Washington, D.C.

March 25, 2009



Ambassador Carlos Sosa, Vice Chair of the Permanent Council,

Secretary General of the OAS, José Miguel Insulza,

Assistant Secretary General of the OAS, Ambassador Albert Ramdin,

Distinguished Representatives of the Member States,

Permanent Observers and Representatives of Nongovernmental Organizations,

Colleagues from the IACHR and the Executive Secretariat,

Ladies and Gentlemen:


As Chair of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I am deeply honored to be addressing you at this inaugural ceremony, which serves as a point of departure for the launch of the 50th anniversary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.


And, as some of the member state representatives noted at the last meeting of the Committee on Hemispheric Security, the fact that the Commission is today headed by a woman is an especially significant milestone. During its 50 years, the Commission has had just three Chairwomen, two of them elected in the last decade. This fact does not stand in isolation, we believe: almost the entire Hemisphere has been undergoing a process of democracy taking root, along with direct political participation of men and women, members of different groups, who, because of their ethnic origin, social status, or gender were for years excluded or suffered discrimination.


This process has touched the countries of North, Central, and South America, among other outcomes, bringing to power not only women but also indigenous peoples, and Afro Americans, in countries that not so long ago were characterized by a tradition of exclusion and discrimination. We can therefore declare that these changes have reached us, and that throughout its history the Commission has faced many challenges that we have overcome and we have made a lot of progress, but there is still a long way to go for us in order to secure full enjoyment of human rights for our peoples and for us to no longer need to cite these as significant developments needing comment.


Against this backdrop, this anniversary will provide an excellent framework to assess our accomplishments and to identify what is yet to be done, mechanisms we must put in place to bring them to fruition, and obstacles that to date have hindered them from coming to pass.


Reviewing relations with the states, with the peoples of the Hemisphere who demand we defend them, with the other players of the system, and with our own organizing and work mechanisms are just some of the issues facing us as points for putting together an agenda for this year and the next 50 years of the Commission.


We do know that over its half century, the IACHR has played a leading role in the region, through its on-site visits and thematic reports on the human rights situation of the Organization’s member states, as well as through its case work and activities of the Rapporteurships.


On this journey, the Commission has helped in many instances to reduce impunity and protect the region’s vulnerable communities, and has helped, furthermore, in setting guidelines and principles for improving civil and political rights as provided for in the Convention and articulated in the American Declaration, all within a context of full respect for the fundamental personal guarantees and from the perspective of the basic role of the state and the principal guarantor of human rights.


Nevertheless, we also now know that this effort is still not enough and, more over, we have met certain obstacles that we have been unable to surmount over these 50 years. These have brought on new challenges in terms of economic, social, and cultural rights that our citizens are demanding of us.


This is all taking place against the backdrop of widespread participation by the peoples of the Americas, who, transcending the formality of representative democracy, are not only demanding a role in social development and a more equitable distribution of the wealth of our nations, but are also insisting on their right to health, education, collective land ownership, and a healthy environment, just to name a few of the rights that we now discuss in the Commission.


These complaints, which have been on the rise, speak to the fact that our citizens are not only engaged in struggles and making demands, but are also rebelling against domination mechanisms that took away their human rights. Today, the formerly represented actively express themselves not only through new participation and democracy models but also oppose measures that prevent them from fully enjoying their rights and from the prospect of all human rights as an integral, interdependent whole.


Over these 50 years, states have responded in a variety of ways when it comes to human rights. In the Hemisphere’s not too distant history, political and economic crisis led to uncontrollable social unrest and repression by state security forces, if not the establishment of dictatorships that inflicted crimes against humanity on many of Latin America’s citizens.  Poverty today plays a decisive role in social violence, the responses to which are similar but, for other reasons, political means are no longer used to affect these rights but rather repressive methods to silence those whom Galeano called the nobodies, the “nothinged.”


Thus, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, still on a quest for truth and justice to afford restitution for victims of these horrible violations of the past, also must deal with the current violations as well as new challenges that include tackling human rights violations that are no longer so much the product of repression by de facto governments but instead the product of applying economic models that have devastated the economies of many nations of the Hemisphere, with its subsequent impact on our citizens’ right to a dignified life.


These circumstances have forced on the Commission the challenge of building complementary perspectives to identify what role is played by third parties in restricting the human rights of the peoples of the Americas, with the state violating its protection or due diligence obligations.


Indeed, an analysis of a number of situations in which we have witnessed serious human rights violations have in many instances forced us to expose the power relationships in our societies. We have also identified non-state actors that directly or indirectly affect the full enjoyment of human rights, by commission or omission.


Faced with these new realities and new perspectives of human rights, the Commission has been constantly engaged in discussions about the theory and practice of our work, besides coming up with satisfactory responses to address the needs and expectations of those who demand from the inter-American system a solution to injustices carried out with impunity in their countries.


