Santiago A. Cantón, Director of the Human Rights Program of RFK Human Rights

Santiago Cantón

Santiago A. Canton is the Director of the Human Rights Program of RFK Human Rights and was executive secretary of the InterAmerican Commission of Human Rights and the first Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in the Americas.

Mr Canton was political advisor to President Carter for democratic development programs in Latin-American countries. He graduated in law from Buenos Aires University and has a masters in International Law from the American University’s Washington College of Law.

It is fundamental that the support be focussed fundamentally on the most vulnerable groups in our region, who have historically suffered from structural discrimination, such as women, and above all women of indigenous and African descent


  1. How would you describe the performance of the Latin American economies and societies over the last 25 years? How has the performance of the economy and politics impacted society and human rights in the region?

It is too easy to make the mistake of generalising when you are asked about such an enormous region with such huge differences between the different countries. I hope that this will serve as an initial disclaimer, making it clear that not everything I say can be applicable in the same way to all the countries.

However, the region has enjoyed three decades or more of governments chosen by the votes of their people. This is an extraordinary feat for a region so accustomed to coups d’état.

In just over a century, we have gone through three waves of democracy in the region. The latest one began in the eighties, and has been the most comprehensive and the longest lasting. Although it has its difficulties, it seems unlikely that the tide can be turned back now. We cannot and we should not forget what an enormous achievement this has been.

Nonetheless, despite the progress, the rule of law is far from being what one would hope. Democracy in the ballot box has not consolidated any procedures to strengthen democratic institutions. It has not prevented overly strong presidential systems with strong personality cults from overshadowing and weakening them. Only when we manage to establish such procedures will our democracies stand on a sound footing.

In terms of economics, too, these decades have been very varied. There are enormous differences, for example, if we compare the eighties, the “lost decade” (which, as an aside, I might point out was the best decade, as it was when democracy was recovered) with the first decade of this century, when the economy grew thanks to rising commodity prices.

Yet despite enormous growth in the last ten years, the great majority of Latin-American countries are still highly dependent on international commodity price cycles. Until there is greater industrialisation, this dependency will continue. The sad thing is that it not only affects the economy, but also politics, and society as a whole.

For human rights, the return to democracy, almost by definition, was like coming out into the light after the darkness of the dictators and setting off down the long road towards increased protection of human rights. Along the way, the response from the different states is impossible to generalise. For example, in judging liability for human-rights violations committed under dictatorship, countries like Argentina have made enormous progress, but others, such as El Salvador or Brazil are dragging their feet.

Important progress has also been achieved in the respect and/or protection accorded to certain vulnerable groups; for example, in the right to land for indigenous peoples or equal marriage rights. In human rights the path ahead must always be longer than the path already trod. And true enough, beyond the formal rights of women, the discrimination against women continues to be the biggest challenge we face in the region. Latin America is the worst region in the world for gender-based murders of women, with over 50000 a year. In general terms, although the fight to equality has won formal rights for indigenous and Afro peoples and LGTBs, in practice they continue to suffer discrimination.


  1. What is your reaction to the reports of greater socioeconomic inequality and a slowdown of the economy in Latin America? What were the driving factors behind this? And what consequences might it have?

Economic inequality is a grave problem that not only costs thousands of lives each day, but is also the most serious threat to world stability. There are no words to adequately describe the fact that the 80 richest people on the planet possess the same fortune as the 3.6 billion poorest. This is unsustainable, however many cultural or even bricks-and-mortar walls are built to hide reality.

Our region is the largest contributor to such extreme inequality. Despite the progress stemming from growth during the first decade of 2000, Latin America continues to be the most unequal region in the world, along with Africa. Regional leaders, mainly politicians and business persons, should realise that if democratic structural changes to our democracy are not brought in peaceably, they could be brought in with violence. The main threat to democracy in Latin America is the poverty originating from the enormous gap between the rich and the poor.


  1. What actions do you think the international community should take so that this greater inequality does not jeopardise fundamental rights?

It is clear that the political and economic order that arose after the Second World War needs immediate reform. The United Nations system that dates back to 1945, even with the extraordinary successes it has clocked up over these decades, is not representative of the current world order.

The mainly bipolar world of that time has been replaced by a world in which there is a large number of new actors. Not just states with major weight in the world equilibrium, but also new, non-state actors with enormous quotas of power and the capacity to create and destroy.

The current world order is not prepared to resolve the current conflicts, including those of enormous inequality. We have been reporting on this for decades, but little or nothing has changed, and as the recent Oxfam report warned, the tendency continues towards even greater inequality.

I do not think it is necessary to dig down any further into the relationship between poverty and fundamental rights. Education, health, housing, food, water, etc, are just a few of the many rights that for millions of people are simply an aspiration that will never become reality.


  1. You have sometimes said that the international organisations have lost the spirit that inspired the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. How do you think it could be recovered to drive a common platform for defending and protecting human rights?

True. The spirit of 1948, with the Universal Declaration and the explosion of declarations, conventions and standards of all types to defend and protect human rights, no longer exists. Our region was a pioneer in the defence of human rights. The American Declaration was made prior to the Universal Declaration. But the spirit of Bogota, where the OAS was created and the American Declaration approved, does not exist any longer either.

In my university classes, I speak of the four pillars underpinning any system for protecting human rights and how necessary it is for all of them to work properly. They are: states, regulations, international institutions set up to supervise compliance with the regulations, and civil society, as the main driving force.

It is clear that nowadays many states do not have the will to uphold these rights in practice, however much they may praise the wonders of human rights. Recently, the OAS culminated a process that the member states called the Strengthening of the InterAmerican System of Human Rights. However, after more than two years of discussion, the states did not come up with one single idea to really strengthen those rights. Quite the contrary. Their only aim was to hamper what the InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights was doing, so that it could not go on performing its duties with the independence that was its hallmark in the seventies.

The spirit of 1948 will be difficult to recover, especially under current conditions worldwide, with new security threats reviving the false dichotomy between security and human rights.

It is also necessary for many current leaders in Latin America to stop politicising human rights to score their own political points. Only when we manage to unite all the political, social and economic forces under the banner of human rights will we be closer to calling out the first letter of the word “victory”.


  1. The Fundación has developed a methodology we call Responsible Productive Finance, to offer various financial services (loans, deposits, insurance, payments) through its member entities to support productive activities and projects among the most vulnerable sectors of society, and to offer advice and training. To what degree do you think this kind of microfinance outreach contributes to promoting human rights?

Without a doubt, offering microfinance services focused on responsible development is a very important step throughout our region, to incorporate groups of people into the production system who would otherwise be unable to enter. In RFK we also support such initiatives: Muhammad Yunus, one of the pioneers in modern microfinance, is one of the winners of our human rights prize.

It is fundamental that the support be focussed fundamentally on the most vulnerable groups in our region, who have historically suffered from structural discrimination, such as women, and above all women of indigenous and African descent.


  1. The Fundación also actively tries to encourage the establishment of formal, transparent regulatory frameworks for the entities to work in this sector. We altruistically offer courses on corporate governance in Latin America for organisations within our group and outside it. What influence do you think the implementation of best corporate governance practices in the public and private sector has for the socioeconomic development of a country?

One of the main problems, with a direct impact on human rights, is the high level of corruption in the public and the private sectors of our countries. Having efficient control mechanism to ensure transparent management of public goods is another major challenge for us. Nowadays, several governments in Latin America are caught up in cases of serious corruption.


  1. Do you see any progress in the public policies of the Latin-American states regarding the age-old inequality between men and women? Do you think there are still more violations against the human rights of women?

It is the principal violation of human rights we see in the region. Today an average of 15 women will be murdered in Latin America simply because they are women.

As I said before, we have the highest femicide index in the world, and also the greatest impunity. In a case in which the International Court of Human Rights found against Mexico, known as the “Campo Algodonero” case, the ruling mentioned the need to implement state-wide public policies to bring about social change.

What message was the court putting out to the region? That if we do not bring about profound changes in our society, we will be unable to stop structural discrimination and gender violence, which affect hundreds of millions of women in the region. Sadly, these changes are just not happening.


  1. What memory do you have from each stage of your career?

Infinite memories… impossible to deal with all of them! If I had to sum them up, I would mainly say that I got to know extraordinary people who devote their lives to the search for truth and justice.

The force of thousands of relations of victims of human rights violations, especially mothers, that do not rest for a second and have absolutely no fear of anything, striving to find out the truth about what happened to their children, their loved ones. It is an indescribable force, a truly worthy cause that obliges us to rethink our priorities, values and goals in life.

Another aspect was being able to travel throughout all the countries in Latin America. I got to know our diverse cultures, histories, artistic outpourings, the challenges our peoples face, and that is something that I carry within me forever. These things have been enormously enriching for me.


  1. What was your most difficult professional challenge?

In general terms, sadly I have to say that it was getting any results in human rights. It is not easy. A Manichean way of using nationalism and sovereignty has resurfaced in the governments of the region, which is merely a way of dressing things up to gain electoral credits and at the same time avoid any oversight of their human-rights records. For example, Mexico has recently criticised the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, simply for denouncing the grave situation in Mexico, and has withdrawn any future invitation. Argentina, Ecuador and Brazil, amongst others, have also taken stances that undermine the capacity to supervise human rights compliance.

On a more individual level, my main challenge was to maintain the independence of the InterAmerican Commission of Human Rights against the boundless efforts of the governments and even the General Secretariat of the OAS to influence its decisions. It was a round-the-clock job, 365 days a year. But I left with the conviction that I had managed to do it.


  1. Given your long professional experience, you must have many a tale to tell. Would you like to share any with our readers?

Indeed. Many and of all kinds… happy, sad and moving.

Being surprised by people throwing their arms around me, people who had been unjustly imprisoned, whom we had helped achieve freedom, and whom I had never met personally before. Those embraces are unforgettable.

Being declared a Persona Non Grata in the Dominican Republic for denouncing serious electoral fraud and being abruptly escorted by military officers to the airport to expel me from the country.

All the statements made by the mothers of victims of human-rights violations before the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights, recounting the tragedies they had lived through, and seeing what enormous humility they showed as they simply requested truth and justice.

The shaming of governments defending the indefensible instead of complying with their obligations to make the region fairer and less violent. Luckily, I still get indignant that anyone can defend cases of tortures, rape, executions, disappearances and suchlike.

And finally, a lovely story, also from the Dominican Republic: I was walking around the old part of Santo Domingo with the former President, Jimmy Carter. A Uruguayan citizen (and I am sorry not to remember his name) tried to break through the security detail to give something to President Carter. When I saw that he couldn’t get through, I went up to him and, overcome by emotion, he gave me his card with his name on it and said please would I say thank-you Carter, because it was thanks to him that he was still alive. He said it was his government’s pressure on the dictatorships that enabled him to be set free.

Minutes later, when I told him the story, President Carter, who was also visibly moved, answered: “Saving human lives it exactly what we wanted to do and nobody would believe us.” I think that sums up in a nutshell what it means to work in human rights and this link between victims and activists.


  1. What do you like to do in your free time?

Apart from being with my family, reading history, classical literature, writing, listening to music and spending time with friends, over the last few years I have also started riding a motorbike.


  1. How would you sum up the history of human rights in the region?

Your question brings to mind an historic event, which was in a way a foretaste of things to come in human rights and Latin America.

In 1794, after the French Revolution, the Colombian hero, Antonio Nariño, obtained a copy of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens and decided to translate it into Spanish so that it could be known throughout all corners of the continent.

The new revolutionary ideas seeking for equality among all people were obviously not pleasing to the Colony. The copies of the translation were immediately burned and Nariño was condemned to 10 years of prison in Africa. When he got out, he managed to become Vice President of Colombia and one of the great heroes of independence from Spain.

In the fight for human rights, Latin America continues to lurch between progress and equality on the one hand and retrograde views of the world unmoved by the enormous injustice and inequality that is killing thousands of people each day.