What is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?

Instructor: Charlotte Bunch

Charlotte has been teaching secondary education for five years. She has a bachelor's degree in Secondary Education and a master's degree in Curriculum and Instruction.

Human rights are guaranteed to so many people across the world. Explore how the Inter-American Court of Human Rights functions, the history behind its creation, and the criticisms that still face the Court today.

Human Rights and the International Community

Can you imagine being taken from your home with no notice or being told why? Perhaps you wrote an article about the leader of your nation, and you were then placed in jail indefinitely? What if you voted for a new leader of your country and you were never heard from again? These are all scenarios that have occurred throughout the world, and because of international agreements on human rights, these actions are no longer legal in many places. Today, we are going to uncover what human rights are and how a Court attempts to protect these rights.

Human Rights are considered the activities, conditions, and freedoms all humans are entitled to. This includes civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. These might be citizens voicing their opinion about an elected official, members of a society voting, and even children having accesses to equal education. Governments enforce policies that are necessary to protect human rights, and they also have the ability to threaten human rights as well. Below is a basic chart of the organization of the international human rights organization:

International Network Chart

The Organization of American States (OAS) is one the world's oldest regional organizations that is part of the international human rights network. The OAS includes 35 independent states of the Americas. It is the main political, judicial, and social government in the Western Hemisphere. The OAS is the reason the institutions of the Inter-American System were created. The Inter-American System is responsible for checking and guaranteeing that the 35 countries that are members of the OAS are guaranteeing human rights. Within the Inter-American system there are two basic bodies: a Commission and a Court.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Now that we have some basic understanding of the structure of the human rights organization in the western hemisphere, let's explore the Court further. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is the judicial portion of the Inter-American human rights system, and it has more limited functions than the Commission. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights' main purpose is to monitor if member states are complying with and defending human rights in the Americas. The Commission is in charge of sending cases to the court.

The Court may only decide cases that have been brought against member states of the OAS that have accepted the power of the Court. There are 23 OAS Member States that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, with 20 who have accepted the Court's power. Below is a chart containing the 20 countries (notice the United States is not involved, we will get to this later):

Argentina Barbados Bolivia Brazil
Chile Columbia Costa Rica Dominican Republic
Ecuador El Salvador Guatemala Haiti
Honduras Mexico Nicaragua Panama
Paraguay Peru Suriname Uruguay

For cases that are within the court's power, the Court is able to order member states to make compensation payments to victims of human rights violations and make member states take other steps to correct violations. These other steps might include the country acknowledging they violated individuals' rights, initiating criminal proceedings in the country that violated persons rights, and/or making changes to local laws.

The Court is located in San José, Costa Rica, and is composed of seven judges. Judges are elected by the member states through a secret ballot and by a vote from the majority of the OAS General Assembly. Each judge is elected for six-year terms and can be re-elected once. Potential judges are proposed by member states of the OAS and must then be voted on by the General Assembly. The Court meets for one to three weeks at a time, around four times a year.

History of the Court

The Inter-American human rights system developed out of the International Union of American Republics created in 1890. This was then renewed at the end of WWII with the creation of the OAS. OAS countries approved the American Declaration of Rights and Duties of the person in May of 1948. The American Declaration was the very first document on international human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, created by the United Nations, was created a few months after.

To protect these rights, the American Convention on Human Rights created the Commission and the Court of Human Rights. The Commission was created in 1959 and began working in 1960. However, the Inter-American Court took a bit longer. In November of 1969 the American Convention on Human Rights was signed. This did not go into effect until 1978, and with this, the Court was created. The member countries then elected the lawyers who would become the first judges of the Court. On June 29th and 30th of 1979, the Court held its first hearing in Washington, D.C.; it later moved to San José, Costa Rica on September 3, 1979.

President Jimmy Carter, and his peacekeeping goals surrounding U.S. foreign policy, was a major driving force in the creation of the Human Rights Convention. President Carter petitioned the surrounding American nations to ratify the Convention. While President Carter signed the American Convention on behalf of the U.S., the U.S. Senate never consented to the ratification. The U.S. has never ratified the American Convention, so the U.S. is not bound by the agreement or jurisdiction of the Commission and Court. This means that the U.S. does not have to follow any decision that is reached by either group. We will discuss this later when we look at the criticisms of the Court.

Court Case Examples

From unjustified arrests, to government sponsored shootings, and then to indigenous people's land rights, the Court hears and makes decisions on a wide array of cases. Below are only three examples of the decisions the Court has made:

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