Press Release

IACHR Concludes First Two Stages of its Program for Overcoming Procedural Backlog with Outstanding Results

October 29, 2019

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) presented a new progress report on the results achieved through its program for overcoming procedural backlog, after the completion of the first two stages. These stages were implemented to comply with the strategic objective of contributing to the development of a more effective, accessible inter-American justice system to provide comprehensive reparation for victims as part of the IACHR Strategic Plan 2017–2021.

During its 60th anniversary year, the IACHR noted how important the petition and case system is to its mandate and how significant it has been in promoting and protecting human rights in the Americas at both the individual, collective and structural levels. The IACHR’s reports on cases and judgments from the Inter-American Court (IA Court) have provided concrete reparation for victims, promoted constitutional reforms and changes to jurisprudence; and have represented a source of hope that victims of human rights violations will see justice done and receive redress. Since the inception of the IACHR, this mandate which began with the requests of information from States and then became part of the processing of individual cases, has been promoted by States, in their support for the organization The IACHR was the first international body to process individual petitions without this power having first been granted by a human rights treaty. The tools developed by the IACHR were officially recognized by the Statute of 1965; thereafter were included in its Rules of Procedure on May 2, 1967, and further enshrined in the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969.

The protection and defense system, which includes the system of petitions, cases, and precautionary measures, is a fundamental tool for the IACHR and all people living in the Americas. It is a source of pride for the continent, and its objectivity, seriousness, consistency, and legal standards have earned it international acclaim. Given the importance of its role and the large procedural backlog that has built up since the 1990s, the IACHR has prioritized a program to address and reduce this. After a consultation process that involved more than 500 individuals and 300 organizations, the IACHR approved its Strategic Plan 2017–2021, which includes five strategic objectives. Strengthening the system of petitions, cases, friendly settlements, and precautionary measures was identified as the first of these objectives, and the first program in the plan has been the Special Program to Reduce Procedural Backlog.

To implement this program, the IACHR Executive Secretariat has allocated significant resources over the last two years to substantially modify the way it organizes its work, namely by making human resource management more efficient and strategic, changing the management and technological tools being used, and generating pilot management models, among other initiatives, which are being implemented in two stages:

Stage 1:

  1. Assistant Executive Secretariat focusing exclusively on petitions, cases, and friendly solutions.
  2. Significant increase in staff.
  3. Increased job stability for existing staff.
  4. Creation of Precautionary Measures Section.
  5. Creation of Processing Unit.
  6. Creation of a working group to provide support for the process of overcoming procedural backlog, made up of commissioners Esmeralda Arosemena, Joel Hernández, Francisco Eguiguren, Luis Ernesto Vargas, and the executive secretary, Paulo Abrão, who chaired the consultations held in June 2018 in order to launch the second phase of measures.

Since May 2018, the Executive Secretary Paulo Abrão took over the function of the previously vacant position of Assistant Executive Secretariat for Petitions, Cases, and Friendly Solutions, and has overseen the transition process and the reorganization of the Executive Secretariat with a view to making even greater progress in overcoming procedural backlog, as per the IACHR’s mandate; as was noted in a press release dated May 5, 2018.

Stage 2:

  1. Reassign the most experienced professionals to the petition and case system, particularly the admissibility and merits sections.
  2. Create a special team, as a taskforce for overcoming procedural backlog at the initial assessment stage.
  3. Apply an archiving policy to reduce the acceptable inactivity period for parties from four to three years, before the archiving warning is sent and to archive cases at the merits stage if the requesting party does not submit additional observations in accordance with provisions (a) and (b) of Article 42.1 of the Rules of Procedure. The petition or case will be archived when the IACHR does not have the information it needs to reach a decision despite making efforts to obtain this information.
  4. Reduce the number of requests for observations at the admissibility and merits stages.
  5. Implement a pilot decision-making plan during the admissibility stage based on model reports on similar topics.
  6. Continue to aggregate cases that involve similar parties, events, or patterns, always guaranteeing full respect for parties’ rights to defense and equality.
  7. Continue applying the deactivation policy.
  8. Continue implementing the policy of advance or per saltum petition analysis, particularly regarding cases in which a decision could demonstrably remedy serious structural circumstances that have an impact on the enjoyment of human rights, or other situations in which the passage of time may render the decision useless.
  9. Update the process management IT system to add new functions that will facilitate internal work processes, transparency, and effectiveness.
    Today, the IACHR is pleased to announce the results of these first two stages in the program for overcoming procedural backlog.

