Document Type


Publication Date

January 1992


Honduran national Manfredo Angel Velasquez Rodriguez was taken to a detention center in Tegucigalpa on September 12, 1981, and was never seen again. He was thirty-five years old when he disappeared, and left a wife and four small children. Without any judicial process he was detained, interrogated and tortured, and then disappeared. A petition concerning the disappearance of Velisquez Rodriguez was filed with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) in October of 1981. On July 29, 1988, an historic day in the fight against governmental human rights abuses in Latin America, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights held that the Government of Honduras was responsible for the disappearance of Manfredo Angel Velfsquez Rodriguez. In this decision, the Court exercised for the first time its compulsory jurisdiction in a contested case and became the first international tribunal to find a State responsible for disappearances. Although the Court is empowered with compulsory jurisdiction under Article 62 of its Convention, prior to this case the Court had only once exercised its compulsory jurisdiction, and then in an uncontested case. The State concerned, Costa Rica, submitted the case against itself, and agreed to be bound by the ruling, but the case was dismissed before a final ruling was reached. Although other OAS member states were accused of resorting to disappearances of political dissidents, Honduras, which had acceded to the Court's binding jurisdiction, was the first state subjected toliability."Disappearance" is a tragic governmental practice developed in the early 1970s by certain Latin American governments which exterminate political dissidents, cover up all evidence of the murder and deny allknowledge of the victims' whereabouts. "[A] 'disappearance' has occurred whenever there are reasonable grounds to believe that a person has been taken into custody by authorities or with their connivance andthe authorities deny that the victim is in custody." In Latin America the term often means: "Seizure of individuals by military, paramilitary or police agents of the state, who secretly murder and dispose of the bodies of their victims, often after torture, always without legal process, and without acknowledgement or admitted responsibility of the state."At approximately the same time that the Commission started investigating the disappearance of Velasquez Rodriguez, the Commission also opened the case of another Honduran national: Jos6 Saul Godinez Cruz. Godinez Cruz was also married and had a child when he was captured on July 22, 1982 by a group of men. Like Velisquez, he was a member of the academic community working at the Julia Zelaya College. He was thirty-two when he was last seen. On January 29, 1989, the Court held that Honduras was also responsible for the disappearance of Saul Godinez Cruz. Honduras was ordered to pay compensation in both cases, an amount which totalled one and a half million lempiras to the family of Velasquez Rodriguez and one million three hundred thousand lempiras to the Godinez Cruz family. These first decisions of the Court were extremely important for the development of the Inter-American system for the protection of human rights.In neither case, however, were the victims' families permitted to select their own legal representative in the proceeding. According to the relevant provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights, individualparties may only choose legal counsel to represent them before the Commission. Once the Commission or a state brings the case before the Court, the Court's statute has been interpreted to allow only the Commission to represent the interests of the victim. This Article will examine the Inter-American system and how the system is impeded by the denial of direct legal representation chosen by the victims or their families. The Article summarizes the Court's decision in the Veldsquez case, which provides a background for discussion of individual participation in proceedings before the Court. After examining the position of individuals in classical international law, the Article evaluates the advisory role given to the victims' lawyers in the Honduran cases. Next, the Article discusses how the experience of the Honduran cases, in which the Commission appointed the victims' lawyers as advisors, exposes procedural weaknesses and demonstrates the need for direct legal representation. Finally, the Article examines the benefits of direct individual participation, and suggests alternative means to increase individual participation in future proceedings before the Court.

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