21st Century Challenges to the Inter-American Human Rights System

Commonwealth Club of California - San Francisco, CA

Good afternoon. Thank you for that kind introduction, Norma, and for all of the outstanding work which the Commonwealth Club does in educating the citizens of the Bay Area on issues of common – and indeed global – interest.

It’s a pleasure to speak before such a distinguished audience regarding current challenges and opportunities facing our hemisphere, the Organization of American States, and the Inter American Human Rights System.

Let me begin my remarks by noting that, today, nearly all the people of the Americas live in democracies. As someone who began my State Department career in the 1980s, I have had the privilege of witnessing the region’s democratic transformation and its positive impact. The emergence of stronger democracies has gone hand in hand in past decades with increased economic development and improved social conditions. We see progress in citizens who stand up and declare that violence and impunity are not acceptable; in a regional press that works to hold leaders accountable; and in a robust civil society — including defenders of human rights — who demand dignity and rule of law. We see it in free elections, political parties that compete openly and vigorously, and power transferred peacefully. And we see it in a region which today has defense forces that are, with few exceptions, subject to civilian control.

These trends illustrate that democratic governance and freedom of expression are now accepted values for the people of the region – and ones that the United States champions in bilateral diplomacy as well as multilaterally at the Organization of American States.

With this in mind, we regularly look to regional partners to join us in speaking up whenever democratic principles we share come under attack. As Vice President Biden has stated, the question is no longer what the United States can do for Latin America. It is what we can do with Latin America, as partners in our hemisphere. We also believe that speeches and rhetoric should be matched by actions and outcomes. This is why we work with many governments and civil society organizations to address new threats to democracy and human rights in our region. Largely gone are the days of tanks on the streets, of secret prisons. In today’s Latin America, we are now turning to new challenges — from restrictions on freedom of expression to discrimination against vulnerable and marginalized groups, to the grave dangers posed by transnational organized crime.

Despite the overall democratic progress I’ve described, some populist leaders in the hemisphere remain impatient with democratic processes — and have responded by closing down or subjugating independent media, courts, and other essential institutions of democratic governance. While we remain convinced that democracy in our region is getting stronger, we are concerned by conditions in certain countries.

Let me offer some examples:

  • In Ecuador, we have seen the continued use of laws and legal mechanisms to stifle freedom of expression;
  • In Nicaragua, recent changes to the Constitution and Military Code that concentrate power and undermine checks and balances are harmful to democracy and could limit long-term economic development;
  • In Venezuela, we remain concerned about the lack of respect for freedoms of assembly and expression; and – for its part -
  • Cuba continues to be an outlier in the region, the one country in the Americas where citizens do not have the freedom to speak their minds or choose their leaders.

It is in the face of such concerns and challenges that the United States not only encourages all states and civil society to speak up, but we turn to the most effective tool in the hemisphere: The Inter-American Human Rights System. This System, comprised of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, and other OAS institutions, has served as a beacon for decades building support for human rights and democracy in our hemisphere.

OAS Role in Promoting Human Rights

The OAS is the world’s oldest multilateral organization, pre-dating and in many respects serving as a precursor to the UN and many of its agencies. Over the past century, the OAS has strongly supported the efforts of regional governments to protect human rights, strengthen democratic institutions, and combat inequality and impunity. As some of you may know, the OAS is an organization made up of 34 sovereign, diverse countries legitimized by democracy – which work together on an equal footing to promote peaceful resolution, cooperation and consensus.

Chief among the OAS’s core principles are support for human rights and democracy. This is because the relationship between Latin America, the OAS, and human rights is a longstanding one. Latin American countries played a leading role in the development of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the subsequent Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the cornerstone documents of our modern regional and global human rights systems. This is a powerful legacy.

And so, as we seek to advance this legacy, the United States also works to preserve the integrity of and strengthen the OAS’ human rights institutions – including the Commission and. This means first and foremost ensuring their continued independence and autonomy. At the same time, we are also making the case for an effective use of resources to support the institution’s mandate, despite the current and challenging budget environment we all face.

