The inter-American system of human rights is made up of three main bodies, the Organization of American States (OAS), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR or Commission) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court). The inter-American system is the oldest active regional human rights body in the world; its foundational document, the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, was adopted in 1948.1
Because we are interested in states’ actions and responsiveness to human rights issues in this report, we focus on two of the Commission’s duties: the participation of the states in Commission hearings on specific topics of human rights, and the cases the Commission chooses to send on to the Court because the states failed to comply with the Commission’s recommendations. Increasingly, the Commission has also dealt with institutional issues related to the independence of the judicial system, as in the cases of the arbitrary dismissal of Supreme and Constitutional Court justices in Ecuador and the punishment of judges in Honduras for calling the 2009 overthrow of the government a coup.
What we found is that, as with the UN votes, the countries split into two groups: those that respected the authority of the IACHR and engaged with the participants at the hearing, and those that chose not to appear at all or to appear simply to protest interference in their domestic affairs. However, the split was not identical to that at the UNHRC. Continuing to protest any international interference in domestic affairs were Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador. In constrast, Colombia, Costa Rica and Peru all actively engaged at their respective hearings, but Argentina, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras all reversed their proactive support of human rights and either protested the standing of the Commission—and implicitly the inter-American system in general—or chose to not show up at all. The chart on page 9 reveals the cases that the Commission referred to the Court because it believed the state had failed to comply with its recommendations.
Several things stand out in the cases that were sent to the Court from 2010 to 2015, some of which go back 30 or more years. The first is that the region is still dealing with the human rights violations from past decades of dictatorships and civil wars. The second is that impunity for state abuses from that era remains, and abuses continue today in such forms as intimidation, limits on freedom of expression, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial executions. The third is that the pattern of resistance to the Commission’s recommendations continues to be dominated by a few countries, though it is not from the expected countries. Since 2010, Peru has seen the most cases sent to the Court by the Commission regarding its failure to address human rights violations in the country, with 16 cases involving everything from freedom of expression to forced disappearances and arbitrary detentions. Following Peru are Ecuador (12 cases), Guatemala (10 cases) and Argentina (10 cases). Perhaps it’s not surprising then that Ecuador and Argentina were two of the countries leading the charge to reduce the mandate of the IACHR in 2011.
This trend is perhaps the most troubling. Recently, governments have actively begun to resist regional human rights bodies. The reaction against the inter-American system has materialized at all levels, from public accusations that the OAS is a tool of the U.S. to attempts by Ecuador and allies to weaken the Commission. The most serious opposition has been the decision by Venezuela to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the Court entirely and the assertion by the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic that it has never fully been under the authority of the Inter-American Court, since its congress had not approved the document at the OAS that accepted jurisdiction. In both cases, the actions came after Court rulings rebuking those governments.