Washington, D.C. October 4, 2000



          Secretary General of the Organization of American States, President of the Permanent Council, Assistant Secretary General, permanent representatives, observers, ladies and gentlemen:


          It is truly a pleasure for me to attend this formal opening of the 108th session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the company of first Vice-Chairman Dean Claudio Grossman, second Vice-Chairman Dr. Juan E. Méndez, commissioners Marta Altolaguirre, Robert Goldman, Peter Laurie and Julio Prado Vallejo, Executive Secretary Ambassador Jorge E. Taiana, Assistant Executive Secretary David J. Padilla and the professional staff of the executive secretariat.


          I would like to begin by quickly reviewing what the IACHR has done to protect and promote human rights throughout the Americas since our last session in March.


          The Commission has had to carry out its mandate against a backdrop of a number of national political/institutional crises that serve to underscore the gravity of the problems facing us today. They also highlight the difficulties we encounter when trying to meet the urgent demands raised by our societies. Today it is clearly necessary to consolidate democracy and the rule of law in order to pave the way for the aspirations of all citizens of the Americans and to foster a frank and open discussion on how to meet their pressing economic, social and cultural needs. The IACHR would once again like to express its concern for the serious problems afflicting national systems for the administration in our region. Because they lead to impunity and violation of the rights of due process, such problems end up affecting a large part of the population. Of special concern are delays and inefficiencies in reaching decisions on human rights cases involving agents of the state. This is certainly one of the major challenges before us today.


          The IACHR’s major activity for the protection of human rights is our system of petitions and individual cases. Since March 2000, proceedings were undertaken on 73 new individual cases against member states, raising the total number of cases being processed to 934. In that same period 350 new petitions were received. Those that have not been declared inadmissible are still being processed by the Executive Secretariat, which may ask petitioners to submit additional information or to meet certain procedural or legal requirements set out in the American Convention or the Commission’s Rules of Procedure. The Commission also continues to promote friendly settlements, which are proving to be an increasingly effective tool for the protection of human rights. Lastly, I can mention that great effort has gone into the preparation of the draft reports on admissibility, inadmissibility, merits and friendly settlement to be submitted to the IACHR during the present session.


          On behalf of the Commission, on March 22, 2000 our Executive Secretary signed an institutional cooperation agreement with the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which was represented by its Director General, Brunson McKinley. Our common aim is to consolidate and efficiently coordinate hemispheric initiatives to protect and promote the human rights of migrants in general and of migrant workers and members of their families in particular. Through this agreement the IACHR, as the OAS body charged with the protection and promotion of human rights in the Americas, and the IOM, an intergovernmental organization focusing on the various challenges posed by migration, will be able to jointly develop activities designed to promote respect for and protection of the rights of these human beings. This area is undoubtedly one of the most crucial in the progressive universalization of the human rights system, and it must be approached multilaterally.


          We should recall that in the Second Summit of the Americas, our Heads of State and Government called for special efforts to assure full compliance with and respect for the human rights of migrant workers. The IACHR was very active in two important meetings on migrant workers and their families. Last June the Commission attended the “Workshop on Best Practices with regard to Migrant Workers,” which was held in Santiago (Chile) under the auspices of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the IOM and the IACHR itself. Then I myself headed a delegation to the “Symposium on International Migration in the Americas,” organized in San José (Costa Rica) by ECLAC, CELADE and the IOM and sponsored by the United Nations Population Fund, the OAS and the IDB.


          On June 2, 2000, the Commission approved the report on the human rights situation in Peru. That report was prepared with information and documentation received before, during and after the Commission’s in loco visit to Peru (at the invitation of the government) in November 1998. The initial section of the report presents an overview of democracy and the rule of law in the country, and includes an examination of the organizational structure of the state, the administration of justice and international obligations, political rights and freedom of expression. In the second section, the Commission goes on to examine economic, social and cultural rights, women’s rights, rights of the child, the current state of affairs in the prison system and the rights of the indigenous communities in the country.


