1. The important advances in democracy experienced in the region during the last decades have effected a change in the nature of the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its relations with the States of the Hemisphere. Today, the continental movement towards democracy – consistent with the norms of the American Convention on Human Rights and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man - has progressed to the extent that dictatorships constitute an anomaly, stigmatized as a political pathology. Nevertheless, we consider that human rights problems do not end when a government is rendered democratic. Police abuse, violations of due process of law, unlawful restrictions upon the exercise of freedom of expression, lack of independence, impartiality and efficiency in the administration of justice, among other problems, continue to constitute structural deficiencies that have not been overcome with the advent of democratic regimes in the region. Periodic elections and the expansion of democratic regimes have not achieved a democratic institutionalization and culture sufficient to bring stability and unity to our societies, thereby hindering the rule of law, undermining the enjoyment of fundamental rights, and generating a climate susceptible to social crises that impact at the political and institutional levels.
2. During the last few years the region has witnessed serious institutional tensions in several countries through the recurrence of coup attempts and constitutional impasses. The situation has continued to frustrate the realization within the region of the degree of stability necessary for sustained political, social, economic and cultural development. The Commission has observed with profound concern a progressive deterioration in the rule of law, a trend that has not diminished during 2003. The IACHR therefore renews its call upon member states to increase their efforts to consolidate the rule of law and avoid setbacks that affect the legitimacy and legality of institutions.
3. Violations of fundamental rights such as life, liberty and personal integrity continue to occur in our region, resulting from both abuse of power and tolerance by State agents. The situation is aggravated by the delay and/or lack of efficacy in the prosecution of these violations. Impunity constitutes one of the principal obstacles to the effectiveness of the rule of law. Democratic governance depends upon the adoption of measures to improve the administration of justice. At the same time, the Commission wishes to underscore that during 2003, there have been significant advances in the struggle against impunity in the member states of the Organization, including the derogation of amnesty laws in one state, the release of the final report of the truth commission in another, and the adoption by high courts of judicial decisions that, inter alia, permitted the extradition of a person accused of committing serious international crimes to a country other than the one where the crimes were committed, and authorized the re-opening of criminal prosecutions to comply with the recommendations and judgments issued by the organs of the system.
4. Despite these efforts and encouraging precedents, 2003 has not witnessed a substantial improvement in the administration of justice, which has been seriously affected by structural deficiencies, including inadequate budgets, lack of access for those with lower incomes, and the fact that public defenders must work in conditions that prevent them from performing their functions effectively. The lack of stability for judges in several countries and their removal without respect for basic due process protections constitute serious threats to the independency of the judiciary in several countries. Added to this problem has been the rise in threats against judges, prosecutors and witnesses in various States and the absence of sufficient protective measures by States to respond to those threats.
5. During the last year, the economic and social situation in the region has not revealed significant progress toward the guarantee of economic, social and cultural rights. Without policies favoring the full recognition of economic, social and cultural rights and economic growth, the reduction of social disparities, and the full exercise of citizenship by all inhabitants of the region (Articles 11, 12 and 13 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, Preamble to the American Convention, Preamble to the Protocol of San Salvador), it is not possible to strengthen democratic governability. Only by ensuring success in the campaign against social exclusion will the central objective of democracy be achieved, namely the full development of human potential and the inclusion of each and every inhabitant of our region in collective progress. The initiation of strategies to enhance social inclusion is intrinsically linked to the promotion, protection and respect for fundamental human rights and must become the fundamental priority for the member States. States must grant special protection to and stimulate the development of those in particularly vulnerable situations, in particular children, indigenous peoples, members of afro-descendant communities in certain regions, and migrant workers and their families, by creating or strengthening legal and institutional mechanisms to combat discrimination. Likewise, States must actively promote the non-discrimination, equality and protection of the human rights of women.
6. On several occasions, the IACHR has indicated that those individuals dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights and the organizations with which many of them are affiliated fulfill a crucial role, both in the litigation of cases relating to the protection of human rights as well as the process by which civil society exercises control over democratic institutions. Unfortunately, 2003 brought the continuation of threats, disappearances, attacks and assassinations perpetrated against persons and organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights. Member states have the obligation to adopt the measures necessary to protect the lives, physical integrity and freedom of expression and association of those who are devoted to promoting respect for fundamental rights.
