Inter-American Human Rights System

The Inter-American System for the protection of human rights is one of the world’s three regional human rights systems, and is responsible for monitoring and ensuring implementation of human rights guarantees in the 35 independent countries of the Americas that are members of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The Inter-American System is composed of two entities: a Commission and a Court. Both bodies can decide individual complaints concerning alleged human rights violations and may issue emergency protective measures when an individual or the subject of a complaint is in immediate risk of irreparable harm. The Commission also engages in a range of human rights monitoring and promotion activities, while the Court may issue advisory opinions on issues pertaining to the interpretation of the Inter-American instruments at the request of an OAS organ or Member State.

The descriptions and resources below describe the System’s structure and functions in greater detail. Visit the News Room for articles on recent developments involving the Inter-American System.

Resources for Advocates

IJRC’s publication, Advocacy before the Inter-American System: Manual for Attorneys and Advocates (2014) provides detailed information on the System, its components, complaints procedure, and decisions (also available in Spanish, Portuguese and Haitian Creole).

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IJRC’s informational video explains the Inter-American System through four animated chapters and interviews with experienced human rights defenders. These videos are also available in SpanishPortuguese, and Haitian Creole language versions, and may be downloaded free of charge on Vimeo or YouTube. To request a copy of the videos and manual on DVD or USB flash drive, please contact IJRC.

Use the Video Guide to follow along:

1. What is the Inter-American System?     2. What Rights Are Protected?               3. How to Present a Petition


4. How the Commission Processes Petitions              5. Insights from Practitioners



Inter-American Commission on Human Rights 

Seat: Washington, DC     Operating Since: 1960

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) addresses human rights conditions and violations in the 35 Member States of the OAS.  It began operating in 1960, observing human rights conditions via on-site visits, and in 1965 was authorized to begin processing specific complaints of human rights violations.

The Commission also holds thematic hearings on specific topical areas of concern, publishes studies and reports, requests the adoption of precautionary measures to protect individuals at risk, and has established several thematic rapporteurships to more closely monitor certain human rights themes or the rights of specific communities in the hemisphere.

Individuals, groups of individuals, and non-governmental organizations recognized in any OAS Member State may submit complaints (“petitions“) concerning alleged violations of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, American Convention on Human Rights, and other regional human rights treaties (listed below).  The Commission receives approximately 1,500 petitions every year.

The Commission’s Statute and Rules of Procedure outline its structure, objectives, and procedures, although some aspects of the day-to-day processing of cases are determined by the legal staff of the Executive Secretariat.

The Commission’s website contains its published cases (reports on admissibility, merits, friendly settlements and decisions to archive), decisions on requests for precautionary measures, and applications to the Inter-American Court, in addition to its annual reports, thematic reports, and country reports.  Webcasts and audio recordings of the hearings held during each Period of Sessions are also available online, categorized thematically here.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Seat: San José, Costa Rica    Operating Since: 1979

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is the judicial organ of the Inter-American human rights system. Its mandate is more limited than that of the Commission because the Court may only decide cases brought against the OAS Member States that have specifically accepted the Court’s contentious jurisdiction and those cases must first be processed by the Commission. Additionally, only States parties and the Commission may refer contentious cases to the Court.

Currently, 23 OAS Member States are States parties to the American Convention on Human Rights, and 20 have opted to accept the Court’s contentious jurisdiction in accordance with Article 62 of the American Convention. The 20 States over which the Court may exercise its contentious jurisdiction are: Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, and Uruguay. Previously, Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela had both accepted the Court’s jurisdiction, but withdrew from that jurisdiction when they denounced the American Convention, in 1998 and 2012, respectively.

The Court began operating in 1979, and soon issued several advisory opinions, but did not begin exercising its contentious jurisdiction until 1986, when the Commission submitted the first contentious case: Velasquez Rodriguez v. Honduras, regarding which the Court issued a judgment on the merits in 1988.

Over the Court’s first several decades in operation, its annual case load has more than doubled; many more States have found themselves before the Court; and the Court has adjudicated a significant range of rights protected by the American Convention and ancillary agreements, from extrajudicial execution and forced disappearance cases, to labor, land, and freedom of expression rights.

The Court’s Statute and Rules of Procedure outline its structure, objectives, and procedures.

