1. Nearly half a century ago, the Organization of American States decided to establish a human rights system--one that has been a pioneer in strengthening and protecting the human rights of millions of people in the region. Undoubtedly, this system created by the States has been greatly enriched by the current participation of civil society in the Hemisphere. The significant progress made by the inter-American system for the protection and promotion of human rights, primarily as a result of its achievements, now poses new challenges that need to be addressed through open and ongoing dialogue among States, civil society, and the Inter-American Commission and Court.
2. First of all, there has been an increase in the number of petitions submitted to the Commission. Whereas just 10 years ago, the IACHR received an average of 500 petitions a year, in recent years it has received about 1,500 a year. There has also been a rise in the number of cases the Commission refers to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In the past two decades, the Commission submitted a total of 114 cases, more than half of which (65) were submitted from 2003 to the present.
3. Another major development in the inter-American system in recent years is the right of victims and their representatives to participate of the proceedings before the Inter-American Court, a procedure that went into effect with the amendment of the Courtís Rules of Procedure in 2000 and that has clearly strengthened the rights of victims under international law.
4. Along the same lines, the 2006 amendment of the Commissionís Rules of Procedure consolidated the practice of public hearings, thus giving more people access to them. The Commission has not only opened its doors to the public that attends its hearings, but has also broadcast them live through its Internet page. For example, during the Commissionís most recent period of sessions, held in October 2007, more than 5,000 persons from different countries of the region went to the Commissionís Web page to monitor the hearings.
5. Another related change has been the holding of hearings in the member states. In 2006, the IACHR held hearings away from its headquarters as part of its 125th period of sessions, held in Guatemala. In 2007, the IACHR continued that practice by holding hearings in Paraguay, the venue for its 130th period of sessions. Holding periods of sessions away from headquarters has enabled the Commission to conduct hearings that would have been difficult to hold at its headquarters, given the costs that holding them in Washington entail for both petitioners and States, which is aggravated by the difficulties of obtaining the necessary migration visas. It should also be mentioned that the Inter-American Court is beginning to hold audiences in various countries of the region, thereby helping to promote the human rights system as a whole.
6. In addition, the Commission has expanded it work in thematic areas, through the establishment, in the last two decades, of a series of mechanisms for providing specialized support and for furthering activities for promotion and protection in thematic areas of special interest. These initiatives have resulted in the creation of thematic rapporteurships, which in some cases emerged from mandates conferred on the IACHR by the OAS political bodies and, in other cases, from the Commissionís own initiative, in response to emerging priorities or to requests from civil society. In most cases, these rapporteurships have operated within the context of the IACHR membership, elected by the OAS States. In the case of the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, in 1998 the position of Special Rapporteur was established. The Special Rapporteur is selected by the IACHR members to work full-time for the promotion of this thematic area of special interestĖfreedom of expression in the Americas. The activities of the Commissionís various thematic rapporteurships are becoming more and more intense, during its periods of sessions as well as during regular specialized on-site visits and constant day-to-day monitoring of the status of the rights for which the rapporteurships are responsible. This has led to enhanced rights for the indigenous peoples, persons deprived of liberty, persons of African descent, women, children, and migrant workers and their families, and to an increase in the right to freedom of expression.
7. These and other developments have been followed by the systemís two main constituencies: the States and the victims, both individually and as represented by civil society organizations. It is with their support that the inter-American system has let to developments, including, among other things, the establishment of internal laws in the countries of the Hemisphere based on international human rights standards in such areas as forced disappearance, the death penalty, and terrorism; the repeal of amnesty laws because of their incompatibility with the American Convention; the repeal of the so-called ďdesacato lawsĒ because of their incompatibility with freedom of expression; the adoption of laws to protect women who are victims of domestic violence; the implementation of public policy to promote racial equality; the adoption of legislative and administrative measures for creating effective mechanisms for the delimitation, demarcation, and titling of properties of indigenous communities; the progressive adjustment of conditions in prison systems to international standards for the protection of human rights; and the development of judicial mechanisms for combating impunity for human rights violations.
8. However, these changes would not have been possible without increased recognition of the autonomy and independence of the systemís organs. The credibility and legitimacy of the inter-American system for protection rests on the fact that its decisions are taken with absolute independence.
9. Likewise, the Commissionís administrative independence vis-ŗ-vis the General Secretariat is crucial if the Commission is to be free from the direct or indirect pressure that can come from the OAS political bodies. In this regard, it is important to point out that since 1994 a practice has been in place whereby the various secretaries general have supported the Commissionís autonomy.
