Washington, D.C.

March 4, 2003



Mr. Chairman, Vice-Chairmen and Members of the Committee on Hemispheric Security,


I am grateful for the opportunity to address this meeting of the Committee on Hemispheric Security on behalf of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.


There is no question that the search for effective methods of ensuring the security of our region’s population is a pressing issue for the Organization of Americas States, and for the world community as a whole. The popular media is dominated by debate over appropriate and necessary measures to protect populations against terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and other modern and serious threats to their security. These developments have also had a dramatic impact upon the priorities and resources of the governments of the Americas, as well as upon the functions and mandates of the organs and institutions of this Organization, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and this Committee.  


I would like to use my time before you today for two purposes. First, I would like to highlight the relevance and importance of the inter-American human rights system to the issue of hemispheric security and to the work of your Committee. Second, I would like to provide some examples of areas in which consideration should be given to norms, principles and protections of the region’s human rights system in developing and implementing hemispheric security strategies.


Among the fundamental purposes of the Organization of American States is the obligation under Article 2(a) of the OAS Charter to “strengthen the peace and security of the continent.” Since its creation by the OAS General Assembly in 1995, the Committee on Hemispheric Security has played a key role in fulfilling this purpose, by fostering cooperation among member states of this Organization on a wide range of initiatives relating to the peace and security of the Hemisphere. These have ranged from collaboration in combating organized crime and terrorism to the coordination of defense policies and doctrines and the development of strategies for confidence and security building. The Special Conference on Security, to be hosted by the Government of Mexico in May of this year, will provide a crucial forum for developing the Organization’s approach to Hemispheric security in the new century.


One of the documents that will play a defining role in the work of the Special Conference and beyond is the “Declaration of Bridgetown” adopted by the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Heads of Delegation assembled in Bridgetown, Barbados during the 32nd regular session of the General Assembly in June of last year. This Declaration, entitled the “Multidimensional Approach to Hemispheric Security”, recognizes that many of the new threats, concerns and other challenges to hemispheric security are transnational in nature and may require appropriate hemispheric cooperation as well as multifaceted responses by different national organizations and by existing institutions of the inter-American system. The Declaration also specifically states that the security of the hemisphere encompasses political, economic social, health and environmental factors. In these ways, the multidimensional approach to hemispheric security articulated by the Declaration acknowledges the pertinence of issues intimately connected to the protection of fundamental human rights in the hemisphere, and, accordingly, of the work of the Organization’s human rights institutions.


In this connection, the inter-American human right system has evolved to become the guardian for the observance and protection of a broad range of political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights, including those enumerated in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The latter instrument, for example, obliges states parties to adopt the necessary measures to achieve progressively and pursuant to their internal legislation the full observance of such rights as the right to health, the right to a healthy environment and the right to work and empowers the Commission to formulate such observations and recommendations as it deems pertinent concerning the status of the economic, social and cultural rights established in the Protocol in some or all of the States Parties. It is therefore evident that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Committee on Hemispheric Security share a common objective in protecting the fundamental rights of the Hemisphere’s population from threats. 


The relevance of the inter-American human rights system to ensuring hemispheric security is also illustrated within specific areas of the Committee’s work. The most recent example in this regard is in relation to the threat of terrorism. As the members of this Committee will be aware, in December of last year the Commission released its Report on Terrorism and Human Rights, in which the Commission endeavored to assist member states in adopting anti-terrorism laws and regulations that accord with their obligations under international law. As part of its analysis, the Commission indicated in no uncertain terms that governments of the Americas are obliged to take the measures necessary to prevent terrorism and other forms of violence and to guarantee the security of their populations. At the same time, the Commission declared that states remain bound by their international human rights obligations at all times, subject only to suspensions or restrictions that are specifically permitted under international law when the life of the nation is threatened. In this regard, the Commission categorically rejected any notion that international law is irrelevant or inapplicable to the post-September 11 campaign against terrorism.


