SPEECH BY MR. JUAN E. MÉNDEZ
OF THE INTER-AMERICAN COMMISSION ON HUMAN RIGHTS,
AT THE OPENING SESSION OF THE
116TH REGULAR SESSION
D.C., October 7, 2002
Distinguished Chairman of the Permanent Council of the OAS,
distinguished Assistant Secretary General, distinguished Representatives
of the member states of the Organization and Observers.
Dear colleagues, ladies and gentlemen:
I am honored to address you in my capacity as President of the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in this ceremony that opens our
116th regular session. I am
pleased to be accompanied by my colleagues Marta Altolaguirre, First
Vice-President of the IACHR; José Zalaquett, Second Vice-President; and
Commissioners Robert K. Goldman, Julio Prado Vallejo, Clare K. Roberts,
and Susana Villarán. We are
also accompanied by Mr. Santiago Canton, Executive Secretary, and
professional staff from the Executive Secretariat.
Our colleague Susana Villarán is participating in her first
regular session. Accordingly,
and even though we have already had the opportunity to work very intensely
in the months since she assumed her office, I would like to extend a very
cordial welcome to her.
The IACHR has an intense program of activities for the regular
session that begins today. As
is usually the case, we will devote most of our work to studying and
considering reports on petitions and individual cases from various
countries of the hemisphere, which are at one of the following stages:
admissibility, friendly settlement, consideration of the merits, and
decision to refer the matter to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
During the second of these three weeks, the Commission has convened
more than 60 hearings on cases and petitions at the procedural stages
mentioned. In addition, we
will receive, in hearings, several persons, organizations, and
representatives of the member states, who will submit information on the
human rights situation in the hemisphere, either generally or with respect
to some specific right or issue of the Commission’s competence.
This regular session was preceded by a special session during the
first week of last September in San José, Costa Rica.
On that occasion, a joint session was held with the Inter-American
Court of Human Rights. Holding
such meetings has been a regular practice in the last several years, which
affords an important opportunity to exchange information on general issues
that have to do with the work of both organs.
The most recent joint session was focused on analyzing the entry
into force of the new Rules of Procedure of both the Commission and the
Court, which occurred on May 1 and June 1, 2001, respectively.
In addition, the budget situation was addressed, as it is posing
serious difficulties for both organs.
In Costa Rica, the IACHR studied and debated the draft report on
terrorism and human rights, which is now well-along and will be examined
during this regular session. We
are dedicating our greatest effort to this matter, to ensure we complete
our report during this session; we intend to make it public by the end of
I would like to share some thoughts and concerns about the
phenomenon of terrorism and its effect on fundamental rights. Since the
events of September 11, 2001, which shocked humankind, the issue of
terrorism has come to the fore of the international debate, and is
receiving attention from and is a matter of concern for people from all
corners of the globe. We have borne witness to a new kind of terrorism, whose
means, execution, and results are so sinister as to be beyond the
One of the fundamental rights that the state must guarantee to all
human beings is the right to personal security.
In response to the events of September 11, 2001, some states
responded immediately by adopting new laws and administrative measures. Nonetheless, in some cases this state response has included
adopting various repressive measures, unreasonable restrictions on the
freedom of expression, arbitrary limitations on migration, indefinite
detention without trial, and the proposal to create special courts that
apply summary procedures and allow secret evidence.
Naturally, the Commission recognizes that international law
authorizes the suspension of certain rights in emergency situations, but
in the use of its powers it remains interested in preserving the
principles of due process, even in such circumstances.
The events of September 2001 have generated a climate of suspicion
and distrust which, unfortunately, has reached the extreme of xenophobia
in some cases.
The IACHR’s lengthy experience as a principal organ of the OAS
protecting human rights in the region for over 40 years shows that the
only effective and lasting security is that which is applied with full
respect for human rights, without any discrimination whatsoever.
One of the greatest challenges that the Inter-American Commission
has faced since its inception has been supervising respect for human
rights in the member states of the OAS that have suffered the threat of
terrorism. The Inter-American
Commission has come out clearly and invariably on the compatibility and
interdependence of human rights and the effective struggle against
terrorism in the framework of the rule of law.
In effect, the purpose of any effective measure against the scourge
of terrorism should include preserving fundamental rights and democratic
institutions, which terrorist actions seek to weaken and eventually
The IACHR trusts that its report on terrorism and human rights,
once adopted and published, will assist the member states and other
interested actors of the inter-American system in preparing and applying
counter-terrorism initiatives that fully comply with fundamental rights
and freedoms. No doubt, these
are crucial to any effective campaign against terrorist violence.
There can be no doubt that the world has changed radically since
September 11. Nonetheless, many things remain unchanged, such as the
exclusion of large majorities of the population of the hemisphere from the
effective enjoyment of economic, social, and cultural rights.
In this vein, I should like to recall the words of the Preamble to
the American Convention on Human Rights:
ideal of free men enjoying freedom from fear and want can be achieved only
if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social,
and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights.
