Washington, D.C., October 10, 2001





          At the opening of the 113th regular session, I would like to begin by expressing the strong solidarity of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with the people and government of the United States in the wake of the criminal terrorist attack it has suffered.  It will be very difficult to erase from our memory the images of the destruction of thousands of lives of citizens of many OAS member states and other nations.  We would like to reiterate to the people and government of the United States that this attack was an attack against all of us.


          We welcome the Resolution against the Terrorist Threat in the Americas, which was adopted at the Twenty-Fourth Consultative Meeting of Ministers of Foreign Affairs of the Hemisphere.


          With the perspective we have gained from our experience in protecting human rights, we would also like to state once again that there is no just cause for acts of terrorism.  Human rights and humanitarian law both reflect in fact the concept that the end does not justify the means.




          On behalf of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, I would like to share with you some thoughts regarding the inter-American human rights system and the challenges to it.  This is especially meaningful to me, since it will be eight years now since I became a member of the Commission, which I have also twice served as President.



          In analyzing the inter-American system, we should begin by noting the important advances achieved:  elections in 34 out of 35 countries, all of the countries in the region except Cuba; and, more open, free societies, with a multiplicity of private players and organizations interacting both within countries and internationally, thereby reinforcing the legitimacy of democracy and human rights.  Yet serious problem remain as well:  insufficiently developed institutions, such as the judiciary in many countries; poorly trained police forces, which have not succeeded in adequately ensuring the inherent relationship between respect for human rights and security, a legitimate aspiration of the citizens of our hemisphere; and, vulnerable groups, women, indigenous persons, ethnic minorities, children, and the disabled, who have not yet achieved de facto equality to develop fully and freely, and  in some countries have not even achieved de jure equality.  In the context of the most unequal continent in the world, demands for food, shelter, and clothing also take on a special meaning, and are expressed in the aspiration that economic, social, and cultural rights will be recognized.  To rise to the challenge presented by these serious problems, states have, among other things, created the inter-American system for protection of human rights, comprising a series of substantive legal instruments, such as the American Convention on Human Rights (Pact of San José) and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, in addition to the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights,  to oversee compliance with these instruments.  The political organs of the OAS and the states play the role of collective guarantors, to ensure that the decisions made by the oversight bodies will be implemented.



          The system performs critically important functions.  In the first place, it brings justice to bear in individual cases.  This further strengthens the values of the constitutional state for victims or their families, who feel that their problems were ignored, because they were not resolved internally, within the country.  In the second place, the system plays an “early warning role,” since when a society begins to resort to torture, summary executions, or the imprisonment of journalists, to mention just a few violations, the community of nations in this hemisphere learns of these acts through the inter-American system and can take the steps required to prevent those states from sliding downward into increasingly dangerous situations that could culminate in the total destruction of the constitutional state.


          In the third place, the system makes it possible to continuously expand protection of human rights and democracy, by enhancing national laws and institutions with a regional perspective, thereby guaranteeing access to ways of constantly improving protection for the values of human dignity.  One of the characteristics of democracy is that it is perfectible, and so from this standpoint, by establishing a common hemispheric position on subjects such as due process, emergency situations, equality before the law, and prohibition of discrimination, greater space is created within countries for support of expanded democracy.  The system has various tools available to it to perform its role.  The first one is on-site visits, which enable it to evaluate human rights conditions in a country, or to verify the status of certain rights, or to promote the value of human rights in general.  A second method used by the system involves individual cases, a process whereby petitions by individuals who believe that their rights have been violated are considered, in accordance with the values and principles of the legal tradition.  This process results in a decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; if this decision is not carried out, the case may be referred to the Court or made public. In the third place, rapporteurs may be designated within the system, to take up human rights problems on the hemispheric agenda; their work can lead to declarations or draft treaties.



          The system has proven its vitality in the action taken by its organs, which, working within their fields of competence, have demonstrated a capacity for adaptation and leadership in coping with the various situations facing them.  For instance, the situations of massive, systematic violations of human rights which occurred in the past required priority to be given to on-site visits.  Today, with the improved environment created by elected governments, it is possible to focus on individual cases.  I have had the privilege of witnessing the evolution of the inter-American human rights system in this direction.  When I was President of the Commission in 1996, I reported that we had adopted 8 decisions in individual cases.  In the last report I made to the General Assembly in 2001, I indicated that we had published 153 decisions, including 35 decisions on admissibility, 23 on the merits, and 13 reports on friendly settlements, in addition to 21 inadmissibility decisions and 61 decisions on cases closed.  We have seen the growing usefulness and importance of friendly settlements in the case system.  Five years ago there was only one, whereas we have now published 13, and there are 91 additional cases in which a friendly settlement is being sought, affecting the lives and rights of thousands of inhabitants in the hemisphere.


