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IACHR Reports Good Results in 2020, the Fourth Year of its Program to Overcome Procedural Backlog

February 1, 2021

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Washington, D.C.- The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented a new report on the results of its Program to Overcome Procedural Backlog. The main goal of the program is to contribute to the development of a more effective and accessible inter-American justice system to provide comprehensive reparation to victims.

Over the past four years, to implement its Strategic Plan 2017–2021, the Commission has adopted various measures, including new work methods, internal reorganization of its Executive Secretariat, and strategic planning in its petition and case system. Some of the most important of these measures involve creating an Assistant Executive Secretariat to deal exclusively with the petition and case system; strengthening the relevant team; strengthening the administrative procedure section; adopting systematic admissibility and merits criteria; adopting blueprints and thematic lines of work; and prioritizing efforts to promote friendly settlements. After four years with this program in force, the Commission issued a new report on this intense and gradual process, to show the processes that have been implemented and the results that have been achieved.

The IACHR stresses the central role that the petition and case system plays in its mandate and how relevant the system has been to promote and protect human rights in the Americas, whether at an individual level, at a group level, or at a structural level. The Inter-American Commission was the first international organization to accept individual petitions, and a considerable backlog built up in its petition and case system over the past 20 years. This backlog attained record levels in terms of the number of petitions in the initial assessment stage (approximately 13,000) and of petitions in the admissibility and merits stages (an average of 3,500). This also entailed delays of more than 25 years in the merits stage and more than 15 years in the admissibility stage; friendly settlement processes that involved more than 20 years of negotiations; and considerable delays in administrative proceedings.

Procedural backlog negatively affects all system users, particularly victims of human rights violations who do not receive timely responses to their petitions. This has been a constant concern for the IACHR, and the Commission made it a priority issue in the first objective of its Strategic Plan 2017–2021.

The Commission knows that the process to overcome procedural backlog is ongoing. Addressing and solving chronic backlog requires further efforts to deepen and brace the measures that have been taken so far, learn the lessons of this process, and adopt decisive additional measures to effectively attain a more effective, timely, and comprehensive inter-American justice system. The process demands joint efforts from all stakeholders in the inter-American system, most crucially Member States. A major portion of these good results are a consequence of the fact that States doubled in 2017 the ordinary budget they granted the inter-American system, and of the specific funds earmarked for this purpose by States Parties to the Organization of American States (OAS) and by Observer States. The Commission further acknowledges the contributions and support of civil society, a structural pillar of the inter-American system without which this progress would not have been possible.

As soon as the budget was doubled, the two institutions in the system committed to pursuing (in a transparent and responsible way) further measures to improve efficiency and ensure that people in the Americas can exercise their human rights.

To follow up on this constant commitment, the IACHR is very happy to report the results of these four years of work to overcome procedural backlog:

Methodology

To solve chronic backlog, the Commission has prioritized cases in chronological order (that is, in the order in which petitions had been filed before the IACHR). This criterion has been strictly enforced to assess petitions, and it has also been granted priority in the admissibility and merits stages, so requests were dealt with by year to resolve all pending petitions and cases. During 2020, the Commission prioritized all cases filed before 2000 to ensure that the maximum backlog in the merits stage was 20 years and all cases filed before 2010 to ensure that the maximum backlog in the admissibility stage was 10 years. Organization—involving both work and files—was prioritized to ensure a clear perspective on the magnitude of this procedural backlog. In this chronological order, the IACHR issued admissibility reports to address situations affecting large numbers of victims, like indigenous communities; cases linked to violations of fundamental human rights, including the rights to life, integrity, and personal liberty; cases linked to the exercise of freedom of expression in the context of electoral campaigns; the right to access pensions and other relevant issues concerning economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights; structural topics affecting the Americas, like respect for due process in sanctions against justice operators; and new topics of current interest, like same-sex marriage and human trafficking. Based on this criterion, historic cases that were very important for the Americas were resolved in the merits stage. These cases—which had not previously been dealt with because the files involved were long and complex—enabled the Commission to address major issues concerning inter-American public order, like efforts to prevent and investigate terrorist attacks and serious human rights violations. This is particularly notable in a year where working conditions have been tough due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, the Commission prioritizes petitions and cases based on various criteria:

