LEGAL BASES AND ACTIVITIES OF THE IACHR DURING 2005
A. Legal bases, functions and powers
1. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (the “IACHR” or the “Commission”) is an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (“OAS”) headquartered in Washington, D.C. Its mandate is prescribed in the OAS Charter, the American Convention on Human Rights (the “American Convention”), and the Statute of the Commission (the “Commission’s Statute). The IACHR is one of two bodies in the inter-American system responsible for protecting human rights, the other being the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is located in San José, Costa Rica.
2. The IACHR is composed of seven members who act independently, without representing any particular country. The members of the IACHR are elected by the General Assembly of the OAS for a four-year period and can be re-elected only once. The IACHR meets in ordinary and special sessions several times a year. The Executive Secretariat of the IACHR carries out the tasks delegated to it by the IACHR and provides legal and administrative support to the IACHR as it carries out its work.
3. In April of 1948 the OAS approved the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (the “American Declaration”) in Bogotá, Colombia, the first international human rights instrument of a general nature. The IACHR was created in 1959 and held its first session in 1960.
4. By 1961, the IACHR had begun to carry out on-site visits to observe the human rights situations in various countries. Since that time, the IACHR has carried out 87 visits to 23 member States. Based in part on its on-site investigations the IACHR has published 62 country and thematic reports.
5. In 1965, the IACHR was expressly authorized to examine complaints or petitions regarding specific cases of human rights violations. By the end of 2005, the IACHR had examined 1330 complaints, resulting in the publication of over 84 individual case reports, which are included in the Annual Reports of the Commission.
6. In 1969, the American Convention on Human Rights was adopted, and subsequently entered into force in 1978. As of December 2005, 24 member states were parties to the Convention: Argentina, Barbados, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. The Convention defines the human rights that the ratifying States have agreed to respect and ensure. The Convention also created the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and defines the functions and procedures of both the Commission and the Court. In addition to considering complaints of violations of the American Convention by states that are parties to that instrument, the IACHR is competent under the OAS Charter and the Commission’s Statute to entertain alleged violations of the American Declaration by OAS Member states that are not yet parties to the American Convention.
7. The IACHR has the principal function of promoting the observance and the defense of human rights in the Americas. In carrying out its mandate, the Commission:
8. At present the Commission is processing over 1137 individual cases. Any person, group of persons or nongovernmental entity legally recognized in one or more of the member states of the OAS may submit petitions to the Commission concerning violations of a right recognized in the American Convention, the American Declaration or other pertinent instrument in accordance with their respective provisions and the Commission’s Statute and Rules. The denunciation may be presented in any of the four official languages of the OAS (English, French, Portuguese or Spanish) and may be presented by the alleged victim of the violation or by a third party.
B. The Commission's sessions in 2005
9. During this reporting period, the Commission met on two occasions: during its 122nd regular period of sessions from February 23 to March 11, 2005; and during its 123rd regular period of sessions from October 11 to 28, 2005.
1. 122nd regular period of sessions
10. During its 122nd regular session, the Commission elected its new board of officers, which was comprised of Clare K. Roberts, President; Susana Villarán, First Vice-President; and Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, Second Vice-President. The Commission also assigned responsibilities for its various rapporteurships.
11. In addition, the Commission took up numerous individual petitions on human rights violations alleging the international responsibility of OAS member states. It adopted a total of 51 reports on individual petitions and cases and held 43 hearings on individual cases, the general human rights situation in different states in the Hemisphere, precautionary measures, follow up on recommendations, and other issues over which it has competence. In particular, during its week of audiences the Commission held hearings on the general situation of human rights in Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Haiti and Venezuela. The Commission also received information concerning the National Human Rights Program of Mexico, was up-dated on measures taken to follow up on the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) in Peru, and members of the Supreme Court of Honduras appeared before the Commission to present their views on the situation of human rights and human rights in that country. In addition, during its week of audiences the Commission held a series of working meetings pertaining to cases and petitions in the friendly settlement or follow up stages with petitioners and representatives of numerous OAS member states, including Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela, and convened thematic working meetings on issues concerning community radios in Brazil and Chile.
12. During its session, the Commission noted some important advances in the area of human rights in the region, including the launching of a comprehensive national human rights program in Mexico, the approval of constitutional reforms in Brazil aimed at modernizing the judicial system and amplifying the judicial mechanisms available to combat impunity for human rights violations, and the carrying out of a referendum in Venezuela in spite of conditions of extreme polarization. The Commission also took note of efforts undertaken by Chile, Argentina and Paraguay to investigate and punish those responsible for serious human rights violations, the recognition of international responsibility by Colombia, Guatemala and Peru in cases concerning serious human rights violations before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the signing of a friendly settlement agreement on cases of forced disappearance in Honduras. Other significant developments included the reaffirmation by the Supreme Court in the United States of the right to enjoy a judicial remedy or review in the case of the detention of citizens or persons classified as enemy combatants in the Guantanamo Naval Base, the consideration being given in Jamaica to legislative changes concerning the application of the death penalty, and the possibility in Colombia of reopening criminal investigations based on decisions of international organizations, as well as the judicial confirmation of the need to comply with precautionary measures issued by the Commission.
13. At the same time, the Commission observed that there were many pending human rights challenges in the region, including such longstanding problems as impunity in cases of torture, extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations, arbitrary detention, the deficient or insufficient development of the judiciary in the majority of the countries of the region, the attacks in some countries on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, and inhuman conditions of detention in prisons. A further challenge noted by the Commission was the rising public insecurity due to the increase in criminality, as well as the tendency of putting into practice “strong hand” policies without duly addressing the causes of the problem or considering policies of prevention and rehabilitation.
14. The thematic issues on which the Commission received information during the session included the situation of violence against women in the framework of the armed conflict in Colombia as well as the situation of indigenous peoples in the region, specifically in relation to criminal proceedings against such persons in Oaxaca, Mexico and the effects of mining in Guatemala, and in general in the states of Chile and Costa Rica. The Commission also convened a hearing on the implementation of decisions in cases addressing the rights of indigenous peoples.
15. With respect to the rights of the child, the Commission held a hearing to address the situation of children and the adoption system in Guatemala as well as children and adolescents subjected to sexual exploitation in El Salvador. The Commission also received information on the right to freedom of expression in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala, and convened hearings on the rights of refugees and immigrants in Panama and the situation of migrant farm workers in the United States. Other thematic issues studied by the Commission during its session included the enjoyment of economic, social and cultural rights. In this respect, the Commission held a hearing that emphasized in part the right to education in Colombia and a general hearing on the right to housing in the Americas.
16. During the period of sessions, the Commission undertook a variety of other activities relating to its mandate. With a view to the continued strengthening of its dialogue with the Caribbean, the IACHR maintained its practice of meeting with the Permanent Representatives to the OAS of numerous Caribbean Community (CARICOM) member states, in order to discuss human rights and related issues of mutual concern. In addition, the Executive Secretary of the Commission held a working meeting with human rights defenders attended by diverse representatives from Civil Society organizations in the Americas. The matters addressed during the meeting included several problems that hinder or prevent efforts to defend human rights in the Hemisphere ranging from threats and assassinations to undue restrictions and other forms of harassment.
17. Further, the Commission adopted and published its Resolution 1/05 in which it reaffirmed the international obligation of OAS Member states to comply with its precautionary measures. In the same resolution, the Commission reiterated the ethical and legal commitment of each Commissioner not to participate in the discussion, investigation, deliberation or decision of general or specific matters presented to the IACHR’s consideration when they are a national of the State under consideration, in accordance with the express requirements of Article 17 of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure.
2. 123rd regular period of sessions
18. During its 123rd regular period of sessions held between October 11 and 28, 2005, the Commission continued with its study of numerous individual communications alleging violations of human rights protected by the American Convention and the American Declaration and adopted a total of 66 reports on individual cases and petitions. The Commission also convened 55 hearings between October 17 and 21, 2005 concerning individual petitions and cases, precautionary measures, and general and specific situations relating to human rights. The subject matter of these hearings included the general situation of human rights in Bolivia, Colombia, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela. The Commission also held general hearings concerning persons deprived of their liberty in Chile and the enforceability of civil and political rights and violence and impunity in the Brazilian States of Ceará and Pará. With respect to Peru, the Commission received information on follow up measures to the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in that country as well as the situation of the Peruvian judicial system and the efforts of the State to criminally prosecute people accused of acts of corruption.