Every day, every session, and every case becomes an opportunity to discuss new trends in international human rights law, as well as new and creative responses to the demands placed upon us. Situations of grave human rights violations, such as slavery and servitude that this agency has confirmed in Bolivia; the incidence of different forms of non-state organized violence which may put states in different situations at risk, and which may even reach beyond national borders; violence against women; and other forms of abuse of power by non-state actors, are some of the examples of issues leading us towards institutional action that is still in the making, seeking to put individual rights on par with social rights, which is consistent with the fully consolidated universal doctrine of the integrality of human rights.


We cannot escape the fact that hand in hand with this challenge are an unfolding global economic crisis; unpredictable implications for the citizens of our Hemisphere; and effects on civil rights and threats to democracy, which all saddle our peoples with their adverse effects.  Indeed, in its 2004 Report, the United Nations Working Group on the Right to Development noted that no country can remain totally isolated from the disruptive impact of the crisis in the global economy... therefore, an appropriate social security and a social protection network approach is needed.  Hence, the growing need for us to focus our attention on social rights.


Along these same lines, this crisis also puts the Commission on notice.  Year after year, session after session, this Commission has asked for more commitment from the states, not only in terms of implementing its decisions or in the universal application of the system, but also in the institutional strengthening necessary to efficiently respond to traditional as well as present-day challenges.


This is why this 50th anniversary also serves as an opportunity to review economic obstacles that, prior to and during the crisis, have unequivocally influenced how the Commission performs its functions and, consequently, how it sets its priorities.


Just as a point of reference, all the speeches made by the Presidents of the Commission during the past 10 years have reiterated the request for economic support from the states.  As a result of ongoing discussion within the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs, we are now hoping that this request will move from being a formality or perfunctory exercise of inaugural addresses to being a need that is met, and with that, a cornerstone in the quest for a generous and independent agenda that not only responds to requests made to the system, but which by its direct action will reach out to every corner of the Hemisphere to make a significant mark on the culture of democracy, tolerance, peace, and respect for the human rights of our peoples.


We also know that these challenges also include the effort to review our internal weaknesses, strengthen the instruments we regulate, and schedule and implement the remedies needed to change situations that prevent or hinder the work of the Commission and our internal procedures.  We are engaged in that effort, and will continue to do so.  We are committed to a kind of maturity that will enable us to move forward this year on the challenges, to overcome problems and break down barriers preventing the Commission from being an effective vehicle for giving full effect to and strengthening participatory democracy and social justice in the Americas, and a vehicle for democratization and for providing universal access to the Commission for all who, even now, are without access to justice in their country and are unaware of the possibility of international justice.


The big challenge for the Commission in this context is to be able to focus its efforts on providing the best protection and promotion of human rights in international arena, knowing when to change as the people change, and thereby ensure that the peoples of America feel that they are represented in its actions and decisions, and in its activities that are geared towards their common objectives.


In order to do this, we have to make adjustments, build bridges, create more avenues for dialogue, provide space for those who are without, broaden our sphere of activity, become more efficient and transparent, focus our efforts in a better way, and secure more support from the states and society that are with us. We also need to give greater emphasis to more involvement by our citizens; we need to expand our rights promotion mechanisms, and strengthen the expression mechanisms whereby complaints and demands are brought to the Commission not only by those who traditionally have had access to us but, in particular, those whose voices we have not yet been able to hear.


It is therefore my belief, for instance, that in pursuing that kind of constructive dialogue, we must acknowledge and applaud the accomplishments in guaranteeing human rights and having democracy take root in the Hemisphere, inasmuch as that is the ultimate goal of our mandate: helping to bring about respectful societies where human rights are guaranteed, and mechanisms to advance social justice as demanded by the people—which also enjoy pride of place in the preamble to the instruments that regulate us—can be built peacefully and democratically.


In that sense, I think that it would be useful to our advocacy for the defense, protection, and promotion of human rights to highlight a development that took place in Ecuador last October 20, when a new Constitution entered into force, passed with majority support of the population. It contains a Bill of Rights guarantees that accentuates protection of the environment for future generations, which means justice and democracy must be further entrenched.


As well, last February 17, the new Political Constitution of Bolivia entered into force, again supported by the vast majority of the population in a historic referendum, along with an advanced bill of rights recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples who, until recently, were victims of systematic exclusion and violence.


Again, we wish to note that these 50 years have seen structural changes at the hemispheric level as well as in-depth and fruitful dialogue with the states, which have submitted their comments on our performance.  Organizations that are actively involved system have also sent us documents.  We must now also address these concerns in depth and, in so doing, amend our rules of procedure to also assume the new role that the system is demanding of us, not only to improve access to international justice but also to ensure that our decisions are based on clear, certain, and transparent procedures, guaranteeing for both the state and petitioners, confidence, legal security, and protection of rights that we are called to defend and protect.


Clearly, neither time nor space will allow me to list all the challenges that we still face, but I must reassure you that I am committed to expanding the mechanisms for dialogue and engagement with the states, with the people who have resorted to us, and with community organizations that have year after year participated in the system. I am certain that progress in terms of these challenges calls for a direct, objective, and balanced view by all stakeholders and actors, so that with their support we can build the platform needed to make this 50th anniversary a grand celebration of stronger human rights, most of all, with the Commission as a vehicle for bringing about equality, gender equity, and social justice in our Hemisphere.


Thank you very much.