First, petitions and cases addressing timely topics or where standards could make a contribution to efforts to address timely topics. These petitions and cases are identified by Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Units (RIRCUs). For example, during 2020, the COVID-19 RIRCU identified issues that led the IACHR to prioritize one case involving conditions at a hospital and one involving access to essential services for a migrant person. Second, the Commission has prioritized petitions and cases dealing with urgent topics, like the application of the death penalty. The Commission has completed preparations for reports on cases that were procedurally ready, and some of these reports are now being drafted. In 2021, the remaining reports will be prioritized, along with cases that are in other procedural stages. Third, the Commission prioritizes petitions and cases that address structural issues in States in the Americas, to support national and international processes. Topics concerning transitional justice, access to justice, legal appeal reviews, and attacks against human rights defenders and social leaders, among others, have been prioritized in this context. Finally, the Commission prioritizes petitions and cases to develop standards on topics that the IACHR considers priorities and are addressed by its thematic rapporteurships. In this context, during 2020, the Commission worked on cases that addressed racial discrimination, the rights of Amazonian peoples, violence against women and girls, international returns of children, discrimination against migrant persons, discrimination against LGBTI persons, freedom of expression, and economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, among others. The Commission has therefore integrated various criteria to address a chronic procedural backlog that it considers unacceptable and at the same time support efforts to address current and structural issues and the need to develop standards.

The Commission continues to develop criteria that will enable it to better address urgent and structural problems in the future.

The Commission adopted a series of new measures beyond those mentioned in its report of October 2019, to build on past achievements and make any changes necessary to improve efficiency:

Initial assessment

The special group created in September 2018 to overcome the backlog in the initial assessment stage, made up of a group of experienced specialists, received 8,295 petitions that were pending assessment, including 2,748 review requests. These files were joined by almost 5,000 further petitions that had been shelved under a previous policy, which kept active within the system petitions where petitioners had not responded to requests for information issued by the IACHR or where the individuals or organizations who had filed the petition simply remained inactive. Dealing with this huge number of files is one of the Initial Assessment Section's priorities for 2021.

This group achieved some of the best results this year. For the first time in decades, the Commission is assessing petitions in real time (that is, petitions are assessed as they are received), and all petitions that were pending review have now been resolved.

To achieve this historic result, the team's very experienced lawyers consistently enforced the criteria that were stated in the Digest of the IACHR on its Admissibility and Competence Criteria and performed a uniform assessment based on those criteria. They also settled a historic debt concerning review requests that had not been addressed and all pending old petitions. They can now deal with petitions in real time.

Further, the IACHR adopted Resolution 1/19 and its Annex to establish better regulated, more transparent procedures to request review of a petition.

Notification of decisions to initiate proceedings: A further historic debt for the Inter-American Commission involved the time that passed since a decision was made to initiate proceedings until both parties were notified of that decision. A lot of effort went into this process, to go from 473 notifications of decisions to initiate proceedings in 2017 to 733 in 2019. During 2020, despite the operational difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, 359 decisions to initiate proceedings were notified to both parties, generally prioritizing the oldest cases in the portfolio (decisions made before 2014) to address chronic backlog in this stage. Given major delays in these notifications, strict criteria to initiate proceedings are set to be adopted in 2021, including the practice of shelving inactive cases in this stage and strengthening the team in charge.

Admissibility: In 2016 (the year before the implementation of the Strategic Plan 2017–2021), the IACHR approved a total of 45 admissibility reports (43 admissible petitions and 2 inadmissible petitions). The number increased to 120 reports (114 admissible petitions and 6 inadmissible petitions) in 2017, to 133 (118 admissible petitions and 15 inadmissible petitions) in 2018, to 152 (129 admissible petitions and 23 inadmissible petitions) in 2019, and to 290 (245 admissible petitions and 45 inadmissible petitions) in 2020.

This year, the Commission almost managed to double the number of reports in this stage. It also created new tools, including simplified report templates, systematic criteria like those held in the Digest, and thematic lines of work. The Commission further adopted a chronological order that enabled it to resolve all petitions filed before 2010, with very few exceptions. The Commission will continue to apply strict criteria to resolve petitions in this stage and to prevent them from building up in the admissibility and merits stages, in keeping with Article 37.3 of its Rules of Procedure.

