Document Type


Publication Date

January 2009


The American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man (hereinafter: American Declaration) and the American Convention on Human Rights (hereinafter: American Convention), are the two most important instruments of the Inter-American system for the protection and promotion of human rights. Supervision of compliance is carried out by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (hereinafter: the Commission) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (hereinafter: the Court). The Commission fulfills its functions primarily through country reports analyzing the overall human rights situation in a country and through decisions on individual petitions presented by individuals who complain that their internationally protected rights have been violated. Individuals have standing to file petitions only with the Commission, and not the Court. Only the former body (or the affected state) may decide to bring cases to the Court, where the State has accepted the Court's compulsory jurisdiction, and if the State fails to comply within three months with the Commission's recommendations in the underlying case. The main function of the Court is to issue decisions on the petitions before it. In addition, the Court has the ability to render Advisory Opinions interpreting human rights treaties applicable in the Western Hemisphere. The political organs of the Organization of American States (hereinafter: OAS), i.e. the Permanent Council and the General Assembly, are responsible for guaranteeing compliance with the American Declaration and Convention, as well as with the decisions of the Commission and the Court.The stages of development of the Inter-American system can be categorized into three main phases which nevertheless intersect and overlap. The first phase spans from the inception of the Inter-American court until roughly the 1980s, when the system dealt with dictatorial regimes characterized by mass and gross violations ofhuman rights. The first three decisions of the Inter-American Court's contested cases all dealing with forced disappearances in Honduras characterize the way in which these violations were confronted. During the second phase, the Americas experienced a generalized rise of democracy that required rejection of the legacies of dictatorial regimes. The Commission and the Court were confronted with issues such as impunity,freedom of expression, and due process. During this phase the supervisory organs further developed the scope of States' obligations under Articles 1(1) and (2) of the American Convention, especially concerning the duties to investigate and punish those allegedly responsible for human rights violations, and the need to conformStates' domestic legislation to the objectives laid down by the American Convention. On 11 September 2001, in Lima, Peru, the OAS General Assembly at the XXVIII Special Session, recognized the hemisphere's new political reality and adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter. The Charter explicitly establishes democracy as a right, of which respect for fundamental human rights is an indispensable element and allows the organization to adopt sanctions against delinquent states. Currently, the system is in its third phase, where issues of inequality and exclusion, such as poverty, threaten to undermine the expansion of democratic values experienced during the second phase. The Western Hemisphere currently has the least equitable distribution of wealth in the world. Vulnerable groups, such as indigenous people,women, minorities, and children, do not fully enjoy human rights. As these phases have developed, the Commission and Court's case law has been significant in advancing the protection of fundamental rights. This article describes and analyzes three cases that illustrate the development ofthe Inter-American system's phases, describes how that system has confronted gross and systematic human rights violations, and evaluates the future of the Inter-American system, making proposals for its further development. The included cases are: Veldsquez Rodriguez v. Honduras (1988), which concerns mass and gross violations of human rights involving forced disappearances in the context of authoritarianism and dictatorships; Barrios Altos v. Peru (2001), which addresses the legacy of dictatorships, particularly with regard to impunity; and Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni Community v. Nicaragua (2001), which examines the rights of indigenous peoples, the status of vulnerable groups and the need to expand and strengthen democracy through the inclusion of such groups.

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