Currently, there exist three regional, treaty-based systems for the adjudication and reparation of human rights violations committed against individuals: the Inter-American, European, and African. The three regional systems were each established under the auspices of a larger intergovernmental organization for regional cooperation: the Organization of American States (OAS), Council of Europe, and African Union, respectively. The organs of these regional systems also engage in the promotion of human rights through activities such as thematic hearings, country visits, and reporting on human rights practices of concern.
Two other regional human rights bodies in the Middle East and Southeast Asia – the newly-created Arab Human Rights Committee (a League of Arab States body) and ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights - have more limited mandates and do not decide individual complaints.
In the Americas, Africa and Europe, the key feature of each system is a judicial or quasi-judicial decision-making body (or bodies) responsible for receiving complaints of alleged human rights violations and determining States’ international responsibility. These are, respectively, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; the European Court of Human Rights (and defunct European Commission of Human Rights) and European Committee of Social Rights; and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (and the to-be-established African Court of Justice and Human Rights, whose protocol has been ratified by only 3 States). The nature and duties of each system’s organs, as well as the norms they interpret and apply, are established in regional treaties.
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 under the community’s trade agreement or other 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.
The competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights extends throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Commission may decide contentious cases against all 35 OAS Member States under the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, and against the 23 States which have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights. The Court, conversely, may only examine contentious cases against States which have both ratified the American Convention and recognized the Inter-American Court’s jurisdiction (currently 20 States).
The European Court of Human Rights has jurisdiction over complaints against all 47 Council of Europe Member States, mandatory parties to the European Convention on Human Rights.
The European Committee of Social Rights monitors compliance of Council of Europe Member States that have ratified the European Social Charter (43 States), and may decide complaints against those States that have chosen to accept the Committee’s collective complaints procedures (currently 15 States).
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights may decide complaints against all 53 Member States of the African Union, all signatories to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has jurisdiction to give advisory opinions, and to decide individual complaints against the 7 States that have accepted its jurisdiction.
Under the regional systems, only States may be held accountable for human rights violations – most basically because each system was created on the basis of a regional intergovernmental agreement establishing specific obligations of signatory States – a minimum code of conduct for States in the region. In other words, States have agreed to abide by certain standards in its actions and to ensure the enjoyment of certain guarantees by those within its jurisdiction, thereby establishing individual rights vis-a-vis the State. Thus, States may be held accountable for a particular violation when it is attributable to the action of State agents, to those acting with the knowledge and acquiescence of State agents, or to the State’s failure to protect individuals from the actions of non-State actors (when such a duty may be found due to, for example, knowledge of an specific threat to a protected right).
Further, international human rights adjudication is limited by the principles of subsidiarity and complementarity, meaning that the relevant international decision-making organs are meant neither to supplant nor form part of domestic judicial systems. Rather, those alleging human rights violations before an international tribunal must generally first have exhausted the appropriate, available domestic remedies. Additionally, the international tribunal will not review domestic judicial decisions which are procedurally fair. Generally, then, a State will only be considered internationally responsible for a violation when recourse was unavailable, unduly delayed, or inadequate at the domestic level. If, on the other hand, the violation was remedied by the State (for example, police officers prosecuted for an extrajudicial killing, or a discriminatory practice timely ceased- and the damage repaired as appropriate), there is no violation for which the State may be held internationally responsible.
In addition to individual complaints (contentious cases), the regional human rights systems engage in varying degrees of general human rights monitoring and promotion. Here, the broad role of the Inter-American Commission contrasts sharply with the highly limited role of the European Court. In this vein, the Inter-American Commission and African Commission have established various thematic rapporteurships, and the Council of Europe has established the Commissioner for Human Rights.