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Human Rights Focus of OAS Talks

Human rights concerns were the focus of talks on the final day of a meeting of the Organization of American States. Some human rights groups say the OAS should do more to address terrorist threats, racism and violence against women. There is also concern that a funding shortfall at the OAS may threaten its human rights activities.

OAS delegates gathered on the third and final day of the General Assembly for an assessment of human rights conditions in the Americas. The president of the group's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Evelio Fernandez, noted several improvements in the region, including measures to prevent violence against women in Jamaica and Chile. And he praised Honduras and Colombia for ratifying a treaty to combat political killings.

But Fernandez told delegates there is still much room for improvement.

He says there are still serious obstacles to human rights in the hemisphere, especially because of weak legal systems in several countries. He adds that poor living conditions prevent residents of many nations from enjoying their social and economic rights. Fernandez also noted ongoing violence by leftist rebels in Colombia, lack of security in Haiti and the jailing of political dissidents in Cuba.

The United States Ambassador to OAS, John Maisto, took note of conditions in Cuba, such as as continued restrictions on freedom of expression and failures in the justice system.

"For 47 years, the people of Cuba have lived under a dictatorship that has shown time and again that beneath its rhetoric there is no respect for the fundamental rights of the individual," said John Maisto.

Maisto also drew comparisons between Cuba and the current government in Venezuela, which frequently has been at odds with Washington. He criticized Caracas for failing to respond to a request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to visit the country.

Commission president Fernandez also called on Venezuela to respond to its request. And he expressed concern that the goal of human rights protection is being threatened by a lack of funding from the OAS.

Fernandez says with a staff of only 17 lawyers, the commission cannot fulfill its mandate to investigate cases, complete reports and visit countries throughout the region.

OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza told delegates that funding problems remain a concern, and officials are studying a possible increase in dues from member states to avoid cuts in OAS activities.

Human rights groups at the OAS meeting have already accused the organization of failing to address their concerns. And Sergio Widder, Latin America representative for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told VOA that possible financial cuts are a serious worry.

He said funding for the commission should not be cut, because its human rights activities are the final guarantee for protections of civil rights and human rights.

Widder said his group was calling on the Organization of American States to create a list of terrorist groups for the Americas, and said the Palestinian group Hamas should be included. He said Venezuela's government has invited Hamas members to visit the South American nation.

He said allowing terrorist group members into Latin America is a threat, and should be opposed before it's too late, especially following terrorist attacks in Argentina, such as the bombing of a Jewish community center in 1994.

The final task for delegates from the 34 nations of the OAS was the signing of a declaration in support of expanding technology and communication systems across the region. The next General Assembly is set to take place in Panama next year.

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