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Thirty-five years defending human rights.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is the institutional embodiment of an ideal. Its establishment in 1959 as an expression of the commitment of the America states "to a system of freedom for the individual and of social justice based on respect for fundamental human rights" translated the ideal into action.

The creation of a special body to oversee the situation of human rights in the Americas was one of a number of pioneering efforts by the Organization of American States in this field. The OAS Charter of 1948 incorporated the "fundamental tights of the individual" as one of the principles on which the Organization was founded. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, also approved by the General Assembly in 1948, was adopted to serve as "the initial system of protection" for human rights in the hemisphere. The Declaration affirms the essential human rights that flow from the inherent dignity of the individual, and records the commitment of the American states to increasingly strengthen the protection of human rights in the Americas. This initial step in the creation of an inter-American human rights system actually predated the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights by six months, and set the stage for the creation of a human rights commission.

Although the Commission was established in 1959 with the vague mandate "to promote human rights," its role has evolved over these thirty-five years to include specialized action to protect human rights. When the Commission started receiving information in 1960, it was not authorized to consider individual complaints as such. This shortcoming was remedied with the statutory expansion of the Commission's powers in 1965. The Commission's individual petition system is a critical element of its work program, in addition to its on-site fact-finding and the preparation and publication of its annual and special reports. When the OAS Charter was amended in 1967, the Commission was elevated to the status of a principal organ of the Organization. The entry into force of the American Convention on Human Rights transformed the Commission and the inter-American human rights system. The Convention established the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and attributed the Commission with new specialized functions. The Commission now exercises treaty-based jurisdiction over the member states that are parties to the Convention, and retains Charter-based jurisdiction over other member states. Thus, the Commission's current twofold mandate of promotion and protection reflects the incremental but dramatic development of its role from past to present.

The IACHR is the principal organ of the Organization of American States mandated to promote and protect human rights. The Commission is composed of seven members, nominated by member states and elected by the General Assembly of the OAS. The members are elected to four-year terms, which may be renewed once. Each member serves in his or her individual capacity as an expert in the field of human rights, and the Commission collectively represents all the member states of the Organization.

The Past: As Prologue

The gross human rights abuses of authoritarian rule are both the past and prologue for a hemisphere in which many countries are struggling with the transition to representative democracy. The use of disappearances as a policy tool, most prevalent during the 1970s and into the 1980s, is a manifestation of the insidious nature of human rights abuses under authoritarian rule. To be "disappeared" means to be kidnapped and held in a secret location. In most cases it means to be tortured, summarily executed, and buried clandestinely. It is a violation that by its very nature conceals itself. One of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, testified before the IACHR in 1979:

In this whole affair there was one hated word but one repeated without end: "disappeared." That is the synthesis and definition of our situation. . . . They will always be looking around thinking in what unknown place their son continues to suffer or what tree or what piece of sky attracted his last glance, his last breath, his last thought.

The violation of disappearances demonstrates both the difficulty in uncovering an act hidden and silenced by those who practice it, and the importance of defeating the practice by revealing it.

The IACHR challenged the gross and systematic human rights abuses of authoritarian rule. In the case of disappearances, the task was to try to make visible that which had been obscured. The Commission reviewed individual petitions, conducted on-site fact-finding missions, and prepared and published reports detailing hundreds of disappearances in various countries. Information was requested from government officials. The Commission received the testimony of survivors, and of the family members and friends of many who did not survive. The Commission received testimony, and it presented that testimony to the world in its case reports and its reports detailing the human rights situation in particular member states. Out of the many thousands of cases of disappearances during the 1970s and 1980s--no one knows how many--the Commission was able to formally treat only hundreds of cases. There is no way to verify whether Commission action wrested a son or daughter from the grasp of a torturer, or whether one disappeared person reappeared.

The case of the disappearance of Manfredo Velasquez Rodriguez was brought by the Commission to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Velasquez Rodriguez, a husband, father, and student, disappeared from the streets of Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on September 12, 1981. The Court determined that a systematic practice of disappearances had existed at the time, carried out with the support or acquiescence of the government. Velasquez Rodriguez was found to have been a victim of that practice: He was kidnapped, presumably tortured, executed, and clandestinely buried by agents of the armed forces. The Court held that the government had violated Velasquez Rodriguez's right to personal liberty, his right to humane treatment, and his right to life. This was the first contentious case before the Inter-American Court in which a state was required to compensate the family of the victim.

