NOVEMBER 11, 2009
Your Excellency Luis Alfonso Hoyos, Chairman of the OAS Permanent Council;
Your Excellency José Miguel Insulza, OAS Secretary General,
The Honorable Cecilia Medina, President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights,
Distinguished representatives of the member states, special guests, representatives of nongovernmental human rights organizations, social activists and defenders of social causes, members of academia, students, ladies and gentlemen:
This special meeting of the Permanent Council is indeed a fitting occasion to look back on the history of the inter-American human rights system. It has now been 60 years since the States represented here marked a milestone by signing the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the first step taken at the regional level to build our system for the protection of human rights.
However, history has proven that words alone will not suffice; a body had to be created charged with promoting and protecting the human rights of all peoples of the Americas, so that their fate would not be left entirely to the vicissitudes of violence, abuses of power, and the civil wars that took such a harsh toll on many of our countries only a few decades ago.
It was the Fifth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, held in Santiago, Chile, in August 1959, that specifically highlighted the relationship between human rights violations and the exercise of democracy, and how these factors were related to the political tensions in the hemisphere at that time.
It was that relationship that informed the need to create an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission was the product of a consensus in favor of international protection of human rights for the purpose of promoting their observance. At that point in time, human rights were understood to be those embodied in the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.
Accordingly, the first Statute of the Commission was approved in 1960. Its first seven members were elected on July 29 of that year. Since then, a number modifications and amendments have been made to the legal instruments by which the Commission is governed, with a view to strengthening its authorities and attributes and thereby empowering efforts to protect and defend the human rights of the peoples of the hemisphere.
This year marks the 61st anniversary of the adoption of the American Declaration, the 50th anniversary of the Commission’s existence, and the 40th anniversary of the adoption of the American Convention, which entered into force 31 years ago this year. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, for its part, was established 30 years ago. Between them, the Commission and the Court have many years of experience and are the very basis of an Inter-American System for the Protection of Human Rights created and developed to put personal liberty and social justice on a solid footing within this hemisphere, founded on respect for the essential rights and an acknowledgement of the fact that the ideal of a free human being, liberated from the shackles of fear and poverty, can only be achieved by creating conditions that will allow every individual to enjoy his or her economic, social and cultural rights, and civil and political rights as well.
A glimpse at the Commission’s early activities, the challenges encountered in its 50-year history and the challenges and difficulties we face today is instructive, as it awakens us to just how complex our work has been and still is.
In a polarized world fraught with political tensions, it was no easy task to create a body like the Commission, as those political tensions shaped interpretations of how human rights could best be guaranteed. But compounding those difficulties was the fact that not long after it began to function the Commission found itself grappling with de facto or authoritarian regimes that committed egregious violations of the very human rights they were called upon to defend.
The First General Report that the Commission presented in 1970 reflected some of the concerns of that period and illustrates how our recent and even more distant history repeats itself. In this first report, the IACHR expressed deep concern over acts of violence that represented “serious violations of the essential rights of man.”
The report called for measures to defend against terrorism and to safeguard the right to life, the right to personal liberty –violated with the frequent kidnappings and arbitrary detentions- and the right to personal integrity, violated by the practice of torture and other cruel treatment.
The report also highlighted how imperative it was that appropriate measures be taken “to accelerate criminal proceedings and ensure the right of defendants to a speedy trial, without unwarranted delays” and to improve the criminal justice system so that prisons serve rehabilitative ends and do not engage in inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees.”
In that First Report, the Commission underscored the “urgent need” to step up measures to eradicate racial discrimination, “eliminating the economic, social and cultural factors that cause racial discrimination.” It also emphasized how important it was that full respect for the principle of the equality of women be ensured and that any type of restriction on freedom of investigation, opinion, expression and dissemination must be eliminated, while also making certain that those who abuse that freedom are held legally accountable.
All these measures would be futile, the report observed, “unless every possible effort is made to accomplish the basic goals of accelerating economic and social development,” sparing no effort to ensure that everyone has access to an education in order to eliminate illiteracy. The Commission also spoke of the urgent need to speed up the agrarian reform measures inspired by Article 23 of the American Declaration, and to advance all health and social measures related to food, clothing, housing and medical assistance.
The parallels in history are startling. This year, during the presentation of our Annual Report, the Commission spoke of the importance of democratic government throughout the hemisphere; we also underscored the fact that across the hemisphere, the diverse manifestations of participatory democracy must be further strengthened, which includes making human rights an integral part of constitutionalism in the region.
However, we also observed that our region is still the most inequitable in the world. While many countries of the region have succeeded in substantially improving social indicators, the problems of unemployment, informal employment –which directly affects access to social security, access to elementary and secondary education, continue to exact their heaviest toll on the most disadvantaged sectors, which includes most especially the indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and people in rural areas. Women are particularly impacted.
In 2008, the IACHR received 1279 petitions; of these, 62% were complaints of violations of the right to a fair trial and the right to judicial protection, which were among the main concerns expressed in the 1970 report and the reports that would follow in later years.
Now in its 50th year, these are not the only challenges the Commission is called upon to address; it must also vigorously defend economic, social and cultural rights, conduct a probing analysis of responsibility for the protection of these rights, and develop a wide range of mechanisms to provide added ways to fight discrimination and social exclusion. These are the great challenges of the millennium.
This overview reveals that ours has been a hard-fought struggle to preserve, defend and maintain the rights already won and to continue to pave the path of human dignity.
Still, the obstacles we have encountered have been rewarded by the significant progress made toward the established objectives. The IACHR has championed human rights in the region through its visits and thematic reports on the situation of human rights in the member countries of the Organization and through its case work and the activities of its Rapporteurships.
In this journey, the Commission has been instrumental in reducing impunity and protecting vulnerable sectors of the region, and has established guidelines and principles for enhanced observance of the civil and political rights recognized in the Convention and in the American Declaration, all within the framework of respect for the fundamental guarantees of persons and taking the State’s essential role as the principal guarantor of human rights as a given.
Only by reviewing history with a critical eye can we understand the mistakes made. In the polarized world of the sixties, seventies and eighties, dictatorships were secretly, or even openly, tolerated; demonstrations of popular discontent were persecuted and political proposals that responded to demands for greater social justice were suppressed. In those cases, the Commission played a key role by denouncing what had happened and by entering into the historical record events that we hoped would never recur.
However, as previously observed, just as the Commission was celebrating its 50th anniversary, we visited Honduras and, in our preliminary report on human rights in that country in the wake of the coup d’état, testified to the interruption of the constitutional order. Yet again we were witnesses to history repeating itself and the Commission’s work exposed what appears to be an axiom of history: regimes that deny legitimate popular participation can only sustain themselves through massive violations of human rights.
Given this scenario, the defense of democracy and stronger vehicles for popular participation have become one of the overarching concerns for the Human Rights Protection System and the Systems to Strengthen Democracy promoted by the OAS and the rest of the international community.
We are convinced that by enhancing mechanisms of inclusive justice and political participation among the most disadvantaged sectors, further progress can be made toward the goal of social justice, which is simply the other face of democracy: for there can be no democracy where the highest rates of economic inequality are allowed to persist and large sectors of the population are denied their basic social rights.
This is the historic importance of the OAS’ unified response, which energetically reaffirmed the hemisphere’s commitment to human rights and democracy when it did not hesitate to condemn the coup d’état in Honduras and to implement measures to ensure the return to the constitutional and democratic order that had been disrupted.
Only by this kind of staunch, united action, with governments and hemispheric organizations acting in concert committed to defending the values of human rights, social justice and democracy that are at the core of their respective constitutions, charters and bylaws, will we be able to discharge our shared mission of effectively ensuring societies premised on the dignity and equality of all persons –men and women, children, and the elderly of all races, nationalities and creeds- and drive away the dark clouds that cast their shadow on the important progress made in these last 50 years.
On this 50th anniversary of the Commission, our challenge as members of the Commission is to stay the course by effectively discharging our mission, while ensuring that the mechanisms of protection are gradually put within reach of all sectors and peoples within the hemisphere for whom life is a daily struggle to be able to enjoy their dignity as equals in a democratic society.
In closing, we owe a debt of gratitude to the victims and to all those who work for human rights, as they born witness to the true meaning of these words. The dignity and courage of the survivors and the advocates of social justice echo the victims’ cries for justice – that we never forget and that we learn the lessons of our peoples’ recent history so that it NEVER AGAIN repeats itself.
I cannot conclude my remarks without recognizing the invaluable contribution made by outgoing Commission members Clare Roberts, Florentin Meléndez, Víctor Abramovich and Paolo Carozza, whose terms end at the close of this year. It would also like to take this opportunity to welcome Commissioners-elect Dinah Shelton, José de Jesús Orozco and Rodrigo Escobar Gil.