Commemorating Human Rights: The Organization of American States Continues Its Commitment to the Recognition of the Dignity of Mankind through the Work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Canton, Santiago, Americas (English Edition)
In 2009, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) will celebrate its 50th anniversary. * The decision to create the Commission was made during the Fifth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs, held in Santiago, Chile, in 1959. In the Final Act adopted at the meeting, the OAS member states said that "liberty, justice, and peace are based on recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of the individual." On August 18, 1959, the Fifth Meeting of Consultation resolved to "create an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, composed of seven members elected, as individuals, by the Council of the Organization of American States from panels of three names presented by the governments. The Commission, which shall be organized by the Council of the Organization and have the specific functions that the Council assigns to it, shall be charged with furthering respect for such rights." The mission of the IACHR was to oversee the implementation of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, adopted by the OAS in 1948. At the 1959 Meeting of Consultation in Chile, the countries also observed that "the climate in this hemisphere is favorable to the conclusion of a convention."
The decision to create an Inter-American Commission and to begin drafting an American Convention on Human Rights made the 1959 meeting a milestone in efforts to protect and guarantee human rights in the Americas.
But this important step was part of a process that had begun years earlier, as the entire world grappled with how to ensure that a tragedy like the Second World War would not be repeated.
The search for adequate responses to World War II led to the creation in 1945 of the United Nations, whose founding charter resolves "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind, and to reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained."
That historic moment of searching was the context in which the first systems were created to protect human rights in the international arena, based on the recognition of the dignity of all human beings. This process, in which the Latin American region played an active leadership role, led to the adoption of several regional and international human rights instruments.
The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, approved in May 1948 in Bogota, was the first of its kind in the world. It was developed through a process marked by a profound commitment to democracy and the recognition that human rights--civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights--are essential to the dignity of all human beings. The OAS Charter is also imbued with that same spirit of democracy and human rights that places human beings at the center of all the common tasks and joint commitments of the countries of the hemisphere.
Over the last 50 years, the IACHR has worked in many ways to defend and protect the human rights of the people of the Americas. During its first two decades, a time of democratic instability and dictatorships in much of Latin America, the IACHR conducted visits to various countries and prepared reports denouncing serious human rights violations. Today, at a time when democracy has prevailed, the Commission's visits continue to be an essential tool for protecting and promoting human rights. IACHR reports offer governments valuable input for designing their human rights agendas. They also give civil society the information it needs to continue cooperating with governments on human rights matters or to denounce violations when they occur.
From its first days of existence, the IACHR began to receive reports from thousands of people in the Americas who believed that their human rights had been violated by the states. The Commission's mandate has been strengthened substantially in recent decades, allowing the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to be key actors in resolving cases of human rights violations and in creating inter-American standards for the protection of human rights.
Many IACHR cases have helped bring about structural reforms within the states, facilitating the defense and protection of human rights for millions of people. The norms and jurisprudence of the inter-American system have played an essential role in the formulation of laws and public policies and are frequently cited by the national courts as a source of international obligation. A few examples give a sense of the magnitude of the Commission's contributions.
In 1992, the IACHR ruled on three cases involving amnesty laws that had been passed to protect the people responsible for massive systematic violations of human rights and to keep them from being tried in a court of law. The IACHR ruled that the amnesty laws were a violation of the American Convention and the Declaration and should be nullified. These decisions, the first of their kind, were ratified in 2001 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in another amnesty-related case. They paved the way for some countries to repeal their amnesty laws and end impunity for serious rights violations of the past.
Another essential contribution of the IACHR has to do with the so-called leyes de desacato, or contempt laws, that penalize the criticism of public officials. The IACHR declared these laws to be in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights and recommended that all states repeal them. Today more than a dozen countries in the region have done so.
These are just two examples of how IACHR decisions have been essential to efforts to strengthen the rule of law in the region. In one case, the IACHR helped put an end to impunity for people who had attacked democracy and violated the rights of millions of people; in another, it ensured that citizens' criticisms of our governments would not be silenced.
IACHR reports and recommendations have also led to the repeal or enactment of laws and public policies. The Commission's efforts have been aimed at ensuring greater protection for the rights of women, ending prior censorship, strengthening due process, guaranteeing the right to a hearing in a duly established court, strengthening people's political participation, safeguarding the rights of indigenous peoples, ensuring equality for vulnerable groups, and respecting the rights of workers, among other things. In its 50 years, as these examples show, the IACHR has helped not only to resolve cases of individual violations but also to build the rule of law in the region in order to prevent violations of human rights, whether on a massive and systematic scale or at the individual level.
This has been possible to achieve in concert with the state and civil society. Close, ongoing collaboration among states, civil society, and the Inter-American Commission and Court has been central to the functioning of the inter-American human rights system.
Of course, these 50 years of significant achievements must be juxtaposed with the ongoing challenges faced by the system. The progressive nature of human rights demands that we focus on the future rather than the past, and the challenges are many: poverty, inequality, crime, domestic violence, and the lack of access to healthcare and education are just a few of a long list of problems that should be on all of our agendas.
As we reflect on the accomplishments of the last 50 years, let us continue to search for the best solutions to the challenges that remain. The experience of these five decades teaches us that we can meet the challenges and that it is up to all of us to do so. Let us begin that task today.
Santiago Canton is the Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Images are courtesy of the IACHR.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Commemorating Human Rights: The Organization of American States Continues Its Commitment to the Recognition of the Dignity of Mankind through the Work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Contributors: Canton, Santiago - Author. Magazine title: Americas (English Edition). Volume: 61. Issue: 4 Publication date: July-August 2009. Page number: 26+. © 2007 Organization of American States. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.