          At the OAS General Assembly in Windsor (Canada), the IACHR presented its report on Peru and made two other interventions on the human rights situation in the Americas. The Commission underscored its concern for the serious state of affairs in Peru and especially for three major questions that have a direct effect on democracy and rule of law in the country – the judiciary’s lack of independence, threats and attacks against freedom of expression and limitations on the free exercise and enjoyment of political rights. The Commission met with the Secretary General of the OAS shortly before its trip to Peru, which did go forward, in accordance with the General Assembly’s mandate, under the leadership of Chancellor Lloyd Axworthy. In that meeting, the Executive Secretary of the Commission and I covered all the background information and experience of the matter we had in order to help make the delicate mission a success. The events that have occurred in Peru in recent weeks show that the Commission’s recommendations were indeed on target. It is worth repeating here that those recommendations are still pertinent.



          An event of great significance to the Inter-American system also took place at the last OAS General Assembly–Barbados formally submitted its acceptance of the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in contentious cases. The IACHR believes that this sovereign decision represents not only a giant step forward for the full protection of the human rights of the inhabitants of Barbados, but also serves as an example to countries that are still in the process of ratifying Inter-American instruments.


          It also gives me great satisfaction to mention that while in Windsor the Commission was invited by Soledad Alvear, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Chile, to hold a special session in her country. We have also been invited to make an in loco visit to Panama and are planning to do so in the second half of 2001.


          Upon the invitation of the government of Brazil, the IACHR held its 107th special session from June 12 to 16 in Brasilia and São Paolo. Work at that meeting centered on reforming our rules of procedure, but a number of cases were also examined. The Commission had the opportunity to meet with President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and other important Brazilian authorities. From the executive branch, we met with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Luiz Felipe Lampréia, and the Minister of Justice, José Gregori. From the judicial branch, we met with Minister Carlos Velloso, President of the Federal Supreme Court, with Minister Roberto Saraiva da Costa Leite, President of the Superior Court, and with other authorities representing the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office. The Commission was also received by the President of the Senate, Antonio Carlos Magalhães, and by the President of the Chamber of Deputies, Michel Temer. We attended a special session of the Federal Council of the Bar Association of Brazil on the invitation of its president, Reginaldo Oscar de Castro. In addition, the Commission had occasion to meet with Mario Covas, Governor of São Paulo, and Anthony Garotinho, Governor of Rio de Janeiro, as well as with authorities of Pará State.


          While in Brazil, the Commission signed a cooperation agreement with the Superior Court that is open to other state and federal judicial bodies. Several have already added their names, including the Court of Justice and the Procurator’s Office of Pará State, the Office of the Public Prosecutor of Rio de Janeiro State, and the Federal Council of the Bar Association of Brazil. The Commission also had the opportunity to examine various human rights questions, as well as the situation in the Americas in general and in Brazil in particular, during two open seminars attended by government officials, specialists and leaders of Brazilian human rights groups. The Commission held special meetings with NGOs in Brasilia (sponsored by the Human Rights Commission of the Chamber of Deputies) and in São Paolo (sponsored by the Core Group for the Study of Violence of São Paolo State University). These encounters provided the Commission with a chance to share information, views and concerns on the main problems and principal advances in the field of human rights in Brazil and in the hemisphere as a whole. I would like to once again extend my sincere thanks to the Brazilian authorities and all others who made it possible for us to hold out 107th special session in Brazil.


          We are saddened to announce that since out last session, two individuals under the protection of precautionary measures issued by the Commission have lost their lives. Human rights activist Jesús Ramiro Zapata was murdered in Antioquia (Colombia) on May 3, 2000. And on June 22, 2000 Shaka Sankofa, previously known as Gary Graham, was executed in Texas in spite of the request for stay of execution that we sent to the US government. He had been sentenced to death for acts that he committed at the age of 17 and had spent 20 years on death row. The Commission requested that his execution be stayed until a case filed on his behalf could be judged on the merits. The IACHR issued a press release stating its position on the matter.