7. The American Convention, the Declaration on the Principles of Freedom of Expression, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter highlight the importance of governmental transparency, freedom of expression, and freedom of the press as fundamental components in the exercise of democracy. Notwithstanding these commitments, however, threats, persecution, reprisals and the instigation of violence against the independent press have proliferated. The right to disseminate ideas of public interest through the press warrants special protection within justice systems, and the lack of effective investigation of crimes committed against journalists and other acts intended to indirectly restrict freedom of expression generates a fear of criticizing those who are in power or of denouncing abuses or illegal acts, thus undermining the bases of democracy itself.
8. The existence of internal struggles seriously affects societies in the region and continues to give rise to grave human rights violations as well as serious humanitarian problems, such as the conditions suffered by refugees and the internally displaced. There is an urgent need to comply fully with the international law of human rights and observe the basic norms of humanitarian law. Upon verification that international crimes have been committed, states must ensure respect for the principle of individual criminal responsibility within the international order and its complement, the principle of universal jurisdiction, to ensure the prosecution and punishment of those responsible.
9. The Commission takes this opportunity to enumerate the following general recommendations to member states with the hope that they may assist as a means of fulfilling the objectives of the enforcement of the Rule of Law:
I. To continue with efforts to consolidate the Rule of Law in light of the standards of the regional system and thereby avoid setbacks that can affect the legitimacy and legality of institutions.
II. To adopt the measures necessary to ensure the independence and impartiality of judges, to administer justice in accordance with the standards of due process, and to strengthen their judicial systems so as to ensure the protection of justice for all persons under their jurisdiction.
III. To adopt measures to ensure the observance of the social, economic, and cultural rights of the inhabitants of the Hemisphere, individually and collectively.
IV. To cooperate in achieving the goals established in the plans of action of the world conferences held during the last decade in the context of the United Nations, such as the Third World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance, the World Food Conference, Second UN Conference on Human Settlements, World Summit for Social Development, Fourth World Conference on Women, International Conference for Population and Development, World Conference on Human Rights, UN Conference on the Environment and Development, and World Summit for Children.
V. To derogate those laws that permit discrimination and to decisively combat these practices in light of their international obligations.
VI. To ratify all of the instruments adopted in the context of the inter-American human rights system. In particular, it calls upon the ten member States that have yet to ratify the American Convention to do so.
VII. To adopt the measures necessary to protect the life, personal integrity, and freedom of expression of human rights defenders.
VIII. To ensure that the legal framework under which freedom of expression is exercised in their territory conforms with the standards of the American Convention and the Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, to eliminate indirect restraints including in particular the harassment of journalists and other persons who exercise their right to express themselves freely, and to ensure the protection of justice for the dissemination of information and effectively investigate and prosecute crimes against professionals in the area of information.
IX. To adopt effective measures to protect the right to life, physical integrity, and liberty of their populations and to ensure that violations are duly investigated and remedied.
X. To reinforce the integrity and efficacy of the inter-American human rights system through compliance with their obligation to adapt their domestic legislation to the rights enshrined in the instruments concluded within the framework of the system and the interpretation and application of those instruments by the organs of the state, in particular by municipal courts, in accordance with international commitments and the decisions and orders of the Commission and the Court, and by providing the necessary financial resources.
XI. To undertake these obligations and urgently face the challenges illustrated in these recommendations with the purpose of ensuring the human rights of the inhabitants of the region, and to develop institutions to sustain peace, prosperity and the successful functioning of democracy as a form of government.
10. Next year, the Commission will celebrate its first forty-five years of work. During these years, the Commission has accompanied the societies of the Americas in their search to improve the human rights situation of our Hemisphere’s inhabitants and to consolidate democracy. The path ahead remains long, however, as our region has not yet achieved the degree of democratic stability necessary to ensure the full respect for human rights of all of its people.