          The legitimacy of the system of petitions is demonstrated not only by the increased number of cases, but also by the attitude of both petitioners and governments.  More than ever, petitioners are turning to the case system as a way of correcting injustices, and resorting to legal processes, thereby further validating the rule of law.  Moreover, the governments took part in all stages of the processes leading to the 153 reports adopted by the Commission, thereby strengthening the legitimacy of a system in which petitioners and states are both full participants.


          The ability of the human rights organs to fulfill their functions, to adapt and to make creative contributions is also seen in the regulatory reforms which I referred to during my presentation to the Permanent Council and the General Assembly.  These reforms were based on the need to improve the legal security of the parties and the transparency of procedures, to establish procedures in relation to admissibility petitions, friendly settlements, and referral of cases to the Court, and on the need to strengthen the position of individuals as persons with legal rights.  With its new Rules of Procedure, the Inter-American Court has also strengthened the position of individuals.  This was in response to a long-standing request by the Commission, which regarded as inappropriate that it serve as the judge in the cases presented to it and then as the plaintiff or petitioner in cases before the Inter-American Court.  The change in its Rules of Procedure creates a real opportunity to make progress in moving towards recognition of the legal capacity of individuals in the international arena and is proof of the vitality of the organs of the system.



          In the face of these developments, it is crucial that states increase their support for the system. Democratic states have created a system that enables people to defend themselves, even vis-à-vis their own states, whenever human rights problems cannot be solved internally.  Today we need to act to increase the support of states for the system.  This support has to do first and foremost with recognition of the value of the system in defending human dignity, and secondarily with the indivisibility of human rights in the hemisphere.  Torture of a person in one country or domestic violence affect all of us, both from an ethical standpoint and because of the fact that our lives are linked together as never before.  As a result, the deterioration of human rights in one country has the potential of creating serious problems in other states in the most diverse areas, such as trade competition, investment, humanitarian disasters, and forced migrations, just to mention a few.  The International Court of Justice, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, all aware of this fact, have repeatedly stated that human rights obligations are obligations erga omnes, or in other words, obligations that affect all of us.  And this is not an invention of law, but something that reflects living conditions in the twenty-first century.


          These “erga omnes” obligations can be observed in full only in the context of a state where the rule of law prevails.  Human rights and democracy, both components of a constitutional state, are the two “wings” of human dignity.  The recent adoption of the Inter-American Democratic Charter is a significant step forward in ensuring the indissoluble link between democracy and human rights.  Both in its Preamble as well as in many of its provisions, the Charter confirms that link:  Article 7, Chapter II, for instance, states as follows:


                   Democracy is indispensable for the effective exercise of fundamental freedoms and human rights in their universality, indivisibility, and interdependence, embodied in the respective constitutions of states and in inter-American and international human rights instruments.


          Article 8 specifically establishes the following:

                   Member states reaffirm their intention to strengthen the inter-American system for the protection of human rights for the consolidation of democracy in the Hemisphere.


          (Also see the Preamble and Articles 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 9, and 10).


          Failure to carry out the decisions of the Court and the Commission will undoubtedly be an important consideration in concluding that the democratic order has been seriously altered and democracy is at risk, setting into action the mechanisms contemplated in the Charter.


          The support of political organs for the human rights system should ensure compliance by states with the decisions of those organs.  In this context, we see for instance that failure by the Fujimori government in Peru to comply with the decisions of the Court and the recommendations of the Commission was not given adequate attention by the political organs, which neglected to take into consideration the early warning role of the Commission.  It is essential to depoliticize the system, so that when a decision is made, it is carried out, and even communicated to all multilateral agencies.


          Support for the system also has to do with allocation of economic resources.  The Commission’s total budget for this fiscal year accounts for less than 3.4% of the Organization’s overall budget.  Approximately two-thirds of this total go to the salaries and benefits of the Commission’s staff.  The remainder barely covers the cost involved in preparing and holding two regular sessions and one special session, plus publication of the IACHR’s Annual Report.  The budget does not include adequate funds for conducting a single on-site visit to a member state, litigation in the Court, or the work of the special rapporteurs.  We would like to express our disappointment over the fact that the Costa Rican Assembly failed to approve Costa Rica’s proposal for an increase in the resources of the Commission and the Court over a five-year period.  In recent years, the Commission and the Court have taken significant steps to strengthen the inter-American human rights system.  The political bodies have welcomed and participated in these steps.  However, the human rights system has still not been granted the fundamental human and financial resources it needs to sustain this strengthened system.


          Time is growing short! What the organs are advocating are the supremacy of the rule of law, the indivisibility of democracy and human rights, a confirmation throughout the hemisphere of the values of due process and nondiscrimination, the need for judicial resources to ensure effective and speedy remedies in the event of human rights violations, a close relationship between security of citizens and human rights, the value of freedom of expression, and the whole set of freely recognized rights.  This is a worthwhile agenda.


