October 20, 2008



Mr.Chairman of the Permanent Council, Mr. Secretary General, Mr. Assistant Secretary General, Honorable Permanent Representatives and Observers, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its Secretariat:


          It is an honor to address you in this inaugural ceremony to open our 133rd period of sessions.  Here with me today are Luz Patricia Mejía, First Vice-President of the Commission; Felipe Gonzalez, Second Vice-President; and Commissioners Víctor Abramovich, Florentín Meléndez, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, and Clare Roberts. We are also accompanied by Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Abi-Mershed, Assistant Executive Secretary, and professional staff from the Executive Secretariat.


          The period of sessions that we have begun has an intense program of activities.  As usual, much of our work will be devoted to studying and considering individual cases from various countries of the hemisphere, as well as reports and documents of a more general nature addressing situations of human rights throughout the region.  Starting this Wednesday, the Commission will hold 57 hearings on cases and petitions, and on various pressing human rights situations, and will preside over a total of 57 working meetings intended primarily to facilitate friendly settlements between the Member States and petitioners or to advance in the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations to Member States in specific cases.  In addition, we will be considering over 50 draft reports on individual cases during these sessions.


Geographically, our work in these sessions relates to virtually every country in the hemisphere, reminding us that no nation can take for granted the full guarantee of the human rights of its people, and we must remain vigilant always against the risk of violations of those rights.  Human rights can be, and at times undeniably are, violated even in places where democracy and the rule of law are generally strong and even where the worst abuses of past criminal regimes are, thankfully, things of the past.  The Inter-American human rights system is in this sense an active partner of governments in the effective protection and guarantee of human rights in all of the Member States, not simply a passive observer of democratic rule.


In substance, the range of the human rights issues that the Commission will take up in these hearings, cases, and reports will encompass a remarkable variety of concerns.  Many of them are specific to the unique circumstances and conditions of individual countries of the region.  There are, however, certain themes that emerge as common threads uniting many parts of the hemisphere.  For example, overcoming impunity and providing redress for past violations of human rights, especially systematic violations of the rights to life and physical integrity, is still a major challenge for many of our countries.  In addition, citizen security today is precarious throughout much of the region, threatened by both the forces of the state and by non-state groups.  It is especially troubling that in the face of widespread patterns of violence certain sectors within society are very often excluded from the effective protection of the rule of law:  women, children, migrants, and minority groups, for example.  Third, the lack of due process, the institutional incapacities of judicial systems, and threats to the independence of judges and other actors in the administration of justice all contribute to making the access to effective judicial guarantees of human rights among the most pervasive and persistent problems in the Americas.  Finally, the challenge of strengthening representative democracy, which has always one of the pillars of the Inter-American system, generates many critical problems of freedom of expression and association, of the right to political participation, and makes evident the need to confront the fact that large sectors of the populations of the region remain systematically excluded from full participation in the material and social life of their countries.


In facing these matters, the role of human rights defenders is indispensable, and it is therefore important to highlight that many of the Commission’s current cases, hearings, reports, and requests for precautionary measures, arise out of the harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, or out of unreasonable legal restrictions on their organization and activity.  Such situations pose serious dangers not only to the individuals and organizations directly affected but also to the promotion and protection of human rights for the societies as a whole in which they operate.


It will be apparent to all observers of the human rights situation in the hemisphere and of the Inter-American institutions that the depth and breadth of these challenges makes the task of the Commission an enormous one, requiring massive time, energy and resources.  Indeed, the demands have increased in important part because of the historic successes that we have achieved up until now in constructing and consolidating a credible, regional human rights system.  The dynamic and evolving realities of the region and of the human rights system itself also require adaptation and flexibility in the tools, structures and processes that the Commission uses in meeting its mandate.  The Commission must therefore ensure constantly that it functions with as much efficiency as possible and with a willingness to change.  We continue, therefore, to engage in an ongoing process of reexamining our rules, methods, and practices, with a consistent openness to receiving and acting upon the relevant concerns of all the stakeholders in the Inter-American human rights system.  In particular, the Commission recognizes that the huge backlog of pending cases is a real and urgent problem that must be resolved for the Commission to continue its work with credibility and effectiveness.  That accumulation of cases generates problems of equity, as parties wait unreasonable periods of time for the resolution of complaints, and it risks diverting the overall work of the Commission away from adequate attention to the most current human rights issues before us. A recent reorganization of the work of the Secretariat, and other reforms designed to maximize our efficiency in the handling of cases, is helping to mitigate this problem, and the Commission will continue to seek further ways to address it in cautious fashion and with full and open consultation.  Among the reforms that are in the process of being developed, as you know, are those which relate to the interrelationship between the Commission and Court.  Discussions with the Court and within the Commission have been progressing in this area, and we continue to hope and expect that proposed rules reforms can be presented for public consultation very soon.  Finally, we are aware that different Member States have of their own initiative promoted various processes to identify and discuss potential reforms of the system; we welcome all such efforts as are genuinely oriented toward a strengthening of the level of human rights protections in the hemisphere.


While reforms of our rules and practices are important, however, we must be very clear that the institutional health of the Inter-American human rights system will not be maintained by focusing only on limited procedural and formal problems or increases in marginal efficiencies.  It is, fundamentally, a matter of political commitment by the Member States who created the system and who have agreed to make human rights one of the pillars of regional cooperation in the Americas.  No rules fixes by the Commission will be able to replace the need for the governments of the region to give effective implementation to the norms of the Inter-American system and to the recommendations and decisions of its constitutive organs.  The basic treaties of the system have not yet been universally accepted, and this must be a high priority.  Even where they are accepted, noncompliance is a pervasive fact that must be acknowledged openly and decisively.  Some Member States refuse to allow the Commission or its Rapporteurs free and unconditional access to their territories.  More generally, the lack of a political mechanism of  supervision – such as that which exists in the European region, for example – is a critical structural flaw in our system.  The minimal engagement of the Permanent Council with the question of implementation and compliance is a serious weakness.  The four minutes of General Assembly time that are dedicated to a presentation of the Commission’s annual report, at the last moment and without the least discussion, should be regarded, frankly, as a political charade. 


Most immediately, the lack of adequate political commitment to the effectiveness of human rights in the hemisphere is reflected in the persistently insufficient financial support of the system.  The Commission’s allocation from the general funds of the OAS constitutes a mere 4% of the overall budget of the Organization.  More tellingly, that amount is not enough to cover even 50% of the current activity of the Commission.  Without the support and commitment of those States, in our region and beyond it, who have helped finance the Commission’s work through generous special contributions, our work would be immediately reduced by half.  This is true at a time when it is increasingly apparent that even the most minimal fulfillment of the Commission’s mandates, such as simply processing its current petitions and cases or holding its six weeks of regular sessions per year, cannot be accomplished without very substantial growth in the Commission’s human and financial resources – including the amount of time that the Commission is able to spend in session.  There has been much discussion of the importance of the autonomy of the Commission in recent years, and we are grateful for the strong endorsement that many States, and the Secretary General, have given to that principle.  But the autonomy of the Commission must be affirmed beyond words.  There is no autonomy for the Commission in the long run unless its financial autonomy is guaranteed as well.


Distinguished authorities, dear colleagues and friends:


It is in the vital interest of all of us – Member States, regional institutions, civil society, and all the people of our hemisphere – to construct and maintain a strong and healthy system for the protection and promotion of the observance of human rights.  The acknowledgement of the dignity of the human person that opens the American Declaration, and that has been developed and deepened in the American Convention and other regional human rights instruments, is the foundation for “democratic institutions, a system of personal liberty and social justice” in all our hemisphere.  The Commission pledges to continue to work in these sessions toward that ideal, and we count on the support and collaboration of all of you now and in the future in realizing it more and more fully.


          Thank you very much.