During the Special General Assembly of the OAS held in Lima, Peru,
in September 2001, the member states reaffirmed that poverty and the low
level of human development negatively impact the consolidation of
democracy. The member states
included, among the considerations of the Inter-American Democratic
Charter: “... the importance of maintaining macroeconomic equilibria and
the obligation to strengthen social cohesion and democracy.”
In most of the countries that make up the Organization of American
States, exclusion from the benefits of progress, as well as lack of access
to basic needs and to education, puts large social sectors in an
especially vulnerable situation, in the face of structural adjustment and
distortions in the economy. The
Inter-American Commission notes in this regard that economic and social
crises have seriously eroded the standard of living in many of our
countries, in some cases with a worrisome impact on state institutions and
the rule of law.
At the same time, the deteriorating economic and social conditions
are reflected in mounting citizen insecurity due to rising crime. Unfortunately, the institutional response to citizen
insecurity often consists of repression and “tough” policies, without
proper attention to the proposals for rebuilding social comity and
community control over the police. This
situation leads to unfortunate backsliding that reminds us of a
not-so-distant past, when the authorities responded to social protest and
rising crime with violence, repression, and systematic human rights
The IACHR has insisted for many years on the need to adopt measures
aimed at ensuring that more people can enjoy the benefits of development,
promoting tolerance, and strengthening the social fabric, in particular
through education. These measures should be accompanied by strengthened
institutions, in particular establishing a Public Ministry with the
capacity to investigate properly, and to hand down the corresponding
criminal indictments; strengthening an independent, impartial, and
professional judiciary, that hands down decisions and applies sanctions in
keeping with due process and the principle of legality; and ensuring that
the prison system is used not only for holding convicts for the duration
of their sentences, but also to help them in their rehabilitation.
The institutions designed in keeping with the rule of law are
inseparable from the conception of democracy, which is a fundamental basis
for the observance and protection of human rights in our hemisphere.
Therefore, the Inter-American Commission will always highlight the
importance of preserving democracy, but also of deepening it. Our
decisions on individual cases and our thematic and country reports are
aimed precisely at accompanying the states in the task of improving the
quality of democracy. Although
our hemisphere continues to show signs of democratic vocation, and
rejecting coups d’etat and authoritarianism, we have to do much more for
the quality of democratic rule, as we aspire to have all the inhabitants
of the Americas feel represented and protected by the democratic ideal.
In this connection, we note that several countries of the region
continue to face the problem of deteriorating democratic institutions and
weak rule of law. Despite the advances in holding free elections in almost
all the member states, the way in the institutions work in a large number
of countries in the hemisphere continues to be plagued by weaknesses that
impede the full observance of the rule of law.
This has a detrimental impact on the observance of the
inhabitants’ fundamental rights, and at the same time generates a
climate propitious for social crisis.
In addition, the stability needed for sustained social, economic,
and cultural development in the region continues to prove elusive.
The Inter-American Commission has repeatedly expressed its concern
over the steady deterioration in the observance of fundamental human
rights in Colombia, and the failure to carry out effectively the
recommendations made in its general reports. Grave
violations of fundamental human rights and international humanitarian law
continue to take a toll on the civilian population, in a climate of
impunity for the persons responsible.
On August 14, 2002, the Government of Colombia informed the
Permanent Council that a state of internal commotion had been decreed, as
provided for in the Constitution of Colombia.
In the view of the Government, the measure is based on a series of
events and circumstances that endanger the security of the citizenry and
the institutions, and that cannot be brought under control by the use of
regular powers. By giving
notice of this governmental act through the Secretary General of the OAS,
to the Permanent Council, the Colombian State ratified its intent to
discharge its obligations under Article 27 of the American Convention.
The IACHR notes that the fact that the state of internal commotion
is in force in Colombia should not be translated into any less protection
for the civilian population, displaced persons, social and trade-union
leaders, and human rights defenders, among other vulnerable groups. Nor
should the state interfere with the proper functioning of the judiciary
and efforts to clear up the facts in human rights violations.
Moreover, the IACHR has taken note of Legislative Decree 2002, made
public on September 11, 2002, which establishes measures to control public
order and defines rehabilitation and consolidation zones (zonas
de rehabilitación y consolidación).
The Inter-American Commission will stay abreast of the application
of this measure, in keeping with the parameters of the American Convention
and the principles of international human rights law and international
humanitarian law concerning necessity, proportionality, and
On the occasion of its most recent on-site visit to Haiti in August
2002, the IACHR expressed once again its profound concern over the
weakness of the rule of law there, the lack of judicial independence,
impunity, the generalized climate of insecurity, the actions of armed
groups with impunity, and the threats that have been made against
journalists. The lack of dialogue among the main sectors of Haitian
society is a serious obstacle to finding solutions to these problems and
represents a weakness in the fundamental pillars for establishing the rule
of law, in the terms of the American Convention and the Inter-American
We must call attention to the seriousness of the situation Haitian
society is experiencing, affected by the extreme poverty of most of the
population, and the high rates of illiteracy, maternal and infant
morality, and malnutrition. These
circumstances generate a grave social crisis and represent, themselves, a
series of violations of the population’s human rights.