Merits: The IACHR has now responded to the issues where proceedings had been initiated many years ago and where a decision on merits remained pending due to their volume or other procedural aspects. The Commission has also been busy identifying cases with similar themes to adopt a standardized approach to reports and other measures to address procedural backlog, including the build-up of cases with shared factual and legal aspects. The Commission has sought to shorten and simplify reports, while preserving their technical quality to safeguard the parties' right to a defense. This has delivered major results that are visible in terms of the aspects of inter-American public order that the Commission has addressed, and also in an increased merits report output since the Strategic Plan 2017–2021 went into force.

In 2016, before it adopted its Strategic Plan, the IACHR approved 16 merits reports. In 2017, it increased its output by 118%, to a total of 35 merits reports. By 2018, the accumulated increase was as high as 168% (43 reports). And in 2019, the Commission approved 62 merits reports. In 2020, the Commission approved 67 reports to solve a total of 83 cases. This is equivalent to an increase of more than 400% in the number of reports and 500% in the number of cases (relative to the figures for 2016, before the Strategic Plan was implemented).

Transition: Concerning cases where the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has competent jurisdiction, the IACHR's portfolio in this stage holds 69 cases, a number that will increase once the parties have been notified of the last decisions made in 2020. The IACHR also periodically assesses these cases to decide on whether to take them to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, to grant the State an extension to ensure compliance with the Commission's recommendations, or to publish the relevant report. In 2020, the Commission adopted a total of 175 decisions of this kind. In 2019, and particularly in 2020, the IACHR held more working meetings to brace measures and encourage compliance with its recommendations. A total of 25 working meetings were held in 2020. The Commission also follows up on reports in cases that it has decided not to take to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and to publish reports instead, or in cases where the State has not accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights or is not a party to the American Convention. The IACHR has a portfolio of more than 20 reports in this stage. A total of 11 reports were published as a consequence of follow-up during 2020.

Cases taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: As more merits reports were produced, there was a historic increase in the number of cases that were taken to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the number of cases where the Court has initiated proceedings. The IACHR hopes victims can attain justice and reparation and that the Inter-American Court can address issues concerning inter-American public order that are relevant for the region. In 2016, 16 reports were taken to the Court. This figure increased by 6% in 2017 and by 12% in 2018. In 2019, 32 cases were taken to the court, a record figure equivalent to an increase of almost 400% relative to 2016. When assessing compliance with recommendations held in merits reports and when making decisions on the submission of cases to the Inter-American Court during 2020, the hurdles posed to the parties by the COVID-19 pandemic and the flexibility required for the parties to continue to implement recommendations were both taken into consideration, as was the option of making progress by granting extensions or holding working meetings. In total, 23 cases were taken to the Court in 2020, keeping up the pre-pandemic increase relative to the number of reports submitted before the Strategic Plan was adopted.

Friendly settlements: Strengthening the friendly settlement mechanism has been an important tool to address procedural backlog. The Commission supported processes to negotiate friendly settlement agreements during 2020, by facilitating 68 working meetings and 65 technical meetings and meetings to prepare mediation efforts. The Commission opened up a total of 133 spaces for dialogue in various processes to negotiate and monitor friendly settlement cases and to bring this mechanism closer to users around the Americas. The Virtual Work Program was also successfully launched in 2020, with eight lengthy mediation sessions to facilitate friendly settlement processes. Over the period 2017–2020, the Commission facilitated a total of 408 spaces for dialogue in the context of the friendly settlement mechanism, to achieve the strategic goal of expanding this mechanism.

These efforts to provide active, customized support for friendly settlement processes has fostered negotiations to attain a historic outcome, with 10 agreements signed and 25 agreements approved during 2020. Among other efforts to support friendly settlement negotiations, the Commission also provided technical assistance on four issues and made progress to decide on a course of action on 45 issues, based on Resolution 3/20. Over the period 2017–2020, 40 friendly settlement agreements were signed and 50 agreements were approved.