For more than a half-century, the Inter-American Commission – which is considered the crown jewel of the OAS — has protected the rights of individuals against government overreach and abuse. During the Cold War, the Commission faced down military strongmen, documented forced disappearances, and catalogued the human costs of brutal civil wars – especially those in Central America. In the 1980s and 90s, the Commission played a fundamental role in countering dictatorships and helping democracy take hold. It buttressed regional progress by challenging the legacies of authoritarianism: impunity for past atrocities, discrimination against women and minorities, and media censorship. More recently, it has combated threats against freedom of expression and limits on access to information. And it has also moved the Americas forward on issues of inclusiveness – by addressing violence against women, violations of indigenous peoples’ rights, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Commission’s work is much more than defending high principles; it’s about real decisions affecting real people. In Brazil when Maria da Penha was shot by her husband in the back, leaving her paraplegic, it was the culmination of years of domestic abuse. In her battle for justice, she was fortunate to have an ally in the Inter-American Commission. Following the Commission’s inquiry into her case, the Brazilian government took decisive steps – Maria’s ex-husband went to jail, and in 2006 Brazil adopted landmark legislation on violence against women.

Maria’s case is just one of thousands of petitions the Commission has processed against governments in the past decades. As a result, there are people who are alive now who would not be but for its effective action. Those who would violate human rights, restrict civil liberties, encroach on free speech, or otherwise weaken democracy have been identified, called out, and deterred.

In recent years, the Commission has worked tirelessly – sometimes in cooperation with governments, and sometimes confronting them – to address violations of the standards and principles which governments have agreed to uphold. The Commission leverages diverse tools such as country visits and reports, capacity building, and decisions in individual cases. It has documented – for example – actions taken by some governments through legislation or the justice system to restrict activities of human rights defenders, including members of non-governmental organizations and independent media. And it also promotes friendly settlement efforts between governments and victims.

I want to recognize the important work undertaken by the commission’s Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. The Special Rapporteurship defends the right to freedom of thought and expression throughout the Americas. She has helped shine a critical light when governments seek to repress the open exchange of views. She has helped train hundreds of judges across the Americas on the free speech protections of the Inter-American System, and as a result supreme courts in Brazil, Mexico and elsewhere are increasingly citing the decisions of the System as precedent in their own jurisprudence.

Another important Rapporteurship is the one initiated in February to oversee the work of the commission’s new unit on LGBTI rights. This important expansion of human rights protection was the result of a collaboration between President Obama and President Rousseff of Brazil, and we are very pleased to see it come to fruition this year.

Our hemisphere remains justifiably proud of the good work that the Commission and its sister institution, the Court, have achieved. The foundation for this success — and for continued progress in human rights — lies in the continued independence and autonomy of the Commission and Court.

Over the past three years, there has been an ongoing and robust dialogue in the region regarding the operation of the region’s human rights system—and how it can work more effectively. For its part, the Commission has engaged in a productive dialogue with member states and civil society. Several positive changes have resulted from this dialogue, including new rules to make the Commission more efficient, and access to increased funding.

Nevertheless, a determined minority of governments continue to seek to undermine the institution. Their motivations are varied, but they add up to a significant challenge to human rights. In some countries, populist leaders see the Commission’s oversight as an impediment to their ambitions. In other cases, governments have allowed parochial disagreements with specific Commission rulings to eclipse their larger appreciation of its role in the hemisphere. The United States understands that many countries in the region are wary of unwarranted interventionism. We don’t always agree with the Commission when it assesses our actions. But that’s no reason to chip away at an institution that has clearly lifted the cause of human rights.

For our part, the United States has worked hard with fellow Latin American and Caribbean countries to back the Commission, defend its functions, and to strengthen and fully fund the institution. I am happy to report that our efforts have been largely successful. The OAS member states resolved over the past year to maintain the Commission’s funding sources and preserve its independence. The United States is, and will continue to be, the Commission’s largest financial backer.

We also secured a hard fought diplomatic victory with the nomination and successful election of Professor Jim Cavallaro – of Stanford University — to serve as one of its 7 Commissioners. Jim is a leading global expert on human rights in the region, and his election is a positive step toward guaranteeing a stronger and independent Commission.

As we look to upcoming OAS meetings and discussions, I am pleased to reaffirm that United States’ support for the Inter-American Human Rights System remains a top policy priority. This effort is guided by our view that, although the Americas have seen great progress in making governments more accountable, human rights challenges have not disappeared. Continued political and financial support to the Commission is fundamental to help address these challenges.

