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Speaking with a conscience.

In the wake of World War II, statesmen in the Western Hemisphere focused on how to avoid a repetition of two evils that threatened the world, particularly the West: another totalitarian movement and human rights violations on a massive scale.

In 1948 the Organization of American States was born to provide a forum for debate among the countries of the Hemisphere, to establish a mutual defense alliance (via the Rio Treaty), and to confront the challenge of development. At the same time the American republics - which did not yet include the soon to be independent British and Dutch Colonies of the West Indies - adopted the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, at once a proclamation, a resolution and a detailed list of economic, social and cultural rights and civil and political liberties. This Declaration served as the basis for a subsequent multi-lateral treaty, the American Convention on Human Rights. (The American Declaration antedated the United Nations sponsored Universal Declaration of Human Rights by some six months.)

Years passed before the OAS member states finally created an international machinery for monitoring, reporting, and ultimately litigating these rights against states whose agents committed human rights violations. In 1959, the Fifth Meeting of Consultation of Foreign Ministers created the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and a year later its statute was adopted and the first seven members were elected and installed by the OAS General Assembly.

Over the years, the Commission has been graced by some of the most eminent jurists and diplomats of the Americas. Novelist, educator and ex-President of Venezuela, Romulo Gallegos, served as its first chairman. Since its inception, 39 members from 16 different member states have served on the Commission. Although nominated by Governments (not necessarily their own), once elected by the General Assembly to four-year terms (renewable once), they serve in their individual capacities, recusing themselves when matters affecting their own countries are considered.

In its earlier years, despite its meager powers, the Commission found ways to bring attention to some of the more glaring human rights problems of the 1960s. For example, in 1961 the Commission sent a delegation to Miami to interview Cuban exiles and in 1965 after a coup in the Dominican Republic, the Commission dispatched delegations to visit jails, interview POWs, and secure safe and conducts in that country.

A year later, the Commission recommended to the General Assembly that it be authorized to receive and transmit to governments complaints by individuals or non-governmental human rights organizations (NGOs). When this proposal was approved, the Commission processed a growing number of complaints before governments which had voluntarily agreed that, as a matter of international law, they were obliged to investigate and give an accounting of their acts. This material is analyzed and evaluated by the Commission and duly reported on in public annual documents to the OAS Assembly.

In the 1970s, the OAS Charter was amended, establishing the Commission as a permanent organ of the OAS. The long discussed and negotiated American Convention on Human Rights, drafted in 1969, finally entered into force in 1978. Today 23 OAS members are States parties, including all of the Spanish-speaking countries, four English-speaking Caribbean countries (Barbados, Jamaica, Grenada and, most recently, Trinidad and Tobago) and Suriname, a former Dutch colony.

The Commission had long served as a sort of fire fighter for the OAS in times of particularly grave problems. Now it assumed a more active role, seeking consent to conduct on-site human rights inspection in a number of countries such as Chile in 1974, Argentina in 1979, and Guatemala in 1982 and 1985. An on-site investigation which took place in Nicaragua in October 1978 at the height if the civil war helped pave the way to the delegitimization of the Somoza regime. That same year the Commission visited El Salvador and by the early 1980s it was back in Nicaragua.

These precedents have institutionalized the on-site visit to the point of taxing the resources of the Commission to carry out all of its field work. At the time of this writing, the Commission is in Peru and has visits pending to Guatemala, Colombia, Nicaragua and El Salvador,and a request for consent to visit Yanomami Indian territory in Brazil. During these visits, besides meeting with civilian and military authorities, the Commission generally inspects jails, military brigs, hospitals, the courts and Congress, sites of alleged massacres, cemeteries, refugee camps and so called strategic hamlets. It meets with the press, church leaders, trade union heads, human rights activists, indigenous groups, and, of course, victims and family members. Commission members and staff have travelled to the interior of more than 20 member states in commercial airplanes, cropdusters, privately rented small planes, helicopters, jeeps, and more than once by canoe and on horseback.

In addition, the Commission has used its good offices and humanitarian character to help effect the release of hostages such as occurred in 1981 when members of the M-19 guerrilla group held 17 diplomats prisoners in the Dominican Embassy in Bogota for more than two months. More recently, the Commission issued a report on the Manuel Noriega regime and what is considered an illegal nullification of democratic elections in Panama while quietly gaining the release of two very ill political prisoners.

Another role of the Commission is to issue carefully documented reports. It publishers two types of reports: annual and country-specific. Its annual report contains information on countries experiencing human rights problems as well as on countries in which the human rights situation has improve. It is always a great source of satisfaction to report that measures have been taken to prevent the occurrence of abuses, that human rights violations have been investigated by national authorities and that hose responsible have been tried, convicted and punished by the courts. Better yet, it is satisfying to find regimes willing to compensate victims of abuses and their kin.

The Commission's reports have been cited by Presidents Raul Alfonsin of Argentina, Patricio Aylwin of Chile and Guillermo Endara of Panama, among others, as having made a difference in affecting public international and domestic opinion and enabling, at least in part, the restoration of democracy and the renewed respect for civil and political liberties.

The Commission has also served as what could be described as the "conscience of the Americans," while seeking to expand the frontiers of respect for human rights. This includes an insistence on the indivisibility of human rights and representative democracy, the need for a treaty on economic, social and cultural rights, the abolition of capital punishment and the drafting of a treaty making forced disappearances and torture international crimes.

A discussion of the evolution of the OAS Human Rights System would not be complete without discussing the emergence of a new instrument for dealing with human rights violations. Since 1980 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights - composed of seven judges nominated by States parties to the American Convention and selected by the parties to the Convention for six-year terms - has convened at least twice yearly at its headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica. During its first decade, the Court has used its advisory powers to render opinions (eleven to date) on a variety of legal issues, ranging from the suspension of Habeas Corpus to the use of the death penalty under certain circumstances. Besides issuing advisory opinions, the Court is also empowered to hear contentious cases and to date has dealt with three involving forced disappearances. With the Commission and Lawyers for the victims acting, in effect, as prosecutors, the Court found State responsibility in two of the three cases and accordingly ordered the government to indemnify the victims' dependents. At present, three more contentious cases are pending and hearings are scheduled for December, 1991.

Just as the number of complaints to this Commission increased dramatically in the 1970s so, too, recently has the number of cases going before the Court. To date, thirteen States parties to the Convention have taken the separate, voluntary step of submitting to the Court's obligatory jurisdiction in contentious cases.

On balance, there has been much more progress than one might have predicted twenty years ago. Democracy is in the ascendance. Courage, recommitment and leadership from our heads of state, parliaments and judiciaries are needed to assure for the next generation of Americans a fairer, more tolerant, less brutal world.

David Padilla is Assistant Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
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Title Annotation:Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Author:Padilla, David
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Sep 1, 1991
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