19. Thematic issues upon which the Commission received information during its session included lack of effective recourse for foreign domestic workers employed by diplomats and international officials, the situation of urban security and police abuses, including in particular the problem of the “maras” (gangs) in Honduras and El Salvador, and impunity for acts of torture against afro-descendents in the city of Chicago, United States, as well as the critical situation of persons deprived of their liberty in the Americas.
20. During the session, the Commission also convened thematic hearings on the situation of indigenous “captive communities” in Bolivia and individual cases of members of indigenous peoples in Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Mexico, and the state of protection of the rights of women to adequate health services, including failures and discrimination in the protection of various sexual and reproductive rights of women. In addition, hearings were held by the Commission on the determination of the location of children who disappeared during the armed conflict in El Salvador, the rights of minors condemned to life imprisonment in Argentina, and children who live in the streets of Paraguay. Other significant issues upon which the Commission received information included the growing problem of trafficking in persons in the Hemisphere and the lack of adequate legislation or the absence of criminalization of this conduct in a majority of member states. The Commission was also informed of the situation of freedom of expression in Panama and Venezuela, affirmative action efforts under taken by Brazil’s Secretariat for the Promotion of Racial Equality, and the situation of human rights defenders from a regional point of view which included receiving the conclusions of the First Central American Consultation on Human Rights Defenders that took place in August 2005.
21. As in past sessions, the Commission convened a number of working meetings concerning friendly settlement and follow up on various petitions and cases involving different countries of the Hemisphere, including Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. The Commission placed a particular emphasis on follow up on its recommendations, urging all member states to comply in good faith with the recommendations in its reports on individual cases according to their freely undertaken international obligations, and received information on compliance with recommendations in case involving El Salvador, Uruguay and Mexico.
22. Also in the course of the session, the Commission, in compliance with its mandate expressed in OAS General Assembly Resolution AG/RES. 2074 (XXXV-0/05), organized a workshop on economic, social and cultural rights, at which international experts, representatives of OAS member states that belong to the Working Group responsible for preparing a Social Letter of the Americas, and the representatives of the civil society were present. In addition, the Commission, together with the International Service of Human Rights and the Faculty of Law of the American University, co-sponsored a training course for members of civil society organizations, in which 16 sixteen human rights defenders from 10 member states of the OAS participated.
23. Concerning the changing composition of the Commission during the 2004-2005 period, the Commission held meetings with Víctor Abramovich of Argentina and Paolo Carozza of the United States who had been elected as Commissioners during the 35th regular session of the OAS General Assembly in June 2005 in order to exchange ideas with both jurists on the future work of the Inter-American Commission. In addition, the IACHR made a special homage to Commissioners Susana Villarán and José Zalaquett on the completion of their terms as Members of the Commission and highlighted the active participation and the invaluable contribution made by each of them to strengthen the inter-American system of human rights
24. During 2005 the Commission conducted three visits to the Republic of Haiti with financial support provided by the Government of France and logistical support from the OAS Special Mission for the Strengthening of Democracy in Haiti.
25. From April 18 to 22, 2005, the Commission’s Special Rapporteur for the Republic of Haiti, President Clare K. Roberts, together with staff from the Commission Secretariat, conducted a visit to that country at the invitation of its government. During its visit, the Commission delegation the Commission met with representatives of the Haitian government, including its President, the Prime Minister and Members of his Cabinet, members of the judiciary and the police force, the Ombudsman of Haiti, and representatives of the Provisional Electoral Council and the Conseil des Sages. The Commission also held discussions with representatives of different sectors of civil society, including a wide variety of national nongovernmental organizations, women’s organizations and the association of magistrates, and representatives of international nongovernmental associations including the International Crisis Group and the International Committee of the Red Cross. In addition, the Commission met with staff of the OAS Special Mission in Haiti and representatives of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) including its Head, Ambassador Juan Gabriel Valdes. Further, the Commission delegation visited the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince.
