OAS - Department of Public Information

Protecting Human Rights

The OAS human rights system provides recourse to people in the Americas who have suffered violations of their rights by the state. Its pillars are the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, D.C., and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica. These institutions apply regional law on human rights. 

Despite positive developments in a number of member states, the region continues to face crucial human rights challenges, including political, economic and social crises in several countries. “These problems expose the institutional fragility of the rule of law and the precariousness of the process for strengthening democracy in the hemisphere,” the Commission stated in its 2004 annual report. “Deteriorating economic and social conditions in various countries have provoked mass popular demonstrations that have often been met with excessive use of force by the police, and in many cases, intensified the political instability.” 

Corruption throughout the region “continues to impede the construction of democratic and transparent societies,” and the vast majority of member states have not confronted the causes and consequences of social exclusion and discrimination, the Commission noted. In Latin America and the Caribbean, persistent poverty and inequality, as well as crime and citizen insecurity, also impede the full enjoyment of human rights, according to the report.

Recent Developments 

The OAS member states have repeatedly affirmed their support for the region’s human rights system and called for it to be strengthened. One of the biggest ongoing challenges has been a shortage of financial resources. In October of this year OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza underscored the need for countries to provide more support. “The absence of adequate funding for the mandates given to the Commission and the Inter-American Court endanger the system,” he warned. For his part, Commission President Clare K. Roberts said the prolonged nature of the financial crisis posed a threat to the Commission’s most basic activities, even creating constant uncertainty over whether it can convene its regular sessions. He thanked several member countries and permanent observers that had recently provided support: Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, the United States, Finland, France, Italy, Spain and Sweden, as well as the European Commission.

Despite its financial challenges, the human rights system continues to have a significant impact in the region. During its most recent session,  from October 11 to 28, the Inter-American Commission held more than 50 hearings to consider individual petitions, cases and precautionary measures as well as to examine specific issues and the general human rights situation in member states. In April, the Commission conducted an on-site visit to Haiti, at that country’s invitation, to gather information about the human-rights situation there. It reported that “there is an urgent need for greater action on the part of the international community, and corresponding cooperative efforts by the government of Haiti, to address the most pressing issues of insecurity, deficiencies in the justice system, and fundamental inadequacies in health care, employment, and education.” In July, the Commission reiterated its “grave concern” about escalating violence in Haiti and called on the government, “in coordination with the inter-national community, to implement immediate preventative measures consistent with international human rights standards to quell the violence and restore security in Port-au-Prince and throughout the country.” 

A delegation of the Inter-American Commission also visited Colombia in February 2005 to present its report on the demobilization process there. The Commission expressed its concern in particular about persistent acts of violence and intimidation against civil society, and stressed that any demobilization process “must rest on the legitimacy that can only be generated by agreements consistent with international standards, the end to use of violence and intimidation against the civilian population, respect for the law, justice and reparation for the victims.”

The Commission and the Court 

The inter-American system was built on the foundations of the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Convention, which entered into force in 1978, created the Court and the two-tiered case system in place today. 

One of the Inter-American Commission’s key functions is to consider petitions from individuals who claim that the state has violated  a protected right and that they have been unable to find justice. The Commission brings together the  petitioner and the state to explore a “friendly settlement.” If such an outcome is not possible, the Commission may recommend specific measures to be carried out by the state to remedy the violation. If a state does not follow the recommendations, the Commission has the option to publish its report or take the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, as long as the state involved has accepted the Court’s compulsory jurisdiction. 

In 2001, the rules of procedure for both the Commission and the Court were amended to give victims and their representatives a more direct voice in proceedings and to make it easier for cases to reach the Court. In 2004, the Inter-American Court convened four times, held a record 16 hearings on contested cases and issued 15 decisions. So far this year, the Court has met four times and is scheduled to hold a fifth session from November 14 to December 3. In May, the Court convened a special session in Asunción, Paraguay, marking the first time it had held public hearings away from its headquarters in Costa Rica.  

The Court and Commission have other duties as well. In addition to hearing cases, the Court may exercise its advisory jurisdiction to interpret the American Convention and other human rights treaties in effect in the hemisphere. The Commission, for its part, may conduct an on-site visit to a country, at the invitation of the government, to analyze and report on the status of human rights.  

The Commission also regularly examines human rights issues as they relate to certain topics and has created rapporteurships to focus on these areas. This year, it created a rapporteurship on the rights of persons of African descent and against racial discrimination. Other rapporteurs analyze and report on the rights of children, women, indigenous peoples, migrant workers, prisoners and displaced persons, and on freedom of expression. The Commission also has a special unit on human rights defenders. 

Where Countries Stand 

Under the OAS Charter, all member states are bound by the provisions of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. In addition, the majority of member states have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights and accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court. 

The following countries are parties to the American Convention on Human Rights: Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. 

The following countries are subject to the Inter-American Court’s compulsory jurisdiction: Argentina,
Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela.


Last updated: October 2005