In reaching these findings, the Commission recognized the interdependent relationship between the maintenance of state security and the protection of the rule of law and fundamental human rights. Without necessary guarantees of security from terrorism and other threats to the region’s population, the rule of law and fundamental human rights cannot be effectively guaranteed. At the same time, in the Commission’s experience, when states have sacrificed fundamental rights in the name of fighting terrorism, the rule of law and democratic freedoms are eroded and the objectives of terrorism are ultimately advanced rather than diminished. In this way, the maintenance of security and the protection of human rights are complementary responsibilities–one cannot be achieved without the other.   


The importance of these principles is not limited to efforts to counter threats of terrorist violence. Rather, they are clearly pertinent to other initiatives falling within the consideration of the Committee on Hemispheric Security. Efforts to enhance multilateral cooperation in such areas as combating organized crime, for example, may draw guidance from the Commission’s longstanding jurisprudence concerning the rule of law and the administration of justice. Prosecuting crimes that undermine the security and human rights of a population is crucial to avoiding impunity. Accordingly, the Commission has emphasized that states have the duty to use all the legal means at their disposal to combat these situations, since impunity fosters chronic recidivism of human rights violations and is also one of the most important factors contributing to criminal and social violence.  The Commission has also stressed that legislation aimed at prosecuting and punishing crimes must comply with the principles of legality and nonretroactivity and that criminal procedures must be subject to judicial oversight. Police forces, which are most often at the front line in efforts to secure the population against criminal violence, must be subject to effective control and must be the beneficiaries of proper and ongoing training. States have a particularly strict obligation to ensure that police officers and other public officials responsible for the custody of persons temporarily or definitively deprived of their freedom are instructed on the prohibition of the use of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in interrogation, detention or arrest. And as the Commission observed in its Report on Terrorism and Human Rights, methods of interstate cooperation in the investigation, prosecution and punishment of international, transnational and domestic crimes are subject to the due process and other protections of the region’s human rights instruments. These methods of cooperation include the extradition of suspects for criminal prosecution, inter-state transfer of witnesses and prisoners in the context of criminal proceedings, and various modes of mutual assistance in criminal matters.


Similarly, hemispheric initiatives to coordinate defense policies and doctrines may be informed by the Commission’s jurisprudence relating to the proper role of the military and related international law in respecting human rights protections. The Commission has warned, for example, that military participation in criminal investigations can place the rights of civilians at risk, and that any involvement by the military in civilian policing must be subject to strict civilian control and oversight consistent with the rule of law. The Commission has also recognized the potential applicability of rules of international humanitarian law where threats to the security of a state or region involves a situation of armed conflict, which may in turn affect the manner in which the provisions of application human rights instruments are interpreted and applied.


Confidence and security building is a third area in which the inter-American system for the protection of human rights can play a constructive role. As observed in the 1995 Declaration of Santiago, respect for international law and faithful compliance with treaties are among the necessary components for developing confidence and security building measures. International human rights laws and treaties should be considered to play a particularly significant role in this regard, for as suggested by the very terms of the OAS Charter, true security and confidence on the part of the population of the Hemisphere can only be achieved through the consolidation of a system of individual liberty and social justice based on respect for the essential rights of man, and which inspires economic, social and cultural development and the eradication of poverty. Through its responsibilities in supervising compliance with the region’s human rights instruments, the Inter-American Commission reinforces the sense of liberty and justice on the part of the population of the hemisphere and thereby strengthens the confidence and security of the system as a whole.


As we enter the 21st Century, our hemisphere faces many new and challenging threats to its security, threats which must be understood in economic, environmental and, ultimately, human terms. The initiatives undertaken through the Committee on Hemispheric Security are therefore crucial to the future prosperity and development of our region. I would like to end by expressing the support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for the work of your Committee, and look forward to further opportunities to dialogue in the future.


Thank you.