26. At the beginning of its visit, the Commission conducted a training seminar on the inter-American human rights system with officials and functionaries from various government ministries and agencies and, with the support of the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, set the groundwork for the establishment of an inter-ministerial working group to coordinate the Haitian State’s international human rights responsibilities.
27. During and following the visit, the Commission expressed particular concern about the situation of insecurity in Haiti, which had deteriorated markedly since the Commission’s last on-site visit in September of 2004. In this respect, the Commission collected information indicating that thousands of weapons remain in the hands of illegal armed groups, gangs, and other unauthorized persons, with no systematic or comprehensive disarmament initiative having been undertaken. The Commission also made note of the negative impact of the precarious security situation upon the administration of justice in Haiti and its adverse effects upon the local population, including in particular women and children in the country. Further, the Commission expressed concern regarding threats that widespread violence in the country posed to the elections scheduled to take place in the country, noting that a secure environment for political debate, campaigning and voting is essential for free and fair elections to take place and calling for urgent measures to suppress the violence and to ensure that arrangements for elections proceed expeditiously. Subsequently, on June 6, 2005 the Commission released Preliminary Observations on its April 2005 visit in which it discussed these and other human rights concerns in the Republic of Haiti in more detail.
28. From July 11 to 15, 2005, a delegation from the Commission Secretariat conducted a further working visit to the Republic of Haiti. The principal purpose of the visit was to gather additional information concerning the situation of the administration of justice in the country with a view to completing a report on the issue. As in the case of its April 2005 visit, the Commission delegation met with government officials as well as representatives of intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations and conducted a human rights training session with representatives of numerous and diverse nongovernmental organizations. Following the visit, the Commission issued a press release in which it reiterated its grave concern over the consistently escalating violence in Haiti and observed that residents in some parts of Port-au-Prince have effectively been held hostage to the unrestrained intimidation and violence of armed gangs with no effective protection from the State or the international community. The Commission also called upon the government of Haiti, in coordination with the international community, to implement immediate preventative measures consistent with international human rights standards to quell the violence and restore security in Port-au-Prince and throughout the country.
29. A third visit to the Republic of Haiti was conducted from November 2 to 5, 2005 by the Commission together with UNICEF’s Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean. The delegation was headed by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, IACHR Commissioner and Children’s Rapporteur and the United Nations Secretary General’s Independent Expert for the Global Study on Violence against Children, and by María Jesús Conde, UNICEF’s Regional Advisor on Child Protection for The Americas and the Caribbean. During its visit, the delegation met with the Minister of Justice, United Nations agencies, representatives of international organizations and of civil society, and with Haitian children and adolescents. The delegation also visited children’s detention centers and the border with the Dominican Republic. At the end of its November visit, the delegation expressed its profound concern at the grave violations of the human rights of Haitian children and adolescents being committed as part of the ongoing violence in the country and drew attention to the effects on children of the lack of an adequate justice system.
30. From July 18 to 21, 2005, the IACHR’s First Vice-President and Rapporteur for the Republic of Guatemala, Susana Villarán, visited Guatemala at the invitation of the government and at the request of representatives of civil society, and with financial support provided by the European Commission. In the course of her visit, the Vice-President and Rapporteur of the IACHR met with the highest officials of the State of Guatemala, as well as with victims, victims’ families, and civil society organizations involved in the defense and promotion of human rights in Guatemala. This included working meetings on cases during which important agreements were reached in five cases of friendly settlement, five cases of follow-up of recommendations, and eight precautionary measures.
