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Final version of this document, which incorporates the observations made by the IIHR Board of Directors on March 6, 1998. A preliminary version, prepared by the Executive Director in conjunction with the entire staff of the Institute, had been submitted to the consideration of the Board at that time.

I.  Introduction and Definitions

Eighteen years after it was founded, the  (1) has decided to review the conceptual underpinnings of its actions in the hemisphere, in order to ensure that they are still valid, vis-à-vis a reality that has changed substantially over the years. By vision, we mean both the situation regarding human rights and democracy as it stands in 1998, and a critical analysis of this situation and a comparison of it with the model of democracy and human rights for which we are striving in our countries.

It is not so much an effort to establish a theoretical model as it is to point up those essential aspects of democracy and human rights that can indicate priorities and plot the course of the actions of the IIHR. As regards the IIHR's mission, it is set forth clearly in the Institute's Statute in terms that, in our judgment, are still valid. Therefore, the goal here is to offer some thoughts on specific ways of attaining the general objectives set forth in the Statute, while taking into consideration the needs identified in our "vision."

The IIHR was founded on october 28, 1980 under Law 6528, which ratified its Statute.Top of page

II. The IIHR's Role in the Different Stages

The IIHR has always been able to adapt to changing conditions so that its work remains effective. It was founded at a time when almost all the countries in the hemisphere were governed by military dictatorships. Several especially bloody armed conflicts, characterized by serious violations of the laws governing war, were under way and in many countries serious, systematic and massive violations of the most fundamental rights were the rule rather than the exception. In this context, the IIHR focused its educational efforts on enabling civil society to monitor such violations, with a view to professionalizing the investigation and reporting of violations and, at the same time, to legitimizing such activities at a time when they were being seriously questioned. At about the same time, through CAPEL, it began to promote free and periodic elections as an essential ingredient of democracy, as opposed to coups d'état.

A few years later, our countries entered a new stage in their development, with the advent of elections and governments voted into office. The agenda of the human rights movement quickly changed to address issues inherent to this transition stage, such as what to do about the legacy of massive and systematic violations, and how to create and operate truly democratic state institutions. The IIHR undertook activities aimed at striking a balance between the demand for truth and justice and the equally legitimate interest in national reconciliation and peace, and at determining the place of both in a society based on truly democratic principles. Programs launched at that time were intended to strengthen state institutions and make them more accountable for meeting the needs of society. While still insisting on fair and transparent elections, CAPEL began to promote other, deeper aspects of democracy.

Today, we can speak of a third stage in the historical development of our work in the hemisphere, while recognizing that such a distinction is highly arbitrary on our part. We can no longer speak of a transition to democracy since power has changed hands on numerous occasions as the result of elections, and since the specter of coups d'état and disruptions of democratic processes does not loom on the horizon. Also, to continue to focus on problems related to the transition would give governments an excuse for not living up to their obligations in the area of human rights. However, it would be a mistake to think that we are living in a region in which democracy is firmly entrenched; as we all know, from time to time situations arise in Latin America and the Caribbean to dampen our spirits. In any case, present circumstances call for the establishment of a second democratic transition, in the understanding that the first has concluded. If we are going to set priorities for the IIHR, and even at the risk of overly generalizing, we must first identify certain essential characteristics of the reality facing our societies today.

An accurate analysis of the times in which we are living will also help us to define more precisely what we understand by "democracy" and what we can rightfully expect from it. Thus, our concept of democracy is the model for change that orients the IIHR's mission, brings order to our planning activities and gives meaning to our actions in the area of education and promotion of human rights.

Consequently, education is today the most important task our societies must undertake in bringing about a decisive transformation in the make up and the methods of our political institutions, which will be a determining factor for the future of the Americas. After all, democracy is a way of life, not simply a political doctrine. Democracy is a complex system of human relationships that is based on a legal structure accepted by all. In this legal structure, conflicts are resolved and the values that are at the heart of human rights -equality and equity, solidarity and justice, liberty, tolerance of diversity and mutual respect- are expressed freely and openly.

