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Guatemala, June 8, 1999


Mr. Chairman, Heads of Delegations, Mr. Secretary General, Mr. Assistant Secretary General, ladies and gentlemen, before commencing my remarks, I would like to acknowledge the presence of Dr. Helio Bicudo, the Commission’s First Vice-Chairman, and Ambassador Jorge Taiana, the Commission’s Executive Secretary.

As you may know, on April 29, 1999, the Commission submitted to the Juridical and Political Affairs Committee of the Permanent Council the Commission’s Annual Report for 1998, together with its special reports on the general situation of human rights in Colombia and Mexico, for their consideration by this General Assembly.

As I trust that the member states have had an opportunity to study the report, my remarks today will briefly touch on certain issues pertaining to the current situation of human rights in the hemisphere. Before doing so, I should like to note that the Government of Costa Rica, together with the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will hold in San JosÚ, this fall, a major event marking the 30th Anniversary of the American Convention and 20th Anniversary of the Court. We look forward to participating in this important event. Mr. Chairman, this is a propitious moment to reflect on certain fundamental challenges to be met as our hemisphere is poised to enter the 21st century.

Happily, the hemisphere has equipped itself with some of the essential tools to address these challenges. Most fundamentally, all of the member states save one are represented by freely elected governments. Participatory democratic governance and respect for human rights are mutually reinforcing prerequisites for building societies "based on personal liberty and social justice," the ultimate objective set forth in the preamble of the American Convention on Human Rights.

The hemispheric quest to consolidate systems of participatory democracy has created new opportunities for member states to engage more closely with the organs of the regional human rights system. This closer engagement is manifested in a variety of positive ways. First, I wish to note the commitment the member states have demonstrated in designating the Commission a priority area within the Organization. As the member states recognize, the discharge of the Commission’s broad and diverse mandate requires a commensurate commitment of financial and human resources. Second, the Commission benefits from the climate of collaboration we enjoy with the member states, which has been characterized most recently by constructive dialogue and principled debate.

Third, the system benefits from increasing engagement between the member states, the Commission and members of civil society. This is reflected, for example, in the increasing use of the friendly settlement procedure in individual cases, which involves negotiations between the parties facilitated by the Commission. Another example of constructive interchange has been the process undertaken to draft the Inter-American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Through extensive consultations, the Commission took into account the views of member states, intergovernmental actors and indigenous representatives in developing a text, and the Permanent Council has in turn established new mechanisms for incorporating the participation of indigenous representatives as the process builds toward the presentation of the Declaration to the next General Assembly.

Notwithstanding these positive developments, we must recognize that the human rights challenges we face are urgent, and if left unresolved, could threaten to undermine the consolidation of democracy in the region. Reluctance to fully embrace these challenges may no longer be excused by the claim that the region is still in the process of "transition to democracy." Distinguished Delegates, I would like to refer to eight challenges the Commission considers to be paramount to the effective promotion and protection of human rights in the region.

First and foremost is the challenge of strengthening the administration of justice in the region. In principle, the judiciary serves as the first line of defense of the rule of law and individual rights in a democratic society. Member states have a duty to ensure that independent and impartial courts provide the victims of human rights abuses with effective redress. The Commission is thus concerned that we continue to receive many complaints alleging violations of the right to life, liberty and personal integrity, which have not been investigated, prosecuted or punished at the domestic level.

The effects of this impunity reach far beyond the individuals directly victimized. Impunity destroys confidence in the judiciary and the rule of law. While there are noteworthy judicial reform initiatives underway, basic underlying deficiencies are not being effectively addressed. These include the barriers which impede the poor from gaining access to justice, particularly inadequate systems for providing state-appointed legal counsel; the failure to respect the concept of the "judicial career;" the proliferation of threats against judges, witnesses and claimants, and the insufficiency of protective responses thereto; the failure of judges to know and duly apply the jurisprudence of the human rights system’s supervisory organs; and the failure to prosecute and punish corruption. Since respect for the rule of law cannot coexist with impunity, the Commission exhorts the member states to intensify their efforts to strengthen the administration of justice.

The second challenge concerns the restoration of peace throughout the hemisphere. We know from experience that human rights are most imperiled and, sadly, least respected during situations of armed conflict. Thus, the Commission has welcomed the end of hostilities throughout Central America and calls on those states that have emerged from conflict, but which continue to cope with its bitter legacy, to redouble their efforts to inculcate a culture of peace, tolerance and justice.

Where internal strife is still ongoing, the Commission has stressed the necessity of observing basic norms of international humanitarian law in order to avoid any act that might make the return to peace and national reconciliation unnecessarily difficult. Accordingly, the Commission has and will continue to emphatically condemn illicit acts, such as attacks against the civilian population, the seizure of civilian aircraft and the taking of hostages. Let me be clear. The international community has made these serious violations of international law crimes of universal jurisdiction and branded their perpetrators the enemy of all mankind.

The third challenge is meeting the development needs of the peoples of the Americas. As the Charter of the Organization states, "equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth and income," and full participation in decision-making are "basic objectives of integral development." Yet, millions of men, women and children in our region are unable to satisfy their daily needs for food, clothing and shelter, and lack equitable access to education, health care, potable water, sanitation services and electricity. To date, 10 member states have reaffirmed their commitment in this area by ratifying the Additional Protocol in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. With just one more ratification this instrument will enter into force. The Commission challenges the member states to move forward with ratification.

A fourth, and related challenge is according children the special protection to which they are entitled pursuant to the norms of the system. The survival and development of many of the region’s children are imperiled by conditions of poverty and exploitation. The Commission continues to document cases of abuse, particularly of street children, left in impunity at the domestic level. Far too many of our region’s children are forced, by economic necessity, to work – in prejudice to their right to education, and often in conditions adverse to their development. The member states should, at a minimum, provide for compulsory primary education for all without charge, and ensure that secondary education is available and accessible. When minors work, states should ensure that this is subordinated to the requirements of education, and that measures to protect their safety, health and development are implemented and enforced.

The fifth challenge is to ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their work under conditions that respect their physical integrity, and freedom of expression and association. We have been profoundly disturbed by the acts of violence committed against such persons during the past year, including those who have collaborated with the Commission. The Commission calls upon the member states to take all necessary measures to ensure that their rights are respected and protected.

The sixth challenge is ensuring full respect for the right to freedom of expression. In particular, the Commission’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression has reported on attacks against journalists in various parts of the hemisphere over the past year, and the Commission continues to address cases where such crimes have not been investigated, prosecuted or punished. Ensuring respect for freedom of expression is a crucial element in strengthening democracy in the region. The Commission values the support the Heads of State and government of the Americas expressed in the Declaration of Santiago for the appointment of the Special Rapporteur and the regional reaffirmation of the importance for guaranteeing freedom of expression, information and opinion. The Commission calls on the member states to support action to ensure that crimes against journalists, wherever they occur, do not remain cloaked in impunity.

The seventh challenge is to ensure that the next century provides women and men equal opportunities to freely and fully exercise their rights. The persistence in certain countries of laws which discriminate based on gender converts legal systems into instruments of subordination, and is an affront to the basic principles of the inter-American system. Pursuant to the study carried out by its Special Rapporteur on Women’s Rights, the Commission has called upon member states to amend or repeal such provisions by the year 2000. Member states have also been called to address gender discrimination in practice, and to strengthen domestic remedies to protect the right to be free from discrimination. The Commission greatly values the work done by the Permanent Council and the Inter-American Commission on Women in this area and looks forward to continued cooperation with them. The Commission also salutes the 29 States Parties to the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, and encourages the few remaining states that have not done so to ratify this instrument without delay.

Attaining the full observance of the right to be free from discrimination requires that the situation of persons who have been marginalized in their societies on the basis of race or ethnicity be effectively redressed. The Commission calls upon the member states to implement further measures aimed at ensuring equal access to opportunity in all spheres of national life, achieving greater diversity of representation in public service, and strengthening the domestic systems and remedies charged with responding to discrimination.

The eighth challenge is addressing the inhuman conditions which exist in prisons in many parts of the region, and the improper use of preventive detention. Commission reports have documented overcrowding; inadequate infrastructure; custodial personnel who are inadequately screened and trained; the lack of effective internal complaint mechanisms and external oversight; and the failure to separate those accused from those convicted of crimes. In some systems, individuals may be detained for up to several years without a determination of guilt or innocence. Such delay violates the presumption of innocence and exacerbates overcrowding. The American Convention and Declaration provide minimum standards for the treatment of detainees which must be observed at all times, and the Commission calls upon the member states to take vigorous steps to adhere to them.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished Delegates, on behalf of the Commission, I wish to express our gratitude for the support the member states have extended to the Commission in its pursuit of our shared commitment to the observance of human rights in the hemisphere. The challenges are urgent and profound, but the advances that have been realized in recent years show that the region possesses the vision, capacity and strength to surmount them. But the vitality, indeed integrity, of the region’s human rights system depends in no small measure on the faithful performance by member states of their international legal obligations. States should therefore honor their commitments by fully complying with the decisions and orders of the system’s supervisory organs. Thus, the Commission regards noncompliance with the binding orders of the Inter-American Court to be extremely troubling and thus, at the very least merits serious discussion and appropriate action by the political organs of the system. Finally, the Commission wishes to state its deep appreciation for the support given to its work by the Secretary General of the OAS, Cesar Gaviria Trujillo. We can attest to the Secretary General┤s clear and personal commitment to strengthening the inter-American human rights system.

The Commission looks forward to continued collaboration with the member states in meeting the challenges I have mentioned, and jointly working toward a 21st century that can truly be an era of full respect for human rights.