          In early August a delegation visited Guatemala in response to an invitation extended to the IACHR by President Alfonso Portillo. During that visit a truly historic step was taken when President Portillo recognized the state’s institutional responsibility in regard to 10 cases currently before the Commission and promised to make even greater efforts to reach friendly settlements based on compensation and investigation of what really happened. The Commission issued a statement underscoring the historic significance of the commitment made by the Portillo government.


          In late August the Commission made an in loco visit to Haiti. Since our stay briefly overlapped with that of a delegation led by the Secretary General of the OAS, it is worth pointing out that the dates of our visit had been the subject of conversations with the Haitian government going back more than a year. The purpose of our visit was to observe the general human rights situation in the country. The commission issued a press release reporting on its activities and initial impressions. While in Haiti, the Commission had the opportunity to join hands with the United Nations mission posted there in an extremely interesting pro human rights activity. We organized a seminar on the Inter-American system for the protection and promotion of human rights, which was attended by more than thirty representatives of Haitian NGOs. At this time, I would like to once again thank the Haitian authorities for all their assistance and also extend our gratitude to all the other individuals and civil society representatives that contributed to making our visit a true success.


          In the month of August the Commission also sent representatives to the 48th session of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José (Costa Rica). Five cases were heard at different procedural levels, some at the stage of preliminary exceptions, others at the stage of examination of the merits, and still other at the stage of reparations. There was also a hearing on a Commission request for provisional measures, which the Court decided to grant.


          From July 10 to 14, the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression and two attorneys working in the IACHR Executive Secretariat made a trip to Panama upon the invitation of the government to study the situation in the country. They met with President Mireya Moscoso, as well as with officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other government bodies, and will present a report on their findings. I would like to thank the government of Panama for the invitation and recall that they have also invited the Commission to make an in loco visit during the second half of next year to observe the general human rights situation in the country.


          In regard to the Office of the Rapporteur for the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and work in that area, I would like to mention that the Commission has been in contact with Ambassador Ronalth Ochaeta, whose keen interest in these matters is well known. Moreover, the subject was brought up in our conversations with President Portillo, with whom we talked of the role the OAS can play with regard to the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Commission would like to reaffirm its willingness to work closely and as fruitfully as possible with the Working Group presided by Ambassador Ochaeta.


          The IACHR has participated in many other activities to promote human rights. I personally had the opportunity to lecture on questions related to the death penalty as part of a course on international law organized by the Inter-American Juridical Committee in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil). The Commission hosted a visit from Inclusion Interamericana, a hemisphere-wide NGO based in Canada that promotes the rights of people with disabilities, which sent a group of lawyers from different countries to IACHR headquarters to develop an information program on the Inter-American system of human rights. This activity had been brought up when we were in Windsor and the results were certainly positive. The participants themselves certainly made great efforts, including financing their own trips. I would also like to mention the interesting seminar for indigenous leaders held last summer in Guatemala. The Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples attended in representation of the Commission. The seminar itself was financed with technical assistance funds from Denmark, which made a contribution to the IACHR for work in this specific area. In similar fashion, a professional staff member working for the Office of the Rapporteur on the Rights of the Child in our Executive Secretariat presented a paper at the XI International Conference on Family Law organized by the Universidad Externada of Colombia in Bogotá from September 4 to 7, 2000.


          At this time, I would like to mention four points that I believe should receive close attention by our Heads of State and Government at their summit meeting this coming April, at the dawn of a new century.


1.       The bodies of the Inter-American system of human rights have seen their supervisory duties grow over the last two decades as member states have increased their participation in the system. Recent initiatives to strengthen the system simply confirm that priority must be given to increasing material and human resources. This is necessary to ensure that human rights are protected and promoted throughout the region, that the system progresses toward being universal, and that all norms are interpreted and applied correctly on the domestic level, especially by the courts of member states. States must live up to their international obligations and fully comply with the recommendations, judgments and other decisions made by the competent bodies of the system. We thus think that it is of the utmost importance that resources be substantially increased so that the bodies of the Inter-American system can carry out the mandate given them.