The effective observance of economic, social, and cultural rights
is a major challenge that cannot be worked out without in-depth
participation and a concrete development plan by the Government of Haiti,
with the collaboration of various sectors of civil society and the
Our hemisphere continues to be, in general, a region of peace and
democracy. Nonetheless, we
cannot limit our definition of the present by democratic stability or the
absence of dictatorships, as the danger of an interruption in democracy
has not completely subsided. This year the Inter-American Commission has
had occasion to make an on-site visit to Venezuela just weeks after the
failed coup of April 11. Although
we were invited to return as often as necessary by President Hugo Chávez,
and we have been in constant contact with the Venezuelan, authorities,
they have yet to established the date for a subsequent visit.
The IACHR considers it important to have a presence in Venezuela
during this convulsed stage, because it firmly believes that it can make a
significant contribution to guaranteeing the fundamental rights of all the
inhabitants of Venezuela. In
this regard, the Inter-American Commission is willing to contribute,
within the scope of its powers, to the intermediation that has been
pursued by the General Secretariat of the OAS, along with the United
Nations Development Program and the Carter Center, as it believes that
this initiative offers hope of a peaceful settlement to Venezuela’s
At this time it is important to guarantee fully the freedom of
expression in Venezuela, and to encourage that it be exercised
responsibly. Likewise, it is
our duty to protect human rights defenders there who, it has been
reported, suffer unjust and intolerant attacks whenever they undertake
investigations or announce their results.
In addition, we have an interest in seeing a renewed dialogue with
state oversight entities, and especially with the Judiciary, on how their
independence, impartiality, and effectiveness can be strengthened.
It is fundamental that the political debate in Venezuela be kept
within the confines of the democratic institutional framework. The complaints by the opposition on the way in which power is
exercised by the Government should not be geared to inciting violence or
military insubordination. In
addition, the Inter-American Commission will follow closely the judicial
investigation into the events of April 11-14, 2002, which should not
remain in impunity. In this
regard, we express our concern over the most recent institutional events,
which would appear to limit the scope of the investigations and stand in
the way of determining the liabilities of high-level officials for their
participation in the rebellion of last April 11.
Based on the experience of the IACHR with respect to acts of
violence and breakdown of the institutional order in several countries of
the hemisphere, impunity leads to the recurrence of activities that run
counter to democracy and human rights.
In addition, the Commission has on several occasions expressed its
firm rejection of the systematic attacks which, directly or indirectly,
impede or encumber human rights defenders in the Americas.
Reports continue to come in on different types of attacks and acts
of intimidation against these persons, who are dedicated to protecting the
fundamental rights of all persons in the hemisphere. Every day human rights defenders are subjected to unlawful
searches of the offices of their organizations, have their equipment and
information stolen, receive death threats both by phone and written notes,
and are subject to attacks on their physical integrity, being followed and
kidnapped, and, in some cases, assassinated. The information
available to the IACHR indicates that the vast majority of such attacks
remain in complete impunity.
Strengthening democracy in the hemisphere should include full
respect for the work of human rights defenders.
The OAS General Assembly has on more than one occasion expressed
its support for the important work of human rights defenders in the
Americas, and has highlighted their valuable contribution to protecting
and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.
At the same time, the member states have expressed their concern
over the persistence of acts which directly or indirectly hinder and
encumber the work of human rights defenders.
In the terms of the most recent resolution of the General Assembly
on this subject, the IACHR urges all the member states of the OAS to do
their utmost to fully guarantee the life, personal integrity, and freedom
of expression of human rights defenders in the Americas.
Having used most of the short time we have to share some
considerations on the delicate situation that several countries of the
region are experiencing, I will not get into considerations on the
critical budgetary situation the Inter-American Commission is facing.
Nonetheless, I trust that this situation will be borne in mind by the
distinguished permanent representatives, and that you will seek the most
appropriate means for resolving this situation as soon as possible.
Distinguished Chairman, distinguish Assistant Secretary General,
distinguished representatives, dear colleagues and friends:
Our hemisphere is not untouched by an increasingly complex
international situation. I
referred earlier to what has changed in the world and what remains the
same. We must be prepared to take on the new challenges with
creative and original approaches. Nonetheless, we must also resist the
temptation to see in every challenge an exceptional circumstance
justifying emergency treatment, that incites us to set aside gains we have
made in the area of human rights over many years, and through many
struggles. I wish to
highlight, in this connection, that the commitment of the states to
respect the international legal order has not changed, and should not
change. In effect, the
responses to the problems we face must be found in these international
mechanisms, not outside their bounds, since they contain the tools needed
to answer to the needs of both security and justice.
Only if this is the case will be it possible to win in fighting
terrorism and authoritarianism, in the framework of democracy and the rule
of law, which are the very essence of the inter-American system.
Thank you very much.