Under the current circumstances, education in human rights is extremely valuable as a means of affirming and presenting the perspective that we want to imprint on modernization and governability. And this modernity demands the humanization of our co-existence.Top of page

III. Insufficient Democracy

We use this term to define features common to the situation in all our countries, recognizing, of course, that such features are present to a lesser or greater degree in each one. On the positive side, we recognize that, compared with the past, it is obviously better to live in times when we can elect those who will govern us (if the candidates are not everything we would wish, the system itself cannot be blamed). Also, the massive and systematic violations (massacres, illegal executions and disappearances) of the past are no longer the most notable and tragic characteristic of the reality in which we live. In addition, in almost all the countries, armed conflicts have been replaced by peace processes; as uncertain and unsatisfactory as they may be for any number of reasons, they are certainly a welcome development. The international context is also more favorable today for the promotion, and even the further development, of democracy. Let us not forget that in the recent past, dictatorships also enjoyed a certain level of international legitimacy.

This favorable context has also resulted in a broader acceptance of the international law of human rights in our region, not only formally but also with respect to the legitimacy of its daily application, with the corresponding positive impact on the juridical and political development of our democracies. An example of this would be the incorporation of the international law of human rights into recently promulgated Constitutions.

When listing the advantages of the situation today, we underscore the social repudiation of coups d'état, and the fact that our societies are beginning to take action to eliminate corruption, as in the case of the political trials held in Venezuela and in Brazil. From the perspective of the defense of rights, perhaps the most visible difference is the aggressive exercise of freedom of speech, including the appearance of investigative reporting, which has been successful in placing topics related to human rights near the top of the political agendas of all our countries. The wide-ranging and thought-provoking debate that has ensued is also worthy of mention, given the precariousness of the laws that protect freedom of speech and the risks taken by journalists.

Democracy, as it exists today, is insufficient because many of our elected leaders show a marked preference for authoritarian action in reacting to dissent or criticism, or when responding to the calls from society for increased security. They view their election as a vote of approval for everything they propose and feel that they do not have to live up to campaign promises or necessarily stay within the limits of the law. The sultanic exercise of power does not include the concept of self-limitation and tolerates, less than wholeheartedly, the notion of checks and balances on power or respect for the independence and autonomy of the other branches of government. According to Guillermo O'Donnell, it turns our systems into delegative rather than representative democracies in which power is exercised as if the people, in casting their votes, were investing all powers and rights in the person of a temporary leader. The sultanic exercise of power, combined with the vestiges of authoritarianism, explains the limited willingness to resolve the problems of democracy with more democracy, as demonstrated by the aforementioned precariousness with which freedom of the press is exercised in our times.

The IIHR has observed that, in much of Latin America, the different authoritarian ways in which power is exercised are quite evident. In some cases, such official conduct trivializes the concept of the democratic exercise of civil power and, as a result, weakens democracy. We are referring to those elected governments that, not wanting or not being able to overcome the legacy of impunity, are again beginning to grant impunity for the abuses of the present. This abdication of democratic authority enables military castes to exist with a high degree of autonomy, not only in operational and budgetary areas but also with respect to the conduct of its members vis-à-vis the rights of citizens. We have not yet adequately subordinated the military to civilian control.

There exists in our societies a growing feeling of insecurity, motivated in some cases by a real increase in criminality and in others by the simple perception of such. In any event, both this sense of insecurity and the lack of confidence in the responses of local authorities give a certain social legitimacy to heavy-handed solutions, even when they are inconsistent with human rights.

This leads to the continued existence of serious human rights problems that affect forgotten victims, such as inhuman prison conditions, police brutality against young people in poor neighborhoods, the violent resolution of rural conflicts through the use of private armies, and the torture of those accused of common crimes. Such violations are often referred to as endemic because they are not dependent on the existence of a specific political conflict, but rather occur under different regimes and governments. They can, however, be solved, although they certainly require the political will to accept that the value of democracy is measured in terms of what it does for the most vulnerable and least privileged members of each society. Endemic also are the lack of access to justice for vast sectors of society and profound gaps in due process in all types of judicial proceedings. This is no more than an outward sign of the greater problem of social, economic and political exclusion that characterizes our times.Top of page

IV. A Model of Democracy That Will
Effectively Protect Human Rights

This brief inventory of the shortcomings of our democracies today leads us to think of an ideal, but nonetheless attainable, model that can provide general guidelines for the IIHR's activities.

a. The protection of human rights is more complete in a democracy than it is under other systems, provided these principles are respected. This is so because elections themselves do not guarantee the exercise of rights; our history is full of examples of violations of human rights under elected regimes. For the effective exercise of rights, the following minimum conditions must exist:

  1. Institutions for protection that are transparent and accountable to petitioners, the public and the law (administration of justice and security forces, and others created more recently, such as the ombudsman). In granting the victims of abuses an effective remedy, States comply with their duty to guarantee;

  2. A culture of observance of rights, characterized by the legitimacy of constant monitoring by civil society, and by the capability of state institutions to provide a response, especially those whose principal function is to guarantee the rights of citizens;

  3. Adjustment of domestic legislation to the standards of the international law of human rights;

  4. Access to the supranational system for the protection of rights when national institutions do not respond, and effective adherence to the decisions of the international organs of protection.

b. For us, democracy is above all participation, which, in turn, is the exercise of the fundamental human right to take part in the decisions that affect the society in which we live. We recognize that, for participation to be real, certain political, economic and social conditions that we define as inclusion must exist. If inclusion is to become a reality, democracy must be based on principles aimed at preventing and reversing the phenomena of social exclusion and marginalization present today. Even though what is known as "market" democracy is, no doubt, a type of democracy, in our judgment there must be at least a conscious and deliberate effort, in good faith, to ensure distributive justice, inasmuch as a minimum of social equality is a prerequisite for full participation. Another condition of participation is that power be distributed in such a way that such participation is meaningful. Power must be brought closer to the citizenry and that is why decentralization is important.

c. The protection of human rights must also include economic, social and cultural rights. An intellectual and normative effort is necessary to enable the citizenry to effectively demand their observance. The "justiciability" of economic, social and cultural rights must begin by applying to them the principles of due process and non-discrimination that exist with respect to civil and political rights. In a deeper sense, this type of democracy that we desire leads to a profound redefinition of the functions of the State, that distances us both from the State that believed itself capable of intervening in every aspect of economic and social life and the State that does not deal with the phenomena of inequality and marginalization.

d. According to Robert Dahl, democracy is polyarchy; that is, a system in which power, rather than being concentrated, is distributed among institutions and persons. More than a simple dispersion of power, it is a harmonious and balanced division of same in which the functions inherent to one institution serve as a limit and counterbalance to those of another.

e. According to Schmitter and Karl, an essential aspect of democracy is accountability. For a system to be considered democratic, both the institutions and the persons to whom state functions are entrusted must be subject to different types of control. There must be political control, exercised in different ways by the citizenry. There must also be legal controls, exercised independently by different state institutions. In this way, all state agents are accountable for the way in which they perform the duties entrusted to them. The State that protects rights, whose powers are equitably distributed and whose officials are responsible before the law and to the electorate is a State under the rule of law.

f. Also, civil society must be autonomous vis-à-vis the political structure, at both the state and party levels. For this autonomy to be a reality, it is necessary to protect the right of civil society to organize itself when and as it sees fit, with a sphere of action and under principles not subject to state control or ideological control by anyone. This, of course, entails the unrestricted exercise of the freedom of assembly, but we believe it also represents more than that. An ethical and philosophical posture is required that recognizes the value of free association, whose goal is to defend a cause rather than being "representative," which is a criterion that is applicable to political organization, but not to the independent organization of civil society.

g. Special attention to the needs of certain vulnerable sectors is not only a necessary aspect of inclusion, but strengthens the concept of democracy and human rights by incorporating the perspectives of those sectors. These particular perspectives are not in opposition to the universal nature of human rights; rather, they offer new thoughts on, and add new meaning to, the right in question. Therefore, in democratic societies there must be policies that incorporate the perspective of gender, indigenous peoples, children and other vulnerable or excluded sectors. This means that the classic distinctions between what is public and what is private must be reinterpreted in such a way that the authorities are responsible, for example, for preventing and punishing domestic violence against women and children.Top of page

V. The Mission of the IIHR Today

With this model in mind, the IIHR must find ways to translate the objectives listed in its Statute into concrete programs. In the Statute, the principal objectives of the IIHR are summarized as teaching, promotion and research. The reference to teaching should be understood in the broader sense of education, a concept that accurately defines practically everything the IIHR does at the present time. We understand education in its broadest sense, which includes teaching, but also the advisory services or technical assistance that the IIHR provides to a wide variety of institutions. Technical assistance is education, if such advisory services are provided under an educational approach. This means that we provide services, not as an end in themselves, but rather in the knowledge that the beneficiaries of same will learn from them.

This broad approach to education in human rights was the foundation of several of the programs that, since 1994, have become the programmatic areas that exist within the Institute today. This approach has become the operating philosophy of the IIHR and has made the Institute into an educational institution that, through applied - and comprehensive- teaching, has brought promotion and preventive protection together. This makes the IIHR unique in the region from the time that it created the Education Program in 1984 and the project known as the "NGO Commissions," which was the embryo of the Civil Society Area, in 1985.

An important characteristic of our educational approach is that we adapt our activities to the specific needs of the target population. In other words, in organizing our courses and training events, rather than using standardized formats and methodologies, we do so on the basis of the needs of our beneficiaries. This flexibility gives the IIHR a great comparative advantage, especially because, while allowing for variations in approach, we continue to convey the same coherent message regarding human rights.

At a time when efforts are focused on ensuring full democracy for our countries, comprehensive education becomes doubly important. On the one hand, very little progress can be made on the path to development unless there is renovation, or a revolution, in education. At all levels of political and social life, from children to adolescents in their formative years, there must be an ethical renewal and a modernizing transformation. On the other, the quality of education in rights, and the new methodological schemes and structures applied in same, must be profoundly realistic. The more education in human rights accurately reflects reality, the better the chances are that it will be successful. At presidential summits, attention is often drawn to the need to invest in human capital, as one of the most effective means of achieving sustainable, productive and competitive development. The mandate of the IIHR is in line with this. However, we must evaluate our proposals and methodologies, and educational practices and resources in the area of human rights to determine where we can be competitive in contributing effectively to the consolidation of our democracies. Thus, just as we have had success in the area of human rights education at the primary and secondary levels as well as in non-formal education, we must now contribute to the development of university curricula by designing human rights courses and programs for the higher centers of learning in the hemisphere.

In the more generic sense of the word promotion, there is no doubt that the IIHR complies fully with the mandate of its Statute. In this sense, promotion consists of the dissemination of the principles of human rights. Actually, promotion is not very different from what we have already called education in human rights, an area in which we have truly become specialists. However, it should be noted that, in the area of human rights, the term promotion also has a much more narrow meaning, referring to the progressive development of human rights norms. In this sense, promotion involves activities aimed at proposing new standards, working towards their acceptance and promulgation, either through new instruments or by means of legal decisions (including their incorporation into the domestic legislation of each country). For example, in Nicaragua, during 1996 and 1997, the IIHR participated in a parallel process of reviewing, studying and promulgating two important bodies of judicial laws: the organic law of the judicial branch and that of the prison system. The research and diagnostic of the judicial system and its jails conducted by the IIHR were useful, not only in terms of revising and promulgating them, in accordance with the obligations and the doctrine of human rights, but also of persuading civil society to value the rule of law and provide support in solving the problems of the country’s prison system.

In the area of the international law of human rights, our promotion activities are sporadic. Put more positively, the IIHR is in a position to do much more. For example, we could systematically propose progressive norms for adoption by the inter-American and universal systems. At present, our efforts in this area (except as regards the incorporation of international norms into domestic law) are case-specific, not systematic.

With respect to education as well as to promotion, our objective must be to retain a characteristic of the IIHR that has been its greatest success throughout these years: its capacity to serve as a bridge and facilitator of dialogue among the authorities and civil society of each of our countries. This contribution of the IIHR to the development of human rights is unique and irreplaceable and therefore must be reiterated and reinforced.

As for research, the IIHR does relatively little, and what it generates is used in its training activities. We occasionally produce a volume that is the result of courses or seminars we offer, but we do not have a research program per se or encourage our staff to conduct scientific research, even in those areas in which they have the necessary expertise. We have infrastructure and tools for research, such as our Documentation Center and the Library that we share with the Inter-American Court, as well our periodic publications, which are a natural vehicle for scientific debate and the dissemination of information. Some of our colleagues question the wisdom of viewing ourselves as a research center for two reasons. First, we offer comparative advantages as a center for promotion (in the broad sense referred to above). Therefore, purely speculative research would be a distraction unless it were organized and applied to promotion and preventive protection; that is, directly linked to the current challenges of human rights (citizen insecurity, corruption, private violence, prison violence). Secondly, it is less costly to conduct research as we do now, by hiring consultants when the need arises (2).