View the Court’s judgments, as well as its annual reports and other publications on its website.  Videos of the Court’s hearings are available on its Vimeo page.

Inter-American Institute of Human Rights

The Court and Commission’s human rights promotion work is complemented by the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, an autonomous research and educational institution based in San José, Costa Rica. The Institute (best known by its Spanish acronym “IIDH”) provides free online courses on various human rights topics, publishes numerous books, operates a Digital Library (navigation in Spanish), moderates a discussion listserve, and organizes seminars and workshops for civil society throughout the Americas.  In addition to its online resources, the Institute is open to visitors seeking research assistance, use of the physical library, or to purchase publications.

Inter-American Instruments

The Commission and Court are charged with interpreting and applying a number of regional human rights instruments, which include the:

Additionally, the following documents guide the Court and Commission’s interpretation of the above instruments:

The Special Mechanisms of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights began establishing rapporteurships in 1990. Rapporteurships are special mechanisms dedicated toward protecting and promoting the rights of vulnerable groups of people who have historically faced marginalization. The establishment of rapporteurships allowed the Commission to oversee human rights conditions on topics of particular concern.

As of October 2014, there were eight thematic rapporteurships, one special rapporteurship, and one unit. All of these special mechanisms gather and disseminate information on how different groups of people or different rights are being protected throughout the Organization of American States (OAS) Member States. The special mechanisms use this information to develop reports or recommendations to Member States to help them better protect and promote the human rights of their people, and to guide the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its decisions.

Thematic rapporteurships are usually overseen by one of the Commission’s seven Commissioners, who undertakes his or her duties on a part-time basis. The Unit on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights operates similarly to thematic rapporteurships, and will become a Special Rapporteurship when funding is available to fill the position. The Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression focuses on the freedom of expression, but the Rapporteur is elected to the position, and serves on a full-time basis.

The Commission also designates country rapporteurs from among the seven Commissioners. Each Member State is assigned a country rapporteur, who is responsible for carrying out activities assigned by the Commission within that State. Thematic rapporteurs often collaborate with the country rapporteurs in conducting country visits within the Member States.

The rapporteurships and units are responsible for reporting their activities to the Commission. In turn, the Commission is tasked with presenting Annual Reports to the OAS General Assembly. In these reports, the Commission provides an account of the rapporteurships’ activities, including any reports produced and promotional activities undertaken.

Principal Functions                                                                  

As described in greater detail at the links below, each special mechanism’s capabilities are set forth in its mandate. Generally, rapporteurships and units may:

  • advise the Commission in its processing of individual petitions, cases, and requests for precautionary and provisional measures related to their mandate;
  • undertake country visits to investigate human rights conditions;
  • conduct thematic reports and studies;
  • develop recommendations to Member States;
  • organize seminars, workshops, and specialized meetings;
  • raise awareness of human rights issues;
  • receive information from individuals and civil society;
  • provide the Commission with annual reports on their work; and,
  • contribute to the development of international human rights law.

Creation of Special Mechanisms

The Commission is empowered to create rapporteurships that are dedicated to areas of special interest, in order to promote and protect the human rights of vulnerable groups throughout the Americas. See Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, art. 15. To create a rapporteurship, the majority of the Commission’s members must adopt a resolution. The resolution must delineate the functions and scope of the mandate, provide a description of the activities to be carried out, and an accounting of how these activities will be financed. See id.

Thematic rapporteurships are allocated among the seven Commissioners. The rapporteurships usually are designated during the first session of the Commission, but appointments may be made whenever necessary. Thematic rapporteurs undertake their duties on a part-time basis for a three-year term, which may be renewed once. See id.

To elect a special rapporteur, the Commission must publicize the position, which allows individuals who are not members of the Commission to apply. The Commission then accepts comments from OAS Member States and civil society regarding the final candidates, and ultimately reaches a majority vote to elect the rapporteur. The Commission is required to publish the grounds for its decision. Special rapporteurs have a duty to disclose any potential conflicts of interest they have with the position, and the Commission has the ability to replace a rapporteur for reasonable cause. Special rapporteurs serve for three-year terms in a full-time capacity unless the mandate terminates earlier, and may renew their term once. See id.

Rapporteurships and Units

The following ten rapporteurships and units have been established: