Regional human rights bodies monitor, promote and protect human rights in several geographic regions around the world. In Africa, the Americas, and Europe, the regional human rights systems play a significant role in protecting human rights among their Member States, including by deciding States’ responsibility for violations alleged in complaints submitted by individuals. Additionally, newer bodies with fewer functions monitor human rights conditions in the countries of the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
The regional human rights bodies are:
- African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights
- African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights
- Arab Human Rights Committee
- ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights
- European Court of Human Rights
- European Committee of Social Rights
- Inter-American Court of Human Rights
- Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Note that a number of regional economic integration initiatives, such as the European Union and Economic Community of West African States, have established courts to deal with disputes arising between member States or concerning the community’s laws. These tribunals are not generally considered to be human rights courts because their core mandate is not human rights protection. However, some are authorized to consider individual complaints involving fundamental rights or to directly apply human rights treaties. Please see the page on Courts and Tribunals of Regional Economic Communities for more information.
Each of the regional human rights systems was established under the auspices of an intergovernmental organization composed of Member States; these are: the African Union, Organization of American States, Council of Europe, League of Arab States, and Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Under the regional systems, only States may be held accountable for human rights violations. These systems do not prosecute individuals or decide individuals’ responsibility for human rights violations. By creating and joining regional human rights treaties, States have agreed to respect, protect, and guarantee the enjoyment of specific freedoms for all people within their territories. States may be held accountable for violations of these freedoms that are caused by the State’s laws or policies or by the actions of State agents, as well as for violations that the State or its agents allowed to occur or failed to prevent.
In the Americas, Africa and Europe, the key feature of each system is a complaints mechanism through which individuals can seek justice and reparation for human rights violations committed by a State party. The regional human rights commissions and courts determine whether the State is responsible for the alleged violation and, if so, what the government should do to repair the damage. These bodies can also ask States to take action, or refrain from taking action, to avoid irreparable harm to the complainant; these orders or requests are often referred to as “interim measures” or “provisional measures.”
However, human rights systems are not meant to take the place of national courts. Rather, individuals alleging human rights violations before a regional human rights body must generally first try to resolve the problem using any appropriate remedies that are available at the local or national level. States will only be considered internationally responsible for human rights violations that the government failed to remedy, in a suitable and timely manner, when it had the opportunity to do so.
In addition to deciding individual complaints, the regional human rights systems engage in a range of human rights monitoring and promotion activities. The Inter-American Commission and African Commission, in particular, prepare reports on human rights practices of concern, carry out country visits, and monitor emerging human rights themes and the rights of vulnerable groups by appointing experts (usually called “rapporteurs” or “special rapporteurs”) to focus on those topics. The regional human rights courts typically only receive complaints and do not engage in other monitoring or promotion activities. These courts also contribute to the understanding of regional human rights treaties through “advisory opinions” on the meaning of treaty provisions.
The nature and duties of each regional human rights system, as well as the standards they interpret and apply, are established in regional treaties and in each body’s statute or rules of procedure.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights may decide complaints (“petitions”) against all 35 Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS). Petitions must allege a violation of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man or of the American Convention on Human Rights, provided the State concerned is one of the 23 States that have ratified the Convention. The Commission accepts petitions from individuals, groups of individuals, non-governmental organizations recognized by any OAS Member State, and States. The Commission also issues emergency protection requests (“precautionary measures”), undertakes country visits, publishes reports on human rights conditions, holds public hearings on cases and thematic questions, and monitors priority topics through its rapporteurships.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights may only examine contentious cases against States that have both: ratified the American Convention and recognized the Inter-American Court’s jurisdiction (currently 20 States). Cases must first be decided by the Commission before they can be referred to the Court, either by the State party involved or by the Commission. The Court also has jurisdiction to issue advisory opinions and to order emergency interim measures (“provisional measures”).
The European Court of Human Rights has jurisdiction to decide complaints (“applications”) against all 47 Council of Europe Member States. Individuals, groups of individuals, non-governmental organizations and States may submit applications concerning alleged violations of the European Convention on Human Rights. The European Court may issue emergency protective orders (“interim measures”) when the applicant faces a real risk of serious, irreparable harm.
The European Committee of Social Rights monitors compliance with the European Social Charter among the 43 Council of Europe Member States that are party to the original 1961 Social Charter or the 1996 revised Charter. States submit periodic reports on their implementation of the Charter’s provisions. The Committee may also decide complaints against those States that have chosen to accept the collective complaints procedures (currently 15 States). Complaints may be submitted only by approved employers’ organizations, trade unions and certain non-governmental organizations.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights may decide complaints (“communications”) against all 53 Member States of the African Union, all parties to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. Individuals, organizations and States may submit communications concerning alleged violations of the African Charter. The Commission also reviews States’ reports on their implementation of regional human rights treaties, conducts country visits, monitors priority issues through its rapporteurships and other special mechanisms, and may request “provisional measures” to prevent irreparable harm to victims.
The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has jurisdiction to give advisory opinions, and to decide complaints against the States that have accepted its jurisdiction. The Court accepts complaints from: the African Commission, a State party to a complaint before the Commission, States parties to the Court whose citizen alleges a human rights violation, and African intergovernmental organizations. When accepting the Court’s jurisdiction, a State may also authorize the Court to receive complaints against it from individuals and certain non-governmental organizations. As of August 2014, seven States have authorized such complaints.