Creation of a special group for overcoming procedural backlog at the initial assessment stage

This group was created in September 2018 and is made up of a group of experienced specialists who are acting as a taskforce evaluating all petitions. The  group is addressing 8,295 pending petitions. In its first year of operations, since being implemented in September 2018, the Initial Assessment Section has dealt with 78% of these 8,295 petitions, which were distributed as follows: 985 petitions received before 2016; 283 in 2016; 1232 in 2017; and 1185 in 2018. The section has also analyzed 2748 subsequent communications received as part of petitions and have decided not to open proceedings.

In 2019, the Initial Assessment Section analyzed 4,254 pending cases that were at the initial stage in the procedural process and were received in 2017 or earlier. This represents considerable progress on tackling procedural backlog at this stage in the process. It should also be noted that in 2018 the IACHR received 2,998 petitions, the highest number in a single year.

Resolution 1/19 and Annex: Resolution 1/19, which was passed by the IACHR during its 173rd Period of Sessions, regulates and clarifies the procedure for requesting that a petition be re-examined. Of the 8,295 petitions mentioned above, 2,753 were requests for a new initial review after petitioners were informed of the decision to dismiss the petition. The taskforce examined all of these petitions and decided to permanently reject 2,405 of them and to re-examine 348 in the first half of 2020.

Notifications that petitions are being opened for processing: Another of the IACHR’s long-standing challenges is the time taken to notify both parties of the decision that a petition has been opened for processing. So far in 2019, notifications of 516 decisions to open proceedings have been issued and it is expected that the total number for the year will surpass the record set in 2016, when 576 decisions were reached.

Resolution 1/16 was studied in detail by the IACHR and was identified as the “reasoned resolution” required by the Rules of Procedure for deferring the treatment of admissibility until the merits of cases were debated and decided on. This would only apply to cases in a specific procedural situation consistent with the circumstances established in the Rules of Procedures as being exceptional grounds warranting such treatment. Specifically, Resolution 1/16 indicates that these assumptions are based on the need to implement decisive measures to reduce procedural backlog and thus ensure that the passing of time does not prevent the IACHR’s decisions from having a useful effect nor does it prevent the IACHR from acting quicker with matters that are connected to a precautionary measure, where there is a risk of imminent harm.

Resolution 1/16 was issued as part of the effort to combat procedural backlog in a transparent fashion. The measure has enabled a significant number of cases to be analyzed, without the need to draft, translate, consult on, and debate two separate reports in cases that are in need of a timely decision because they meet the conditions set out in the resolution.

The IACHR acknowledges that making progress on these cases at a procedural stage places a greater burden on states in terms of the observations they must present for merits reports. To address this situation, the IACHR decided to implement the resolution gradually. Consequently, the 2016 Resolution is being implemented as follows: 116 cases in 2017, 326 cases in 2018 (197 of which were from before 2006, according to the conditions set out in the resolution), and 12 to date in 2019.

Archives: the IACHR has been reducing the permissible period of inactivity for the petitioning party, which has gone from five years in 2015 to three years in 2018. It also interpreted the petitioning party’s failure to submit additional observations on merits (a requirement set out in article 37.1 of the IACHR Rules of Procedure) as a serious indicator of a lack of interest in processing a case under the terms set out in article 42.1(b) of the Rules of Procedure. Having verified a lack of activity of this sort and notified the petitioning party of a decision to archive the petition, as indicated in article 42.2 of the Rules of Procedure, the IACHR has decided to archive 77 cases in 2016, 109 in 2017, and 152 in 2018. As of September 2019, the IACHR had decided to archive 29 petitions.