          We have closely followed reports and studies on people disillusioned with democracy.  A recent study carried out by the Chilean organization EQUIS points to the growing disappointment in the region “over a democracy that does not solve its people’s problems.”  The path to follow is observance of human rights and a strengthening of the democratic revolution which has occurred in the hemisphere.  This is also the only possible path to follow, the one that reflects the loftiest aspirations of the men and women in our countries.



Ladies and gentlemen, a few months ago, on the heels of an extensive competition and process, during which ten candidates were interviewed, the Inter-American Commission decided to elect as its new Executive Secretary Dr. Santiago A. Canton, who had been serving as the IACHR’s Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.


Dr. Canton is a prestigious Argentine attorney who performed graduate work in the United States.  He was director of the OAS  Department of Public Information in 1998.  From 1994 to 1998, he served as Director for Latin America and the Caribbean in the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI). 


The Commission is certain that Dr. Canton will perform his work with the professional competence, commitment to human rights, and personal dedication that he showed as Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression.  Among the new challenges facing our Executive Secretary is the need for the Commission to increase efforts to publicize its work.  This includes keeping our web page up to date, greater use of press releases, and a better strategy for periodic publications.  This is an institutional mandate of the IACHR, and as President, I give my personal and enthusiastic support to all the initiatives taken by the Executive Secretary to fulfill it.


I would also like to reiterate the Commission’s special appreciation to the Secretary General, Dr. César Gaviria, for his constant support for its work and its efforts to strengthen the inter-American system of human rights.  Under his leadership, the number of attorneys in the Commission and its resources have been increased.  The Secretary General has also maintained a position of principle in respect for the independence of the human rights organs.  He has never failed to set aside the time needed to hear the IACHR and has always cooperated with us in our efforts to perform our functions.  I would also like to thank all the member states for their cooperation, and especially those states with which I have had the opportunity to work more closely.  I would express my appreciation to the Chilean government, which has twice proposed my name for membership in the IACHR.  During these eight years, the Chilean government has always shown complete respect for my independence.  I would also like to express my thanks to our attorneys, for their tireless daily work, to the fellows and interns, and to our administrator and our secretaries, whose commitment to their jobs is most certainly a model for this Organization.  My gratitude goes to our former Executive Secretary, Ambassador Jorge E. Taiana, and to the former Assistant Executive Secretary, Dr. David Padilla, for their invaluable contributions to the IACHR.  I would also like to extend my greetings and  public welcome to our new Executive Secretary, Dr. Santiago A. Canton.  Finally, my thanks goes to my colleagues, the IACHR commissioners, both the present ones, Juan Méndez, Marta Altolaguirre, Hélio Bicudo, Robert Goldman, Peter Laurie, and Julio Prado Vallejo, and those who have shared this honorable mission in the past, Michael Reisman, Patrick Robinson, Alvaro Tirado Mejía, John Donaldson, and Henry Forde. Each and every one of them has demonstrated his or her profound loyalty to our institution and an unswerving commitment to the cause of human rights.  It has been an honor for me to work with them.



          Ladies and gentlemen, ours is a hemisphere of great creativity, from the North to the South.  This is where the Declaration of Independence of the United States and the countries of the region created the right to self-determination and sovereignty of the people.  One need only look at our literature.  Neruda, for instance, speaks of men of “mud and clay” who looked with surprise at the arrival of the Europeans in our hemisphere and gives us an incomparable feeling for that moment.  Gabriel García Márquez in the South and Faulkner in the North invented mythical cities where individual destinies are enmeshed with the collective fate of nations, illuminating basic aspects of life.  Jurists from our hemisphere have worked hard for recognition of human dignity, and their efforts led to adoption of the first American Declaration and later the Universal Declaration, which proclaimed that all human beings have the right to develop in freedom.  Until those Declarations were adopted, men and women were black, white, yellow, Muslim, Christian, or Jewish.  Now they are all regarded as human beings.  In our hemisphere, technological forces were invented and developed that changed the world.  But our hemisphere has also seen perverse tendencies.  Suffice it to say that it was on this continent that the term “disappeared persons” became popularized, thereby saying that they are not here, that they have been taken away, that they do not exist, and that we are not responsible.  In response to this situation, innumerable men and women posted photos of each disappeared person, they demanded acknowledgement of this fact and of their fate, acts that contributed to the cause of democracy and human rights.  The greatest chapter of our history has been our creative and humanistic tendencies.  I would like to share my deepest and most optimistic conviction that this history, a key part of which is the globalization of human dignity and the inter-American system of human rights, will prevail.