Our current attitude toward research means that opportunities are lost and talents that already exist among our staff are wasted. Also, we must include the latest research findings in the education activities we carry out in order to keep them up-to-date and ensure that our message is consistent. The model of democracy and human rights described briefly in the preceding paragraphs requires serious and rigorous research if it is to be applied to specific situations. Of course, the idea is not to promote research for the sake of research, but rather a kind of "applied science," i.e. science applied to the problems of democracy and human rights in our countries today. This "applied science" does not mean that we do not engage in some theoretical research, since our researchers cannot contribute effectively to resolving specific problems without an adequate knowledge of the theoretical framework of democracy and human rights. In this way, the IIHR’s end product would be reflected not only in the holding of courses and seminars on topics agreed upon with others, but also in a contribution to the development of original thinking in our region on the great problems we face in this field.

The programmatic areas into which the IIHR is divided are fairly successful in meeting current needs, vis-à-vis the model outlined above, which underscores an important characteristic of the IIHR: its ability to adapt to changing circumstances and take on new responsibilities as the need arises. Even so, it is important from time to time to conduct a systematic examination of how well the internal organization of the Institute enables it to meet the needs of the moment. Without entering into great detail, we can identify certain tasks that are carried out successfully even though they are not clearly assigned to a specific area. For example, in addressing the future of the inter-American system of protection, a task force has been set up composed of members of the Board of Directors, as well as a small team in the Executive Directorate. In other words, the IIHR is working intensively on this topic, but it has no "institutional home" within the current organizational structure. Another example is our work in the area of economic, social and cultural rights, and in the promotion of an international criminal court. These tasks are carried out on an ad hoc basis, with the participation of the Executive Directorate and other staff members. It is necessary to think of an organizational structure that better reflects these functions of the IIHR, and which makes them part of the Institute’s objectives, programs and mission.

In the early years of its existence, the IIHR adopted this approach in conducting research on the following topics: constitutional protection, penal systems, groups of human rights, secondary education and human rights curricula, legislation on indigenous peoples, forms of intolerance and religious discrimination, and democratization in South America (1982-1985).Top of page

VI. Conclusion

During the sixteen years of the IIHR’s interdisciplinary course, which can be said to be the core activity of the Institute, we have undergone several phases of growth and evolutionary transition. We believe that 1992 marked the end of a long period in which our principal educational approach focused heavily on promoting preventive protection through teaching. In May 1992, the leadership of the IIHR set a new course when it convened a meeting of the chiefs of the armed forces of Central America, which, until a short time before, had been engaged in war and bipolar political conflict. The year 1992 also marked the beginning of a new phase in which education was expected to do more than promote human rights, given the urgent need to protect people. Beginning then, our educational efforts included the strengthening of democratic institutions, especially those whose function is to safeguard the rights of people.

New challenges appear daily, because human rights have a role to play in new social and cultural problems. Fortunately, we are recognized as an authority in this field and as an institution that played an important role in those years characterized by violence and the desecration of democracy in the Americas. The delicate task of reorganizing our internal structure, called for in the Plan of Action, cannot be a one-time effort. It must become a comprehensive, ongoing effort that capitalizes on the advantages of the IIHR. Comprehensive education put us in touch with much of the Americas: nevertheless, the challenge is not to lose sight of our fundamental commitment to the human rights movement, which is becoming more widespread and diverse by the day.

In the years ahead, the IIHR must view its programs as major contributions on different aspects of the ideal model of democracy described above, endeavoring to strike a better balance between education, promotion and research. To do this, it may be necessary to make certain adjustments in the current organizational structure of the IIHR. The decision as to which adjustments are needed should be the result of an internal debate, which is called for as part of the Plan of Action for implementing the results of the evaluation conducted in 1997.

September 1998

La actualización y mantenimiento de este sitio es posible gracias al apoyo de la Agencia Sueca de Cooperación Internacional para el Desarrollo (ASDI), la Embajada Real de Dinamarca, la Real Embajada de Noruega, la Agencia para el Desarrollo Internacional de los Estados Unidos(USAID), la Agencia Canadiense de Desarrollo Internacional y la Embajada del Reino de los Países Bajos. Los aportes para el desarrollo de determinadas secciones se consignan en las páginas web específicas.

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