Under the inter-American system of human rights, if a country does not follow a Commission recommendation, the Commission can decide to send the case to the Court. Decisions by the Court are binding if the state is a signatory to the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. A greater number of cases in the Court implies a state’s lack of cooperation with the Commission, and persistence of a case on the Court’s dockets implies the same with the Court.
Like layers of fossilized earth, the accumulation of cases in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights tells the story of the evolution of human rights in the Americas. Unfortunately, in some instances, it also tells the story of devolution. In countries such as Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Guatemala, and El Salvador, the bulk of cases involving military trials, disappearances and torture stem from the 1980s and 1990s, the era of civil wars, military dictatorships, and—shortly after their democratic transitions—unaccountable militaries. To be sure, cases of impunity for abuse by the armed forces and the police remain, a vestige of the past but increasingly tied to insecurity and narcotics trafficking today.
At the same time, a growing number of cases involving new-generation rights are making it to the Court, such as discrimination or violation of LGBT rights in Chile and Colombia or of indigenous rights in Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, and Panama. Similarly, new cases concerning judicial independence and efficiency have come to the Court in recent years, from countries such as Colombia, Ecuador (three), Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela (two).
It is in these cases that we see a troubling devolution of human rights. Ecuador and Venezuela both have a number of pending cases before the Court concerning the rule of law and judicial independence, as well as cases of threats and violence against journalists and human rights activists. More worrisome still are the decisions by both Venezuela and the Dominican Republic to refuse to recognize the Court, detailed here, effectively denying citizens in those countries their last recourse for the protection of their human rights.
Starting in 2001 the workers of Radio Caracas TV (RCTV), a media channel with 50 years of history in Venezuela and a vocal opponent of President Chávez, were subjected to threats and harassment; some had even been shot. In 2007 the Venezuelan government suspended RCTV’s license and replaced the channel with a new one almost overnight. The owners and workers of RCTV petitioned the Inter-American Commission, claiming a violation of freedom of expression. In 2013, after the Commission’s recommendations for reinstatement of the license were ignored, the Commission forwarded the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2015 the Court repeated the Commission’s recommendation, ruling that the Venezuelan government had violated the rights of freedom of expression, and ordering that RCTV’s license be reinstated and that the government pay reparations.
Due to an earlier case (Diaz Peña v. Venezuela), in 2012 Venezuela had already formally withdrawn from the Court’s—and any international organization’s—jurisdiction over Venezuelan institutions. However, despite Venezuelan objections, the Court continued to have jurisdiction over alleged violations that took place during the years prior to the withdrawal, including the revocation of the RCTV license and harassment of the workers.
In a ruling issued on August 28, 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights determined the Dominican government had violated due process and the rights of Dominican citizens of Haitian descent. At issue was a judicial decision that stripped descendants of Haitian immigrants of citizenship if they lacked paperwork, even if they had been born in the Dominican Republic and had been in the country for multiple generations. According to the Court, the Dominican government had violated the right of jus soli, or citizenship based on the place of birth—a right guaranteed even in Dominican law.
The Dominican government rejected the ruling, as it had previous recommendations and rulings by the Commission and the Court on the same topic. To seal the state’s lack of accountability to the inter-American system on the matter, on November 4, 2014, the Dominican Constitutional Court decided that in 1999, despite depositing a document with the OAS secretary-general accepting the jurisdiction of the Court, the Dominican legislature had never fully ratified membership in the Inter-American Court, and was not bound by its decisions. The legislature’s vote was especially cynical given that the Dominican state had recognized previous rulings by the Inter-American Court.