10. Mindful that the systemís legitimacy and its preservation require consensus among each and every one of its actors, the Commission has attached the utmost importance to maintaining ongoing, open, and public debate on the enhancement of the inter-American system, with States, civil society, and the systemís organs. Within this dialogue, the Commission has made several efforts recently to increase its efficiency in discharging its mandate to protect the peoples of the Hemisphere more effectively.
11. These efforts are becoming more urgent as the systemís legitimacy increases, as reflected in the steady rise in the number of individuals submitting petitions, the diversity of topics presented and of organizations attending the Commissionís hearings, the high level of government and civil society representation at those hearings, increased use of the systemís jurisprudence and standards by numerous courts in the region, an increase in the number of mandates handed down to the Commission by the General Assembly, and the important achievements in the protection of human rights thanks to the system. The systemís legitimacy is also evident in the actions of the States of the region, through the conclusion of friendly-settlement agreements, the recognition of international responsibility in cases before the Commission and the Court, and open invitations for the Commission to visit countries to monitor their human rights situations.
12. But this reality, together with the challenges facing national justice systems, has meant that an ever greater number of men and women are turning to the Inter-American Commission for answers to their appeals for human rights protection and that the Commission has a larger backlog of cases. Thus, the more relevant the role of the Commission in the protection of human rights, the lower its capacity to respond to the growing diversity of needs and situations in the 35 member states.
13. In the process of identifying tools to enable the Commission to fulfill its mandate and respond to the cases and issues it is apprised of in an effective and timely fashion, the IACHR has taken a number of measures. First, with a view to eliminating the procedural backlog, a diagnostic assessment was made of petitions being reviewed and a work program drawn up for a group of lawyers whose main job will be to get rid of the backlog and, at the same time, to install in the Executive Secretariat of the IACHR ongoing capacity to evaluate and complete the initial processing of 1,500 petitions per year. Parallel to those steps, work began on reorganizing and redistributing tasks related to requests for precautionary measures by establishing a working group in the Executive Secretariat of the IACHR that will be exclusively devoted to evaluating and following up on the approximately 300 requests for precautionary measures received by the Commission each year.
14. Another means by which the IACHR has sought to increase the effectiveness with which it protects and promotes human rights in the Hemisphere has been through amendments to its Rules of Procedure, as a result of ongoing dialogue between the organs of the system and States and civil society. Since its Rules of Procedure were adopted, the Commission has introduced eight amendments of varying magnitude in order to perfect its regulatory provisions in light of the object and purpose of the American Convention.
15. In response to the concerns of States and of civil society, the Commission undertook a comprehensive reform of its Rules of Procedure in 2000, which resulted inĖamong other thingsĖthe distinction between the admissibility and the merits phases and an increase in the number of cases presented to the Inter-American Court. On that occasion, the Commission also reviewed the time allowed for a State to respond to the initial remittance of petitions and it contemplated the possibility of shortening that period, in view of the varying degree of urgency of the complaints processed. The Commission has used great prudence with respect to this shortened initial period, reserving it only for complaints that required expeditious handling.
16. The most recent amendment was adopted on October 27, 2006 at the 126th period of sessions. Its purpose was to introduce the matter of requesting a prompt reply from States in the processing of grave and urgent petitions and cases, along with a definition of the rules governing the granting, calling, and holding of hearings by the Inter-American Commission. The reform adopted in 2006 allows the Commission to request a prompt reply from States in urgent cases at subsequent stages in the proceedings, so that this provision complements the amendment adopted in 2000.
17. The integrity and efficacy of the protection afforded the inhabitants of the Hemisphere by the system depends, first and foremost, on the efforts of member states to achieve universal application of that system through ratification of the American Convention and the other human rights instruments, together with acceptance of the Courtís jurisdiction; on compliance with the obligation to adapt domestic legislation so that it conforms to international obligations and to see to it that it is correctly interpreted and applied by State bodies, especially the judiciary; and on compliance with international commitments and the decisions and orders of the Commission and the Court. Likewise, the States must provide the organs of the human rights system with the resources they need to fully and properly comply with their functions and the tasks assigned to them.
18. Commitment by the States to the inter-American system is what will enable the Commission and the Court, as subsidiary organs of protection, to contribute with responses to the challenges that States face today, principally in the area of administration of justice. The States created the human rights protection system and have an essential role to play as the collective guarantors of that system, which today is a system owned not just by States but by all the inhabitants of the Americas.