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 protection mechanisms, and is responsible for monitoring and ensuring implementation of human rights guarantees throughout the 35 independent countries of the Americas. The descriptions and resources below detail the System’s mandate and opportunities for advocacy. Visit the News Room for articles on recent developments involving the Inter-American System.
Resources for Advocates
IJRC’s new animated video (available in Spanish here) explains the Inter-American System in five parts. These videos may be downloaded free of charge from IJRC’s Vimeo page. To request a copy of the videos and manual (in English and Spanish) on DVD or USB, contact us.
Download the Video Guide to follow along:
1. What is the Inter-American System?
2. What Rights Are Protected by the Inter-American System?
3. How to Present a Petition or Request for Precautionary Measures
4. How the Commission Processes Petitions and Requests
5. Insights from Practitioners
About the Inter-American System
The Inter-American System is comprised of two entities: a Commission with broad promotion and protection responsibilities; and a Court with authority to decide contentious cases submitted to it by the Commission, authorize provisional measures to protect individuals at risk, and respond to requests by States or other Organization of American States (OAS) organs for advisory opinions on issues pertaining to the interpretation of the Inter-American instruments. The Commission and Court are composed of seven members each, elected for a renewable four- and six-year terms, respectively.
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 cases 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 for the study of particular rights or particular groups in the hemisphere.
Complaints (petitions) may be submitted to the Commission by individuals, groups of individuals, and NGOs recognized in any OAS Member State 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 (recently revised) outline its structure, objectives, and procedures, although many aspects of the day-to-day processing of cases are determined by the legal staff of the Executive Secretariat.
View the Commission’s 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, on its website. Webcasts and audio recordings of the hearings held during each Period of Sessions are available, categorized thematically here.
Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Seat: San José, Costa Rica Operating Since: 1979
The jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is more limited than that of the Commission, as it depends on OAS Member States’ consent in order to hear contentious cases, which pass first through the Commission. Only States Parties and the Commission may refer contentious cases to the Court. Currently, 24 OAS Member States have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, 21 of whom have opted to accept the Court’s contentious jurisdiction in accordance with Article 62 of the American Convention, which provides for the optional declaration accepting as binding the Court’s jurisdiction over matters relating to the Convention, on an unconditional, conditional, or otherwise limited basis.
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, in which case the Court issued a judgment on the merits in 1988.
Over the Court’s 30 years 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 the ‘bread and butter’ extrajudicial execution and disappearance cases, to labor, land, and freedom of expression rights.
View the Court’s judgments (including decisions regarding requests for provisional measures, orders monitoring compliance with judgments, and advisory opinions), 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.
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:
- 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