Simplifying procedures: In accordance with the Rules of Procedure, the secretariat shall implement the practice of informing parties on one sole occasion at the admissibility and merits stage. The secretariat is in the process of establishing a technology system for implementing this measure.

Drafting report projects in groups for petitions on similar matters: Considerable streamlining was achieved by using model report formats for issues requiring identical types of analysis. The topics in question were the dismissal of charges and human rights violations committed during military dictatorships. Priority was also given to procedural issues relating to the violations of the human rights of women and girls. Another positive achievement was the creation of a Common Law Group in 2019 to prioritize cases concerning member states with common law systems (i.e., English-speaking states), and progress is being made on the analysis of 21 cases that are at the appropriate procedural stage.

Results compared to previous years: in 2016—the year before the Strategic Plan 2017–2021 was implemented—the IACHR approved a total of 45 admissibility reports (43 were found to be admissible and 2 inadmissible); in 2017 this figure rose to 120 reports (114 admissible and 6 inadmissible); in 2018 to 133 (118 admissible and 15 inadmissible); and as of the date of this press release, 89 reports have been approved in 2019 (74 admissible and 15 inadmissible).

The IACHR has been identifying cases at the merits stage dealing with similar issues so as to handle reports in a more standardized fashion. Two examples of this are cases that relate to criminal and adjudicatory due process. The IACHR has also reduced the length of its reports to simplify them while protecting the parties’ right of defense and improving the technical quality of reports. This, in combination with the team’s specialization in work portfolios, has brought about significant results which have led to an increase in the production of merits reports since the Strategic Plan 2017–2021 was adopted.

In 2016, before the Strategic Plan 2017–2021 was adopted, the IACHR approved 16 merits reports; in 2017, this increased by 118% (35 reports) and in 2018, by 168% (43 reports). So far in 2019, the IACHR has approved a total of 47 merits reports, which represents a 193% increase in production since 2016. This increase demonstrates the effectiveness of the measures that were taken and is also the result of an increase in the numbers of staff working at the Cases Section, by 83%, in comparison with August 2016.

Number of cases brought before the Inter-American Court: before the Strategic Plan 2017–2021 was adopted, an average of 16 cases were brought before the IA Court each year. This number increased by 6% in 2017 and by 12% in 2018. So far in 2019, a total of 27 cases have been submitted, which represents a 69% increase since 2016. The IACHR has more than 30 cases in the transition stage, which are reviewed periodically to decide whether they should be referred to the IA Court or published. Over the course of the year, the IACHR has taken part in all of the hearings convened by the IA Court, of which there were over 30, and has filed all the briefs required of it for cases at the preliminary phase and at the sentencing stage.

Friendly settlements: as part of the IACHR efforts to promote the sharing of good practices and the construction of tools to facilitate users’ access to the friendly settlement procedure, a roundtable was held with member states to the OAS to launch a pilot project to expand the friendly settlement mechanism as part of the IACHR strategy to reduce procedural backlog. The IACHR will soon carry out an outreach program to inform civil society organizations of the pilot project and receive input for implementing it.

Promote negotiation processes for friendly settlement agreements: the IACHR has facilitated 73 working meetings and 69 videoconferences so far in 2019, which have helped promote negotiations to reach friendly settlement agreements and their compliance. Some 36 working meetings on friendly settlements were facilitated in 2016, a number that increased to 52 in 2017, and to 40 in 2018. The facilitation of remote formal and informal meetings via videoconferencing is a novel good practice that will make more users access the friendly settlement mechanism. The use of videoconferencing was only introduced with the IACHR Strategic Plan 2017–2019. A total of 142 spaces for dialogue were opened in 2018 as part of different negotiation and follow-up processes for friendly settlements, which is a record achievement for the petition and case system. As part of these promotion efforts, the IACHR provided technical advice on 11 matters, which enabled progress to be made on determining the respective courses of action. Likewise, the IACHR made four successful working visits on friendly settlements to Argentina, Uruguay, and Mexico between April and August 2019.

