William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Washington, DC
March 22, 2013

If a scroll bar appears below the following table, swipe the table to move left/right of the dashed line.
The video below is available with
closed captioning on YouTube.

Mr. Chairman, Secretary General Insulza, thank you for convening this Special General Assembly.

In a single generation, our hemisphere transformed from an exception to an example of the worldwide embrace of democratic values. The consolidation of democracy created freer and more inclusive societies. It also made them more prosperous.

At the core of this transformation was our regional architecture. The Organization of American States played a leading role – from settling border disputes, to rolling back coups, encouraging economic development, and fighting corruption. And so did the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – a founding pillar of our regional human rights architecture and an example for the world.

For more than five decades, the Commission has served as the hemisphere’s moral conscience. It upheld the rights of individual women, men, and children throughout the Americas -- a bulwark against government overreach and abuse. During the Cold War, it faced down military strongmen, documented forced disappearances, and catalogued the human costs of brutal wars. In the 1980s and 90s, it challenged the legacies of authoritarianism, impunity for past atrocities, and discrimination against women and minorities. More recently, it has tackled censorship, violence against women, indigenous rights, and discrimination based on sexual orientation.

While our progress in defending and advancing human rights is significant, it also remains incomplete and uneven. This is why a stronger and more capable Commission is in all our interests. This is why the United States provides significant funding – including a $1 million contribution today – and why we encourage all member states to do the same. This is why we actively respond to the Commission even as it raises challenging issues for us – from the death penalty and the human rights of migrants and incarcerated children, to the status of detainees at Guantanamo Bay. And this is why we continue to collaborate with the Commission – including its recent on-site visit to immigrant detention facilities in the United States.

We do this not because we always see eye to eye with the Commission. We do it because we are secure in our commitment to democratic principles and in our conviction that we are accountable to our citizens for the protection of their human rights. We do it because we believe that no government should place itself beyond international scrutiny when it comes to the protection of basic human rights and civil liberties.

This conviction drives us to continue to try to perfect this institution. Former Secretary Clinton and Secretary Kerry, when he was a United States Senator, both underscored the urgency and need for our governments to take an active role in reforming the OAS. And two years ago, we welcomed this opportunity to also strengthen the work of the Inter-American Commission. Since then, our governments – in partnership with the region’s robust civil society – have debated how our regional human rights system can operate more effectively and efficiently. Broad consultations were held, productive exchanges took place, and today reforms are underway.

The Commission is already improving its settlement process so that it can move more quickly and creatively to address human rights challenges. Its rules now include specific criteria for determining when a country deserves special scrutiny and when life-saving precautionary measures are in order.

These and dozens of other changes to the Commission’s practices, procedures, and rules, respond directly to recommendations from member states. We applaud the Commission for its seriousness of purpose and openness to constructive dialogue during this process.

As we debate additional proposals, we must ensure that they not come at the expense of the Commission’s autonomy, independence, and credibility. We must be vigilant against efforts of some to weaken the Commission under the guise of reform. That agenda is clear: to undermine the Commission’s ability to hold governments accountable when they erode democratic checks and balances and concentrate power through illiberal manipulation of democratic processes.

Diminishing the status of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression is not in keeping with the spirit of the Inter-American Democratic Charter or the commitments we took in the Summits of the Americas process. Preventing the Commission from taking urgent steps to save lives at imminent risk of harm undermines its independence and effectiveness. Underfunding the Commission deprives our citizens of the opportunity to be heard, and deprives our governments of the chance to take timely corrective action when challenges arise.

All the member states of this organization pledged to strengthen – not to weaken – the Inter-American Human Rights System through this important reflection process. Consequently, until we fully finance the system through the regular budget, it is essential to uphold existing rules permitting contributions and funding for specific aspects of the Commission’s human rights work. We should be clear: Restricting contributions or eliminating the possibility of funding specific Commission activities violates our pledge to make the system stronger.

It is not just rules of procedure or phrasing of resolutions that is at stake -- it is the very foundation on which decades of political, economic, and social progress rest. The majority of member states committed to perfecting our human rights system must protect the Commission from the determined few who seek to debilitate it.

Mr. Chairman, Maria da Penha’s story should remind us all about the Commission’s enormous impact on our hemisphere. When Maria’s husband shot her in the back, leaving her paraplegic, it was the culmination of years of domestic abuse. She rightly sought justice and she fortunately had an ally. In cooperation with 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. Its name: the Maria da Penha Law.

Maria da Penha’s name, like those of Myrna Mack, Marcarena Gelman, and others, resonates powerfully in our hemisphere as reminders of those who saw in the inter-American human rights system a last chance for justice. And so today, we must honor their legacy and our common vision, by making sure that the Commission remains a strong and impartial champion for human rights in the Americas for many generations to come.

Thank you.