Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2008


Indiana Law Journal





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The Inter-American system is a combination of human rights norms and supervisory institutions within the Americas. The applicable rules consist primarily of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man ("American Declaration") and the American Convention on Human Rights ("American Convention"). The institutions involved are the organs responsible for supervising compliance with the established rules: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ("the Commission") and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ("the Court"). The system performs supervisory functions basically through country reports adopted by the Commission which describe the overall human rights situation in a country and decisions in individual petitions alleging that internationally protected rights have been violated. Individuals have standing to file petitions only with the Commission, and not the Court. Only the former organ may decide to bring cases to the Court concerning States that have accepted the Court's compulsory jurisdiction, if such State fails to comply within three months with the Commission's recommendations in the underlying case. The political organs of the Organization of American States ("OAS")-the Permanent Council and the General Assembly-also share in the responsibility of guaranteeing compliance with the American Declaration and Convention, as well as with the decisions of the Commission and the Court.

The Inter-American system has progressed through several phases in its development. Three main phases can be identified, although they are not absolutely distinct or separate. During its early years, until roughly the 1980s, the system dealt with dictatorial regimes characterized by mass and gross violations of human rights. Examples of decisions adopted to confront those violations include the first three contested cases decided by the Inter-American Court dealing with forced disappearances in Honduras. A second phase is characterized by the rise of democracies in the hemisphere, as well as attempts to analyze and review the legacies of dictatorial regimes. The Commission and the Court confronted issues including impunity, freedom of expression, and due process, and developed States' obligations under Articles 1.1 and 2 of the American Convention such as duties to investigate and punish those allegedly responsible for human rights violations, and to conform States' domestic legislation to the American Convention. In addition, the adoption of the InterAmerican Democratic Charter at the XXVIII Special Session of the OAS General Assembly on September 11, 2001, acknowledged and emphasized the hemisphere's new political reality. This Charter establishes the right to democracy and condemns member states that abandon this principle. It also strengthens the relationship between democracy and human rights, stating that respect for human rights is an essential element of democracy. This development contributed to the consolidation of the system's legitimacy as a promoter of democracy and fundamental rights and freedoms in the hemisphere.

A third phase, the one in which we live, presents the system with issues of inequality and exclusion, such as poverty. The Western Hemisphere has the most inequitable distribution of wealth in the world. Equally conspiring against democratic values is the situation of vulnerable groups, such as indigenous peoples, women, minorities, and children, who do not fully enjoy human rights. These issues have historically provided, and currently provide, pretexts for authoritarian regimes of different types to present ideological alternatives to democracy and human rights as reflected in the Inter-American system. The Commission and Court's case law has been significant in advancing the protection of fundamental rights and contributing to such protections throughout the different phases of the system's development. This article describes and analyzes three cases that illustrate the three phases of the Inter-American system's development, provide elements to better understand that system, and assist in analyzing and evaluating its future. More specifically, this article examines the cases of Veldsquez Rodriguez v. Honduras(1988), analyzing mass and gross violations of human rights involving forced disappearances in the context of authoritarianism and dictatorships; BarriosAltos v. Peru(2001), addressing the legacy of dictatorships, particularly with regard to impunity; and Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua (2001), examining the rights of indigenous peoples, and in a broader sense, the status of vulnerable groups and the need to expand and strengthen democracy through their inclusion. The overall purpose of this article is to analyze the Inter-American system of human rights and identify key challenges for the future.



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