cuba and Haiti. In Cuba, because of the absence of democracy in that country and the recurring violations of civil and political rights that take place there, the Commission is constantly monitoring the situation and reports on it regularly in its Annual Reports to the OAS General Assembly. With respect to Haiti, in addition to the permanent monitoring of the human rights situation there that it conducts as part of its duties, the IACHR has been paying close attention to developments following the armed attack on the National Palace in Port-au-Prince on December 17, 2001, in which five people died and a number of others were wounded. According to different sources, since then other violent attacks have taken place, affecting the members of opposition political parties and their property as well as journalists and television and radio stations.


Specific activities and miscellaneous issues since the last session


Since closing its 113th regular session on October 17, 2001, the Commission has carried out a range of activities in pursuit of its mandate. I will now report on some of those activities and on other aspects related to the IACHR’s work.


On December 7 to 13, 2001, the Commission conducted an on-site visit to the Republic of Colombia, at the invitation of that country’s government, with the purpose of observing the prevailing human rights situation there. During its visit the IACHR met with representatives of all three branches of government, including the nation’s president, Dr. Andrés Pastrana Arango; different representatives of civil society; and international organizations, including the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UNHCR, and the International Committee of the Red Cross. It also received information and heard statements regarding the situation in every region of the country. The Commission’s plenary met with presidential candidates Luis Eduardo Garzón, Horacio Serpa Uribe, and Alvaro Uribe Vélez. The Commission and its staff split up into working teams to visit Medellín and Barrancabermeja. The Commission is currently analyzing the information gathered during the visit with a view toward issuing a report on the human rights situation in Colombia.


          On February 7 of this year, in Mexico, Gen. José Francisco Gallardo Rodríguez was released. In a report on the merits of this case adopted in 1996, the Commission ruled that “the detention and continuous submission of General José Francisco Gallardo to 16 preliminary inquiries and 8 criminal cases without a reasonable and justifiable purpose[HJR1]” meant that several articles of the American Convention had been violated. The IACHR therefore recommended that the Mexican State should take a series of measures, including releasing Gen. Gallardo. His release now constitutes an extremely positive development on the part of the Mexican State and a concrete demonstration of that government’s commitment toward increased protection for human rights. The IACHR believes that all measures taken in compliance with its recommendations help strengthen the inter-American human rights system.


          Following the period of sessions that concluded four months ago, the Commission has made declarations regarding two killings of human rights workers in the hemisphere. On October 19, 2001, in Mexico City, the lawyer and human rights activist Digna Ochoa was murdered. Dr. Digna Ochoa’s work had earned her threats and attacks on several occasions, as a result of which the IACHR and the Inter-American Court had ordered precautionary and provisional measures, respectively, on her behalf and on behalf of several other individuals employed at Mexico’s Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Human Rights Center (PRODH). With the approval of the Mexican government, the Commission has appointed an expert who has since traveled to Mexico City to help with the preliminary investigation into the killing of this prominent human rights worker. Similarly, in Colombia, María del Carmen Flores — a human rights worker, one of the founders of the Colombian Juridical Foundation, and a representative of Mutatá municipality — was murdered on Thursday, February 14, 2002. The case Ms. Flores was working on was the alleged forced disappearance of Alcides Torres Arias, which is currently pending before the Inter-American Commission. The IACHR has a hearing on that case on its agenda for the regular session that begins today, and Ms. Flores was working on preparations for that hearing.


          The IACHR deplores and vehemently condemns these murders. Human rights defenders assume the crucial task of protecting the rights of everyone else, and so protecting them is of particular importance.


          On January 31, 2002, a delegation from the Commission’s Executive Secretariat traveled to Peru for a working meeting with state and petitioners’ representatives regarding recommendations that the IACHR had made in individual reports on a large number of cases involving forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.


Between February 5 and 8 of this year, IACHR Executive Secretary Dr. Santiago Canton visited the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela at the invitation of that country’s government. The purpose of his visit was to gather information on freedom of expression and to carry out a preliminary assessment prior to the on-site visit that the Commission is planning to make during the first half of May 2002 under an invitation extended by President Hugo Chávez Frías in September 1999.


Between February 11 and 13 of this year, Ms. Marta Altolaguirre, the Commission’s First Vice-President and Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, made a two-day visit to Ciudad Juárez and Mexico City, at the invitation of the government of President Vicente Fox, and in response to expressions of concern voiced by certain segments of civil society. The purpose of the visit was to investigate a disturbing number of violent murders of women in Ciudad Juárez. The information she received will be closely studied by the Rapporteur’s office, with a view toward drawing up a report for consideration and future publication by the plenary of the IACHR. Without prejudice to that, the Rapporteur offered a few initial thoughts, with special reference to the ongoing violence against women in Ciudad Juárez, in a press release dated February 13, 2002.


On February 18 of this year, a delegation from the IACHR’s Executive Secretariat traveled to Haiti to prepare for the Commission’s on-site visit there in accordance with the Permanent Council’s discussions on the prevailing situation in that country.


Since the end of its 113th session in October 2001, the Commission has received 274 petitions alleging violations of human rights in different countries around the hemisphere. Over the same period, processing of 74 petitions began and, with respect to another 228 petitions, the submissions have either been rejected for regulatory reasons or additional information has been requested. These figures speak eloquently of the pre-processing control work carried out by the Commission.


Since its last meeting, the Commission has referred the following cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: on December 4, 2001, case 12.034, Carlos Torres Benvenuto et al. vs. the Republic of Peru; on January 9, 2002, case 11.043, Maritza Urrutia vs. the Republic of Guatemala; and February 5, 2002, case 11.016, Emilio Moisés and Rafael Samuel Gómez Paquiyauri vs. the Republic of Peru. Over that same period, the Commission has also sent the Court requests for provisional measures in several ongoing cases.


Progress and challenges in the inter-American system’s protection of human rights


          The inter-American human rights system has made notable progress over recent years. Prior to 1948 there were no regional human rights treaties nor any inter-American bodies charged with upholding those rights. That year saw the enactment of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and, over the following fifty years, a whole string of human rights treaties have been adopted: the American Convention on Human Rights and its two additional protocols, the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture, the Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons, the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (the Convention of Belém do Pará), and the Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities.


          So, even though not all the hemisphere’s states have ratified each and every one of these instruments, recent years have nonetheless seen significant progress in the establishment of inter-American standards for the protection of human rights. With the next step — the creation and consolidation of inter-American bodies that have jurisdiction when nations fail to observe the obligations assumed by ratifying those instruments — progress has been slower. Today, however, in spite of resistance and the different hurdles that have affected their development, both the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court have settled more firmly into their roles and they enjoy the legitimacy and credibility built up over years of serious, independent, and impartial work on behalf of the human rights of our hemisphere’s men and women.


          The next essential steps will be, one, to provide the system with the economic and human resources it needs to operate correctly, and two, to design a juridical and political mechanism that will enforce the system’s principle of collective guarantees, thus ensuring that the decisions of the Inter-American Commission and the judgments of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights are abided by in full.


The IACHR can now see a trend toward collaborating with the system on the part of several democratic states, which is reflected in the large number of cases that are undergoing friendly settlement proceedings. We are also pleased to note several recent examples of compliance with the Commission’s recommendations and the Court’s judgments. At the same time, however, some states continue to see their human rights obligations as optional or noncompulsory. In contrast, we in the IACHR hold that by signing international instruments, states acquire solemn commitments than can only be waived under certain very strict conditions


          The challenge is thus to establish political priorities and to set up the internal legislative, judicial, and other mechanisms needed to ensure due national compliance with the decisions of the system’s organs. This of course means going much further than observing the monetary components of the Commission’s recommendations and the Court’s judgments. One key element in making amends, for both individual cases and for the human rights situation in general, is that the planners and perpetrators of the gravest human rights violations must be investigated, brought to justice, and punished. Another very important element is bringing domestic laws into line with the American Convention, which is a frequent component in the Commission’s recommendations and the Inter-American Court’s judgments. In essence, we urge the judiciaries of all our nations to set about the urgent task of incorporating international human rights standards into domestic law.


          The IACHR’s budget


          As you already know, one of the basic problems facing the inter-American human rights bodies is the limited budgetary resources they have for discharging their duties. In spite of the speeches made describing that need and the calls for greater funding for the Commission and the Inter-American Court made by the heads of state and government of the OAS member nations — at the last Summit of the Americas, for example — and by the foreign ministers of the Organization’s member states at recent General Assemblies, to date the Commission has received no increase in its funding.


          The sad fact of the matter is that the Commission’s overall budget for the current financial year — a total of USD $3.1 million — represents 4.1% of the Organization’s total budget. Approximately two-thirds of the Commission’s funding is spent on staff salaries and benefits. The remainder barely covers the costs of preparing and holding two regular sessions and one special session, publishing an annual report, covering performance contract fees, and paying for supplies and similar items. As a result, on-site visits, dealings with the Inter-American Court, and the Commission’s other activities in promoting and protecting human rights have to be financed with voluntary contributions from member states and assistance from observer nations.


          I must emphasize and express our gratitude for the voluntary contributions, regular and occasional alike, that a number of states make to the Commission. Since January 2001 we have received voluntary contributions from the United States, Mexico, and Brazil, for which we are grateful. We have also received assistance for certain specific projects from Denmark, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Spain, and the Inter-American Development Bank, of which we are equally appreciative.


The fact that the Commission has to depend on the generous voluntary contributions of member states and the assistance provided by European countries to fund essential elements of its mandate should be a cause of concern for the Organization’s members.


          An increase in the material and human resources of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is essential. Priority must be given to an analysis of the long-term impact on our countries of expanding the scope of the IACHR’s work through increasing the funds the Commission needs to fully serve those individuals that come before it in search of justice. Development, democracy, and respect for human rights go hand-in-hand. As has been brilliantly shown by Nobel Economics Prize Winner Amartya Sen, more respect for human rights means more development and greater balance and sustainability within that development. Strictly, it would be more than economic development and would be full “human development.” That is why we must not wait for full development before beginning to respect human rights. The Commission’s work in promoting and protecting human rights offers more than just an international forum for ensuring justice is done in specific cases; it also represents, in the long term, a major contribution to our countries’ development, and that is, undoubtedly, a common priority.


          On behalf of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I respectfully urge the distinguished members of the Permanent Council to increase the human and financial resources that the Commission needs in order to pursue the mandate entrusted to it by the member states.


          Finally, my colleagues at the Commission and I would like to repeat our thanks to the OAS Secretary General, César Gaviria, for his unwavering support for the Commission’s work and his unlimited respect for the IACHR’s independence and autonomy. Similarly, we would like to publicly express our thanks and appreciation of the IACHR’s Executive Secretary, Dr. Santiago Canton, and the Commission’s professional and administrative staff, for their tireless efforts and dedication in their work on behalf of the region’s people.


          Thank you very much.



 [HJR1] www.cidh.org/annualrep/96eng/96ech3z6.htm