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The problem is impunity

Human rights has been one of the winners in Latin America’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. The regimes that flagrantly violated such rights have disappeared. Arbitrary detentions, torture, illegal executions and disappearances are largely a thing of the past. The human rights abuses that persist today are typically the product of governments that are too weak to enforce the law, not so powerful that they are above the law.

The Inter-American Human Rights Commission, an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States, has a bird’s-eye view of the region’s human rights situation. In recent years, the commission has been receiving some 600 new cases annually for resolution, a sharp rise from previous times. Is this a contradiction? Not according to Jorge Taiana, the commission’s executive secretary. In today’s more open societies, he told participants at a recent gathering at the IDB’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, people are less afraid to take their complaints to regional organizations when they feel that they cannot get justice within their own country.

According to Taiana, the biggest human rights problem today is impunity. People who are agents of the government sometimes violate human rights, and their actions go unpunished. Many of the problems stem from weaknesses in judicial systems that are unable to administer justice, not in the arbitrary and lawless executive branches that were previously the main source of rights violations.

“Reducing impunity is the commission’s top priority,” Taiana told the IDB audience.

While the cases the commission hears concern individuals, they can have larger implications. For example, if the commission receives a large number of police brutality complaints from a certain country, there is probably a problem with the police. Governments should consequently pay attention to cases being brought before the commission, said Taiana.

The countries of Latin America have made notable progress in reforming their economies. They now must take concerted action to implement so-called “second generation” reforms, of which the judiciary is a major priority.

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