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).
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 Spanish, Portuguese, 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 have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, 20 of whom 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.
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.
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.
The Commission and Court are charged with interpreting and applying a number of regional human rights instruments, which include the:
- American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man
- American Convention on Human Rights
- Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights “Protocol of San Salvador”
- Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty
- Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture
- Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearance of Persons
- Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women “Convention of Belem do Para”
- Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities
Additionally, the following instruments guide the Court and Commission’s interpretation of the above conventions:
- Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression
- Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas
- Inter-American Democratic Charter
The individual commissioners of the Inter-American Commission, plus one special rapporteur, also oversee human rights conditions on topics of particular concern to the Commission and/or OAS Member States. The following rapporteurships have been established to weigh in on individual cases, contribute to thematic reports, and generally strive to raise awareness on issues of particular concern:
- Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression
- Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women
- Rapporteurship on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families
- Rapporteurship on the Rights of the Child
- Rapporteurship on Human Rights Defenders
- Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples
- Rapporteurship on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty
- Rapporteurship on the Rights of Persons of African Descent and against Racial Discrimination
- Rapporteurship on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Bisexual and Intersex Persons
- Unit on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights