Washington, D.C.

March 17, 2010



Mr. Chair of the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States; Mr. Secretary General; Mr. Assistant Secretary General; distinguished permanent representatives, distinguished observers and colleagues; representatives of civil society; ladies and gentlemen:


It is an honor for me to address you as Chair of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights at this inaugural ceremony of the Commission’s 138th Regular Session. I am delighted to be joined here by my colleagues Mr. Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, First Vice Chair; Ms. Dinah Shelton, Second Vice Chair; and Commission members Ms. María Silvia Guillén, Mr. José de Jesús Orozco, and Mr. Rodrigo Escobar Gil. Also with us today are Mr. Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary; Ms. Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, Assistant Executive Secretary; and staff members of the IACHR Executive Secretariat. I should like to make a special recognition of the work carried out by Commissioner Luz Patricia Mejía, the outgoing Chair of the Commission, who was unable to be with us today owing to family matters.


2009 was an especially important year for the IACHR and for the inter-American system, as it marked the Commission’s 50 year anniversary. Over its five decades of human rights history in the region, the IACHR has achieved significant progress, while simultaneously strengthening the effective exercise of human rights in the region, but it has encountered obstacles along the way, as well, some of which still persist.


Among the main achievements of the IACHR during its 50-year history, we can point out its contribution to repealing amnesty laws that sought to leave massive and systematic human rights abuses unpunished in the region, as well as contempt laws that penalized criticism of public officials. Although very different in nature, the repeal of both types of legislation help to lay the foundations for the construction of solid democratic systems, which ensure there are no first and no second class citizens, and that hold all people accountable to the law.


Likewise, through its recommendations on cases and reports, the IACHR has paved the way for the adoption of new laws and the implementation of public policies that ensure greater protection for the human rights of women, do away with pre-censorship, strengthen due process and judicial guarantees, enhance the political participation of the region’s inhabitants, safeguard the rights of indigenous peoples, respect the rights of workers, and guarantee equality to different vulnerable groups, such as the population of African descent, migrants, people living with disabilities, sexual minorities, and others. Such examples allow us to appreciate how over these past 50 years the IACHR has contributed not only to remedying individual violations, but also prepared the ground for the construction of democratic systems and the rule of law in the region, and thereby prevented human rights violations, whether massive and systematic or individual.


This work has been possible thanks to the participation and initiatives of three stakeholders: the States, civil society, and the organs of the system. The ongoing collaboration among the States, civil society, and the Inter-American Commission and Court is the key premise underlying the performance of the inter-American human rights system. The autonomy of these two organs is a central feature that has proven to be decisive in the development of the inter-American system, even during periods of great adversity to the protection of such rights.


This collaboration and dialogue among the system’s stakeholders have borne fruit, especially with respect to the adoption of the recent regulatory reforms of the Commission and the Court. In both organs we have carried out an open and transparent process in which numerous States, civil society groups, and the academic community have participated. The challenge at present is to successfully implement these reforms in the best possible way, so as to achieve the proposed objective of strengthening the inter-American system through consolidating victim participation, procedural guarantees, the dissemination of information, as well as transparency.


On the other hand, among the main challenges to the consolidation of a true inter-American system is the lack of sufficient human and financial resources to keep pace with the volume of petitions, cases, precautionary measures, general supervisory functions, and the mandates conferred by the member states of the OAS. In recent years, our increased reliance on external sources of funding has been such that today these funds have outstripped the regular budget of the IACHR.


Another very significant pending task involves overcoming the lack of appropriate implementation by the member states of the recommendations and sentences handed down by the IACHR and the Inter-American Court. Despite the progressive trend in recent years towards complying with decisions for reparations to victims for moral and material damages, the backlog of cases continues to be significant, especially with regard to the investigation and punishment of those responsible for human rights abuses, as determined by the IACHR and the Court. It bears recalling that the obligation assumed by the States Parties to the American Convention on Human Rights consists of respecting and safeguarding all the rights enshrined in that international instrument, to which end they are responsible for organizing their internal apparatuses and implementing the necessary legislative and regulatory reforms. Consequently, the role of the OAS political bodies, as the collective guarantors of compliance with the inter-American human rights system, is a relevant one.


Moreover, despite the willingness expressed by the States and the entry into force some 11 years ago of the Protocol of San Salvador, the effective enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights has yet to materialize in the region. To this end, the IACHR continues to receive complaints that pose increasingly complex issues associated with ESC [economic, social and cultural] rights, the remedy of which involves undeniable political and economic consequences for the countries of the Organization. In addition to the development of guidelines used to prepare progress indicators for this area, published in 2008 by the Inter-American Commission, the road ahead may very well be shaped by decisions on specific cases.


Tragically, the violence millions in the Americas must contend with in their day-to-day lives is another dilemma that has been an area of priority concern for the IACHR. Cases have been analyzed in a number of member states in which it has been alleged that States have used undue force in responding to situations of insecurity, in violation of the various rights protected by instruments of the inter-American system. Moreover, the Commission has received general information and held numerous thematic hearings on citizen security in the Americas, which will be the topic of a forthcoming report of the Inter-American Commission. Our hope is that this study will constitute a specific and valuable contribution to channel debate on citizen security within a framework of respect for international human rights obligations.


2009 was a year that clearly reflected these achievements as well as the challenges facing the inter-American system. To this end, some States have taken important steps toward recognizing their responsibility for specific acts, and a number of complaints regarding human rights violations have been mediated through friendly settlement procedures before the Commission. Furthermore, we have witnessed a constructive dialogue take shape between the Commission and the member states in areas such as the human rights of women, the rights of indigenous peoples, and racial discrimination. In this regard, the Commission is especially interested in continuing its collaboration with the Working Groups of the OAS Permanent Council, with a view to preparing a “Draft Inter-American Convention against Racism and All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance” and a “Draft American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”


At the same time, the difficulties facing the region continue to be nothing short of daunting.  Not only are democratic institutions in several member states in a fragile and vulnerable situation, as was demonstrated by the coup d’état in Honduras, but the protection of basic human rights continues to be insufficient, especially with respect to vulnerable groups suffering from social exclusion and discrimination on the basis of their ethnicity, class, race, gender, and sexual orientation.


In this regard, the Commission’s on-site visit to Honduras just after the coup was essential for verifying the human rights situation on the ground, listening firsthand to the accounts of victims, and sending a clear message to the authorities regarding the Inter-American Commission’s persevering role in promoting and protecting human rights in all countries of the region, without exception.


For this reason, I should like to emphasize the importance of the willingness of member states to invite the Inter-American Commission to carry out on-site visits in their territories, as such visits provide an ideal opportunity to better understand the actual conditions in countries, the problems facing their societies and those of government authorities in responding to them, as well as learn firsthand the efforts and measures being taken to remedy these situations.


Moreover, it is vital to emphatically reiterate the importance of continuing to advance towards the universality of the system, to ensure that all member states ratify inter-American human rights instruments and guarantee their effective enforcement. The Inter-American Commission hopes that the commitment of the member states to human rights, expressed publicly and in a generalized way, materializes in this area.


In addition to all the structural, short-term, and historic difficulties I have already pointed out, are the terrible consequences on societies and human beings caused by natural disasters. Sadly, the early days of 2010 have reminded us of the particularly devastating toll taken by earthquakes and other natural phenomena that have laid claim to truly horrifying numbers of human lives. In this regard, I should like to express, in my own name and on behalf of the Inter-American Commission, our steadfast solidarity with the people of Haiti and Chile. Even under these extreme circumstances, States must remain vigilant to ensure that the responses of authorities and the reactions of those affected move forward within a framework of respect for the human rights of all people.


I do not want to let this opportunity pass without expressing my appreciation and thanks for the seriousness and professionalism with which the Executive Secretariat of the Inter-American Commission has performed its duties, especially in light of the great limitations of the IACHR with regard to its human and financial resources.


The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights will continue to fully comply with its mission of promoting and protecting the human rights of all people in the region; openly and always willing to improve and streamline its internal procedures to meet the expectations of all system stakeholders, and especially those of the victims who have suffered violations of their basic human rights.


Thank you very much.