Concerning the degree of compliance with the provisions and measures stipulated in approved settlements and the implementation and impact of friendly settlement agreements in 2020, the Commission stresses full compliance with 10 friendly settlement agreements concerning Colombia, Chile, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Peru. The Commission further observed progress in the implementation of 148 measures in 59 approved agreements (with 85 reparation measures attaining total compliance, 26 reparation measures attaining substantial partial compliance, and 37 reparation measures attaining partial compliance). Over the period 2018–2020, progress was made in the implementation of 365 reparation measures concerning various friendly settlement agreements that were being monitored (with 230 reparation measures attaining total compliance, 64 reparation measures attaining substantial partial compliance, and 71 reparation measures attaining partial compliance). Of the reparation measures that were implemented, 258 were individual measures and 107 were structural measures. This has helped to achieve the strategic objective of granting victims timely access to the inter-American justice system and to comprehensive reparation.

Finally, given the need to address the chronic backlog in negotiations toward agreements, the Commission adopted Resolution 3/20 on differentiated action to address procedural backlog concerning friendly settlements. In this context, the Commission issued basic guidelines to provide a semi-structured framework for negotiation processes, preserving procedural flexibility while at the same time respecting the timeliness and the voluntary nature that are required of alternative conflict-resolution mechanisms. Some of the objective criteria stated in this resolution include taking into consideration when the petition was filed, whether a friendly settlement agreement has been reached in each case, and when negotiations started, to decide on a course of action for negotiation processes, closing friendly settlement processes where the parties have made no significant advances and/or have failed to establish solid dialogue, and setting specific deadlines to assess progress in various friendly settlement processes. In 2020, 18 new cases entered the friendly settlement mechanism. There are currently 81 cases in the negotiations stage and 71 in the monitoring stage, and they will continue to be actively fostered based on the guidelines put forward in Resolution 3/20.

The progress that has been reported involved, without a doubt, major improvements in systematic procedures, legal consistency, transparency in working methods, standards, and structural situations that are addressed, and above all in the number of victims who have received answers to their petitions and cases within the inter-American system. These figures show commitment and an effective use of resources, particularly during 2020, when the figure has doubled and backlog has been overcome in the initial assessment stage.

However, the backlog is so significant that overcoming it requires specific measures. The Commission is working on the following additional measures, among others:

• Developing a modern case management system that enables an effective use of technology to solve cases. This new system will enable streamlined case management and the development of tools for the IACHR's Executive Secretariat, as well as support for report-writing efforts.
• Documents to ensure systematic standards, like the Digest of the IACHR on its Admissibility and Competence Criteria, and files on decisions held in merits reports (hyperlink), to grant system users easier access to systematic decisions and the tools they need to better argue their case in writing.
• Report templates for specific, recurrent themes and simplified reports. Thematic lines of work.
• Case groups and joint resolution.
• Simplified administrative proceedings on cases, which is essential to prevent an accumulation of information that makes case assessment and solution unnecessarily complex.

"We are very happy and hopeful with the change that has been brought about. We now have clear, measurable goals and, above all, concrete, visible results. The new administrative structure of the IACHR has had a very important impact on the institution's response capacity," said IACHR President Joel Hernández. "The program to strengthen friendly settlements as prescribed by the Strategic Plan will need to play a key role when tackling procedural backlog. Expanding the use of the friendly settlement mechanism needs to be central," Commissioner Hernández added.
Acting Executive Secretary María Claudia Pulido also commented on this issue. "The IACHR's responses need to comprehensively integrate all of the Commission's mandates and protection tools, including activities for monitoring and technical cooperation to promote a comprehensive implementation of recommendations and of Inter-American standards. Publicizing the system, clarifying its protocols, and specifying the processing criteria may help to reduce, for instance, the number of manifestly unfounded petitions, which mean a lot of work for the IACHR.

Strengthening institutions and government public policies regarding human rights helps with prevention and contributes to generating structural solutions to have fewer human rights violations in the future," she said.

For Marisol Blanchard, Assistant Executive Secretary for the petition and case system, "the IACHR has at its disposal a unique mechanism to protect human rights in the region, namely the petition and case system and friendly settlements." "I am grateful for the commitment and very hard work of everyone involved in the petition and case team. They have achieved these historic results with their effort and dedication. We are aware of the fact that we face a huge, decades-old procedural backlog and that solving the almost 3,700 petitions and cases where proceedings have already been initiated is a priority. We are making decisive progress to solve this backlog, which will require support from States and from civil society organizations. We stand before a historic opportunity to do this," Blanchard said.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 019/21