Role of the Democratic Charter

I now want to turn to the efforts of the OAS to advance democracy and good governance. Most importantly, I want to underscore that the OAS has established a regional consensus on the right to democracy. This was documented in the success of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2011.

The Democratic Charter is a core document in the Inter-American system. Article 1 of the Charter states that “the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy, and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” This language was a powerful affirmation of the region’s vision of democracy: not just as a system of government, but as a fundamental and practical responsibility of governments toward their citizens.

This is particularly notable because there had previously been great resistance to identifying a form of government as a right, largely because some feared an effort to impose a single model for all. And, as we all know well, rights also bring with them obligations. But the OAS was able to coalesce around this fundamental concept, and offer a groundbreaking development in terms of multilateral instruments.

The approval of the Democratic Charter by OAS member states also served to underscore that democracy has deepened and matured throughout the Americas over the past two decades. This does not mean that by declaring this form of government as a right that all has been solved – indeed, numerous challenges to democracy as well as social progress still remain. We still see elected governments take actions which jeopardize the viability of their own democratic institutions. The results are often the same, and no less pernicious — fear, intimidation, restrictions on free expression and civil society, and weakening of the rule of law and the protections it provides.

With this in mind, we strongly support recent proposals advanced within the OAS to enhance the organization’s capacity to implement the Democratic Charter. Such advances are innovative, and build on the tangible successes of the OAS in strengthening democracy – such as thematic peer reviews, election observation missions, and the work of the Human Rights System.

I think we all can agree that a strong OAS, politically as well as financially, is a great benefit to every country in our hemisphere. In order to be an effective multilateral player, the Organization must speak out forthrightly and forcefully in defense of democracy and human rights.

Unfortunately, during recent OAS meetings held on Venezuela, member states decided to close the OAS’ discussions — which dealt with democracy and freedom of expression issues — to the public and the press. This is a poor precedent that the U.S. Government opposed and continues to oppose. It is not consistent with the OAS’ own values or the spirit of the Democratic Charter. Put clearly: dialogue, openness, and transparency serve to strengthen democratic practice – not weaken it. The hemisphere’s most respected democratic institution should be at the forefront of promoting those practices.

Engaging Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders

This leads me to my last point this afternoon: the importance of government engagement with its citizens and with civil society. Through ongoing processes at the OAS and in other regional fora, we are urging Latin American and Caribbean governments to open spaces for dialogue among countries and with citizens. In many instances throughout the region, such openness has allowed for the active participation of previously-marginalized people. This is tangible, positive progress.

At the OAS, we have seen a clear increase in the level of civil society participation — and within the region, we are also seeing a rise in new institutions and mechanisms for innovative cooperation. These efforts are important because they can serve to shine a bright light on long-standing and emerging repressive restrictions on — and threats to — freedom of expression, association and assembly.

The need for better dialogue and cooperation between governments and citizens also lies at the heart of why, in 2011, then-Secretary of State Clinton launched the State Department’s own Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society. This Dialogue provides a platform to amplify the voices of civil society, engage with human rights defenders, and help us work together to address common goals. We are also currently using this process to bring greater attention and visibility to the Inter American Human Rights System – and I am confident we will be able to point to concrete progress on this front in the months and years to come.

For our part, we are also matching words with action in the Americas: the United States supports over 30 democracy, human rights, and labor programs at the OAS and in the Western Hemisphere, totaling approximately $40 million. Significant portions of this portfolio include projects that support civil society capacity building, the professionalization of journalists, and support for free and independent media.


Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. Let me close by underscoring that the United States will continue to speak out in defense of human rights and democracy – publicly and privately, bilaterally and multilaterally. We will also continue to fund programs that provide capacity building and training for human rights defenders – because we know that this directly supports their ability to monitor human rights and hold governments, as well as institutions like the OAS, accountable.

To achieve lasting results, it is increasingly clear that the United States must work with partners – governments and civil society alike – to address the pressing human rights challenges of the 21st Century. We fully recognize that when we pursue our common goals together, we thrive — and when democratic practice is threatened anywhere, it harms all of us.

Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to your questions and comments.

- Source: U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States (OAS)

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