Other notable achievements include the signing and execution of three friendly settlement agreements, for cases 12.961A, Bolívar Salgado Welban and others; 12.961C, Marcial Coello Medina and others; and 12.961D, Jorge Enrique Valladares Argueñal and others, approved through Friendly Settlement Reports numbers  101, 105, and 104 of 2019, respectively. Another noteworthy achievement is the fact that a record number of friendly settlement agreements were approved by the IACHR in 2019. To date, 14 reports approving friendly settlement agreements have been issued based on article 49 of the American Convention. This broke the existing IACHR record. Some 8 approval reports for friendly settlement agreements were issued in 2016, 5 in 2017, and 6 in 2018. There has been full compliance with 8 of the 14 agreements published in 2019.

In summary, over the course of two years, the IACHR Assistant Executive Secretariat for the System of Cases, Petitions, and Friendly Settlements has been strengthened through the inclusion of at least 21 new staff. This is the most significant personnel increase in the history of the Case System. The estimated annual cost of personnel in the area stood at US$2,816,600 in 2016 but has now risen to US$4,446,100; a 58% increase. Part of this increase includes changes to the job descriptions of Case System team members. The total costs of maintaining the Case System now also covers translation services, participation in IA Court sessions (travel expenses for team members and expert advisors), printing expenses, and upkeep of the IT system.

The IACHR deems that all measures to overcome procedural backlog must be interpreted in line with the aim of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of responses to victims of human rights violations. To this end, after implementing the first two stages in the program, the IACHR has decided to maintain a regular six-month review and assessment of measures announced and implemented.

The changes and improvements in the efficiency of the IACHR’s work are partly due to the doubling of the budget assigned to it by the OAS. It is a matter of public knowledge that the doubling of the regular fund budget does not imply a doubling of the overall IACHR financial budget, which is why the Commission still requires voluntary contributions to operate.

The president of the IACHR, Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, said “the transformations that were spearheaded by the executive secretary Paulo Abrão himself, who took over the running of the Assistant Executive Secretariat for Petitions and Cases in 2018, are a source of satisfaction and hope for us. We now have clear, measurable goals and, most importantly, have achieved visible, concrete results. The new IACHR administrative structure has had a major impact on its response capacity. Initiatives to tackle procedural backlog need to be articulated with follow-up on recommendations. Strengthening follow-up actions is fundamental if we are to provide a comprehensive response to the increase in demand.”

At the same time, the program to strengthen the friendly settlement program that is set out in the Strategic Plan should play a key role in tackling procedural backlog. “We need to promote greater use of the friendly settlement mechanism. Effective justice is swift and capable of generating appropriate legal responses that are tailored to each specific case in the light of current standards. In connection with this, we are inviting the public to contribute to the Friendly Settlement Pilot Plan,” - first vice president, Commissioner Joel Hernández.

The IACHR’s responses should include all of its mandates and tools for protection in a comprehensive fashion, such as technical cooperation and monitoring activities to ensure that inter-American standards and recommendations are fully implemented. In support of this, Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren has said “Raising awareness of the system, clarifying its protocols, and specifying the criteria for processing petitions may help to reduce the number of manifestly unfounded petitions the IACHR receives, which generate a great deal of work for it. Strengthening institutions and government policies on human rights helps to improve prevention and generate structural solutions for a future in which there are fewer human rights violations”.

Commissioner Luis Ernesto Vargas drew attention to the importance of looking to comparable examples of countries that have successfully tackled procedural backlog “[m]any countries and even other international protection human rights systems are experiencing similar challenges. In addition to increasing human resources, which is clearly limited by finances, the IACHR is in the process of designing a new IT system to facilitate access to the IASHR.”

In the words of the IACHR executive secretary, Paulo Abrão, “the IACHR has a unique mechanism for protecting human rights in the Americas, which is the system of petitions, cases, and friendly settlements. I am extremely grateful for the commitment of all the people who are part of the petitions and cases team, who have achieved record results through their hard work and dedication. This process will continue now that a new assistant executive secretary for petitions and cases has been appointed: Marisol Blanchard Vera, who will bring to this priority IACHR mandate more than 20 years’ experience in the inter-American system.”

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. 278/19