The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: 50 Years of Advances and the New Challenges
On August 18, 1959, the Inter-AmerIcan CommIssIon on Human Rights was created in a meeting of ministers of foreign affairs held in
Since its founding, the Commission has not only helped to raise the bar against human rights violators, but focused international attention on abuses committed by repressive regimes, helping to facilitate the region’s transition to democracy. With the adoption of the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, also known as the Pact of San José, Costa Rica, its mission expanded to include normative instruments relating to the death penalty, torture, forced disappearances, violence against women, violations of economic, social and cultural rights, and discrimination against people with disabilities. And in 1979, with the establishment of the Inter -American Court of Human Rights, its mandate was strengthened with a jurisdictional arm.
The Commission’s evolution reflects the changing political realities of the hemisphere. But looking back at the Commission’s impressive record can also help to chart the way forward.
Among its most notable achievements are the 1978 report denouncing human rights violations committed by the Anastasio Somoza regime in Nicaragua and a 1979 report on Argentina that called international attention to systematic and massive abuses in that country, particularly the kidnapping and forced disappearance of thousands of opponents to the military government that ruled from 1976 to 1983. A 1998 site visit to
Such site visits, aimed at documenting and denouncing abuses, as well as the processing of individual petitions from victims of human rights abuses or their families (more than 1,500 such petitions were received in the first eight years), formed the core of the Commission’s initial work. But the gradual strengthening of its mandate allowed it to play a more pro-active role.
During the last 20 years, paralleling the end of most of the region’s armed conflicts and the transition toward elected government, the Commission’s focus shifted to the strengthening of its case system, which provided a vehicle for the resolution of individual human rights complaints. Between 1997 and 2003, the number of petitions increased by 170 per cent. During the last five years alone, the Commission has received more than 7,500 petitions—reflecting the increased centrality of the Inter-American system in protecting individual and collective rights. Together with the Court, it has been instrumental in applying universal human rights standards in the region. The Commission played an important part in dealing with collective conflicts and structural issues of the rule of law.
The case system, strengthened by the establishment of the Court, led to a series of precedent-setting cases that expanded the scope and authority of the Commission and the Inter-American System in ways that could never have been imagined in 1959.
On April 24, 1986, the Commission sent its first two cases to this Court, both concerning
The strengthening of the case system has not only allowed human rights advocates to secure justice for individual petitioners, but to facilitate the structural changes needed to prevent future violations.
In 1992, for example, the Commission concluded that amnesty laws for serious human rights violations committed during the military dictatorships in
In 2005, the Supreme Court of Justice of
In 1994, the Commission expanded the scope of the right to freedom of expression by ruling against criminal contempt and libel laws—a precedent that had profound ripple effects throughout the region in protecting the rights of journalists. The decision arose from a petition filed by Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky, who had been sentenced to jail for having criticized a minister of the Supreme Court. At the time, Argentine law mandated criminal sanctions against anyone that insulted public officials who were lawfully performing their duties. Under an agreement negotiated through the Court, the law was repealed. Soon afterwards, similar contempt laws were stricken from the books in
Another case taken up by the Commission in 2000 resulted in the strengthening of women’s rights in
Another vital tool used by the Commission is the practice of granting precautionary measures. When the Commission is informed of a situation that could lead to serious and immediate human rights violations to an individual or group, it can request that the respective government take immediate protective actions. Since 1980, the Commission has enacted more than 600 such measures. In recent years, it has received between 250 and 350 requests for precautionary measures every year, and has granted fewer than 100 per year. In 2008, the Commission granted 28 precautionary measures. Through these measures, the Commission requested the states to protect the lives of human rights defenders, of indigenous peoples and of persons living with HIV—by providing them with antiretroviral drugs—among others.
Raising public awareness of human rights has become a key part of the Commision’s growing mandate. Since 1990, it has created rapporteurships to draw the attention of governments to emerging issues. Beginning with the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Commission has created Rapporteruships over the last two decades on freedom of speech and on the rights of women, migrant workers, children, persons deprived of liberty, and Afro-descendants.
Toward the Next Generation
The past 50 years have not only left an enviable record of accomplishment, but have created a solid also created a solid legal foundation for the protection of human rights in the region. But now we must build on that foundation to fulfill the promise of our democracies.
The first order of business is to establish universality. All states in the region must ratify the American Convention. Without this, the region’s human rights system will be fundamentally flawed. The countries that have ratified all the system’s tools are few:
Equally critical, the Commission and the Court must retain their independence and autonomy. They must continue to play the supervisory role they have assumed in the region if human rights are to be protected. The continued acceptance of the Commision’s role by individual states, as well as their active participation—and compliance—in Inter-American processes, is crucial.
Although the system was established by governments working together, it was civil society— through the courageous actions of individuals and human rights groups around the continent—served as the engine for its creation. And it was the emerging and energized human rights movement of the 1970s that helped the system to evolve and to strengthen by filing petitions and complaints when all other doors had been closed. Now civil society isplaying a leading role once again in identifying the challenges that threaten to weaken the system. These groups, as well as a new generation of civil society organizations, are bringing petitions on new topics. Issues such as social rights and the right to property may again provide an opportunity to expand the scope and authority of the Inter-American system and the Commission, if it is done with respect for fundamental rights and institutional processes.
Compliance with the Court’s decisions is essential, particularly when decisions require strong action on the part of individual states. The
The growing number of petitions and requests places an additional burden on the Commission’s human and financial resources. To be more effective, the Commission needs a larger budget—which can only be achieved through an increase in contributions from the states of the region.
If these challenges can be addressed, the Commission will be able to extend the vision of its founders and provide justice for those who face discrimination and systematic abuse throughout the region.