2.       States should place the highest priority on ratifying the American Convention, its additional protocols and the other treaties that make up the system. They should also place acceptance of the Inter-American Court’s jurisdiction at the top of their priority lists. To this end, dialogue should be undertaken at a high level with member countries that have not yet signed and ratified these instruments.


3.       Countries should also collaborate on a plan of action to assist in adapting domestic administrative practices and legislation to international norms – and here I would especially like to mention the imperative of repealing contempt laws (desacato) still in force in most member states. Countries should create mechanisms to assure compliance with recommendations and decisions handed down by relevant bodies. Cooperation should stress training for people working in the judiciary, law enforcement and civil society groups.


4.       All states should do their part in meeting the collective duty they have to ensure compliance with international obligations arising from the various instruments of the Inter-American system. They should adopt all measures needed to proceed in accordance with the reports, recommendations and decisions of the system’s pertinent bodies within the area of competence of the General Assembly and the Permanent Council.


It is indeed of the greatest importance that country representatives support the ideas just outlined and make sure that they are included in the proposals to be presented next April to the Summit of the Americas to be held in Canada.


Ladies and Gentlemen:


You know that one of the basic problems afflicting the bodies of our system is the low level of budgetary resources. The Commission is fully aware of the financial difficulties facing the OAS as a whole due to members’ failure to pay dues on time. Notwithstanding, on June 5, 2000 in Windsor, the General Assembly passed Resolution 1701 on “Evaluation of the Workings of the Inter-American System for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights with a View to its Improvement and Strengthening.” One of the operative paragraphs instructs the Permanent Council:


To promote a substantial increase in the allocation of resources to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in upcoming fiscal years, in recognition of the fact that the protection and promotion of human rights is a central priority of the Organization.



The budgetary limitations we face are an obstacle to adequately performing the duties we have to protect and promote human rights as the principal OAS body in this area (as mentioned in the Charter). We should recall the words of the preamble of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. “The international protection of the rights of man should be the principal guide of an evolving American law.” I truly hope that the support expressed in Resolution 1701 leads to greater financial resources being allocated to the IACHR in the program budget for next year.


At this time I would like to share with you some good news in this regard. The Commission has received voluntary contributions that not only have improved our situation by creating specific funds, but that have also helped us to carry out our usual tasks. I am referring to the major contribution made by the government of the United States and presented to us by the Permanent Representative of that country in a ceremony held at IACHR headquarters on April 25, 2000. At the time, we issued a press release with all pertinent information. That contribution helped cover part of the activities of the IACHR, and specifically of the Office of the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. I must also mention that for the second consecutive year, Spain has made a voluntary contribution earmarked for the purchase of books, upgrading of the library, improvements to the reference section and work in the website. The IACHR also received a contribution from the government of El Salvador.


In regard to reform of our rules of procedure, the Commission duly received and studied Resolution 1701. The IACHR has also taken into consideration the documents submitted by the Commission on Political and Juridical Affairs and by member states. Moreover, we have received comments and observations from some 200 NGOs. We are making progress and will certainly give the matter the emphasis and priority it deserves in the session we are opening today.


Before concluding these remarks, I would like to warmly congratulate Ambassador Luigi Einaudi for his appointment as Assistant Secretary General of the OAS. Ambassador Einaudi’s past contributions to the Inter-American system are well known, as are his efforts in support of democracy and his keen interest in human rights. I would once again like to thank Secretary General César Gaviria for his unfailing support of the Commission and of all efforts to strengthen the Inter-American system of human rights. For its part, the IACHR will continue to foster cooperation with member states with a view to assuring that our mutual goal–full respect of the human rights of all inhabitants of the Americas – is met.


Thank you very much.