31. Also among her activities, the Rapporteur attended a public memorial act for the victims of the massacre in Plan de Sánchez of July 18, 1982, where 268 personas, most of them Maya Indians, were executed by members of the Guatemalan army and civilian collaborators under army direction. During the memorial, Commissioner Villarán welcomed the public recognition of State responsibility and its request for forgiveness as reinforcing the country’s commitment to the inter-American system, opening the door for healing the community of Plan de Sánchez, and ensuring that this sort of violation will not reoccur. During the visit, the Rapporteur also presented a document on compensation for the victims of human rights violations, followed up on the issues of administration of justice and violence against women, and assessed the situation of social leaders, Indians, justice workers, and men and women defenders of human rights. Concerning the administration of justice in particular, Commissioner Villarán noted the invaluable work of the people and officials responsible for protecting, enforcing, promoting, or defending human rights of individuals and the community. At the same time, she noted information that suggested there were serious gaps in interagency coordination, which in many cases prevented the institutions from effective and timely work, and that none of the institutions involved in the administration of justice had the necessary human and financial resources to properly carry out their mandates.
32. At the end of her visit, the Vice-President noted with concern the increased level of violence and the persistence of serious shortcomings in the Guatemalan justice system, which heightened the feeling of insecurity among the population, and noted that the situation was acute for men and women indigenous leaders, social leaders, peasants, youth, and justice workers, who had been victims of threats and hostile acts. In this context, Commissioner Villarán stressed the importance of strengthening institutional support and training in human rights through the adoption of a coordinated security policy by the various actors involved in the administration of justice in the country.
33. From February 15-19, 2005 a delegation of the IACHR headed by Vice-President and Rapporteur for Colombia, Susana Villarán, traveled to Bogotá to make a formal presentation of the Report on the Demobilization Process in Colombia. During the visit, the delegation met President Alvaro Uribe, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Carolina Barco, and members of the three branches of Government. The delegation also had an opportunity to meet the High Commissioner for Peace as well as the then General Attorney and to gather updated information regarding the demobilization process. In addition, the Delegation met with representatives of civil society and of some States of the international community, and with the head of the MAPP/OAS Mission, Sergio Caramagna.
34. On December 14 and 15, 2005, a IACHR delegation headed by Executive Secretary Santiago A. Canton, visited Bogotá in order to follow up on the demobilization process in Colombia pursuant to the mandate established by Resolution 859 (1397/04) of the OAS Permanent Council which invites the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to provide advisory services to the MAPP/OAS Mission. During the visit the delegation met with the MAPP/OAS Mission, Government authorities, local non-governmental organizations, intergovernmental organizations with a presence in Colombia, and representatives of some States of the international community. This visit was conducted with financial support provided by the Government of Sweden.
35. By invitation of the Mexican Government and at the request of several representatives of civil society from that country, and with financial support provided by the European Commission, the Inter-American Commission visited Mexico from August 25 to 31, 2005. The delegation included Commissioner José Zalaquett, who served as the Commission’s rapporteur for Mexico and its Special Rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous Peoples, as well as staff from the Commission’s Secretariat. The working visit began in Mexico City with meetings in the Secretariat for Foreign Affairs, as well as with federal authorities, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the fundamental rights and freedoms of Indigenous Peoples, and with representatives of Mexican civil society; later, Commissioner Zalaquett presided over several meetings on cases and petitions with the presence of the respective parties. The IACHR Rapporteur gave a conference before a group of professors of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and another conference in the City of Toluca, at the Federal Center for Social Readaptation (CEFERESO) of La Palma. The official agenda in the Federal District included meetings with the Federal Attorney General, the President of the National Human Rights Commission, the Director of the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples, as well as the President of the Commission of Human Rights of the Federal District. Finally, a meeting was held with several Mexican organizations that work with the rights of indigenous peoples.
36. The agenda included the Commission’s first official visit to the State of Oaxaca where the delegation met with organizations of civil society, as well as with personnel of the United Nations Project for the Implementation of the Recommendations of the National Diagnose on Human Rights in Mexico, petitioners, officials, professors, the State Commission of Human rights, an open meeting with representatives of Oaxacan civil society, and working meetings on precautionary measures and cases pending before the IACHR. The delegation met with the Secretary General for the Government of Oaxaca, followed by a press conference at that city’s airport. The visit was considered very productive, in part because it raised the profile of the inter-American system of human rights in Mexico and provided the Commission valuable information relating to the complex matters that have resulted in agrarian, community and political conflicts in the State of Oaxaca.