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50 Years at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: An OAS Policy Roundtable

November 13, 2009

On the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights earlier this week, representatives from international organizations, civil society, and academia gathered to celebrate the accomplishments of the inter-American system and reflect on the ongoing challenges. The venue was the Organization of American States, in the Hall of Americas, at a roundtable entitled “Challenges and Futures of the Inter-American System on Human Rights.” The event also commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Inter-American Court on Human Rights.

Over the past 50 years, the Commission and the Court have adapted to the many controversial challenges that have arisen in the human rights arena, responding with innovative approaches in jurisprudence and becoming a leader on human rights issues in the Americas and the world. However, the question remains whether the Commission and the Court will be prepared for what Juan Méndez (a former president of the Commission and currently a consultant at the International Criminal Court) called the “new horizons of human rights,” that continue to challenge the system.

One main concern for human rights advocates on the panel is the persistent impunity of grave violations, which ultimately affects democratic processes. The lack of punishment, investigation, and justice remains prevalent in many countries of the hemisphere. The remnants of the past still haunt Latin America, as individuals responsible for abuses during the dictatorships in the last forty years remain unpunished. Today, some governments are still failing their citizens by not prosecuting architects of human rights violations currently taking place. Although the human rights violations today have been replaced by what could be considered lesser crimes, the responsibility of the government to ensure the well-being of their citizens remains the same. Both panelists and members of the audience pointed out that poverty and narcotic related violence was costing numerous lives a day throughout the region.

Douglas Cassel, from Notre Dame Law School, is also concerned with the lack of an effective mechanism in the inter-American system to monitor the implementation of the Court’s decisions, which often reflects a lack of political will from the governments themselves. He called for all OAS member nations to adopt internal juridical measures that fulfill their international obligations to investigate and prosecute those responsible for human rights violations. Otherwise, the Court’s authority remains ineffective.

In addition, the panel discussed how an effective inter-American system is necessary to guarantee the right to know in Latin America—a subject at the core of the work of the National Security Archive. Juan Pablo Olmedo (President of the Council for Transparency in Chile) noted that the right to know is already accepted as a fundamental human right, referring to the case of Reyes v. Chile, decided by the Inter-American Court in 2006. The focus should now be how to institutionalize this principle. In the Reyes case, the Court demonstrated the power of its decisions to plant the seed for a cultural and political change, resulting in the passage of a national Access to Information law in Chile. As the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ruled in the Reyes case, “by expressly stipulating the right to ‘seek’ and ‘receive’ ‘information,’ Article 13 of the Convention protects the right of all individuals to request access to State-held information…. Consequently, this article protects the right of the individual to receive such information and the positive obligation of the State to provide it….”

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