The work of the Commission and the Court on the human rights violation known as disappearance also illustrates a powerful aspect of the Inter-American human rights system--its capacity for demanding the truth and for truth-telling.

Every society has the inalienable right to know the truth about past events, as well as the motives and circumstances . . . in order to prevent repetition of such acts in the future, Moreover, the family members of the victims are entitled to information as to what happened to their relatives. (from the Commission's 1985-86 Annual Report)

The Commission continues to deal with cases that arose during the military dictatorships and with the sporadic instances of disappearances that still occur. It continues to encounter instances of arbitrary detention, lack of due process, torture, and extrajudicial executions. In the case of torture, the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture entered into force in February 1987. It defines torture and provides a stronger framework with which to approach this violation. There continue to be instances in which human rights violations are alleged, requiring impartial and exhaustive investigation by national authorities, but are nonetheless ignored.

In June of this year the Inter-American Convention on the prevention of Forced Disappearances was signed at the OAS General Assembly in Belem do Para, Brazil. The IACHR had drafted the original text, drawing from its years of experience combatting this practice. The goal of the Convention is to prevent, punish, and eradicate the forced disappearance of persons in the Americas.

The Present: Looking Toward the Future

The phenomenon of disappearances is one of the most grave violations to confront the Commission. The Inter-American Court termed the practice a "radical breach" of inter-American human rights principles. While it sometimes acts as a "firefighter," dealing with crisis situations, the Commission must also maintain its constant monitoring functions. In the past year the Commission has considered very different types of cases: illegal detention and arrest, disappearances, extrajudicial executions, violations of the right of asylum, of the right to political participation, and of the right to property. The Commission devoted special attention to the situation of refugees and displaced persons in the hemisphere in its annual report and in several special country reports.

Commission delegations have traveled to detention facilities on almost every one of their more than sixty on-site fact-finding missions. The Commission has visited Cuban refugees and Haitian refugees in the U.S. and the Bahamas, and in many member states it has viewed places reportedly used for clandestine detention, military holding cells, and jails. In principle, when the state deprives those who have transgressed the law of their liberty, it does so to uphold the rule of law and respect for human dignity. Conditions of detention must likewise correspond with legal standards and respect for the dignity of the individual. The Commission is currently engaged in an extensive special project to review prison conditions in the Americas.

The link between the strengthening of democratic institutions and the realization of human rights is especially critical at this moment when so many of the states of our hemisphere are re-establishing participatory democracy. The tragic situation of human rights encountered at this time in Haiti is a devastating illustration of this linkage.

The idea that fundamental human rights can be best ensured when individual citizens participate in the control of those rights through involvement in government is set forth in the resolution that gave life to the Commission thirty-five years ago. It is hoped that the Commission's works--challenging the abuses of authoritarian regimes and supporting the participation of civil society in democratic institutions--has and will continue to support the emergence of effective democratic government throughout the hemisphere.

To the extent that the political context in which the Commission operates is in a state of transition, so too are the demands placed on the Commission. And as the needs of the system change, so must the responses of the Commission. The grave human rights abuses committed under dictatorial regimes were approached in various ways, sometimes almost confrontationally. Although the Commission must continue to act with necessary strength, approaching the human rights concerns that arise in the context of democratic government will require different approaches, both more cooperative and more complicated.

As a component of the inter-American system, the Commission does not act alone. The response made to the work of the Commission, to the facts it has found, depends on other components of the inter-American system. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is juridically competent to make binding determinations of state responsibility. The political organs of the OAS possess the power to draw attention to and sanction human rights violations in the hemisphere. In the final analysis, the member states of the OAS, individually and collectively, bear the responsibility for fulfilling and advancing their commitment to respect and protect human rights.

The IACHR plays a unique and meaningful role in our hemisphere as the embodiment of the shared American ideal of respect for the inherent dignity of the human person. It has proven to be an effective finder of fact and agent for truth. The work of the Commission has contributed to and reflects the transformation of the inter-American human rights system from aspiration to commitment.

Elizabeth Abi-Mershed is a staff attorney with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
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Title Annotation:Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Author:Abi-Mershed, Elizabeth
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Words:1883
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