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Inter-American Court Of Human Rights - Description [2003] PICTRes 18 (20 November 2003)

Inter-American Court Of Human Rights

In a manner similar to the ECHR, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHPR) was established by the 1969 American Convention of Human Rights, concluded under the aegis of the Organization of American States, with the task to ensure, along with the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, the observance of the rights and freedoms protected thereunder.

However, although the institutional structure of the Inter-American and the (old) European systems for the protection of human rights are prima facie very similar, and the normative provisions of the two cardinal treaties correspond in many regards, the environment in which the two systems developed is radically different, accounting for the marked differences between the IACHPR and its European counterpart. Among the member States of the Council of Europe, military and other authoritarian governments have been rare and short-lived, while in Latin America they were almost the norm until well into the 1980s. The major challenges confronting the European system were issues such as the length of pre-trial detention, insufficient redress against decisions by the State bureaucracy, defense of the right of privacy, and protection of human rights in the private sphere. Cases involving a state of emergency have been relatively few. The European Court and the Commission rarely have to deal with completely unresponsive or even antagonistic governments or national systems.

Conversely, in Latin America, states of emergency, in which many rights and freedoms guaranteed under the Inter-American Convention are suspended, have been common; the domestic judiciary has often been extremely weak or tainted by corruption; and practices like torture, disappearances and summary executions have been prevalent. Many of the governments with which the Inter-American institutions need to cooperate have been ambivalent towards those institutions or even outright hostile, as the recent withdrawal by Peru and Trinidad and Tobago of their acceptance of the IACHPR's jurisdiction, sadly bears witness.

The impact of such an uncooperative atmosphere on the work and effectiveness of the Inter-American Court of Justice is substantial. First of all, in the case of the ECHR, States' consent to the Court's jurisdiction is implicit in the ratification of the 1950 European Convention and its relevant protocols. However, in the case of the IACHPR, consent must be given, either unconditionally or on condition of reciprocity, for a specific period or for specific cases, by way of a declaration presented to the Secretary General of the OAS. This significantly restricts access to the Court. Moreover, unlike in the case of the new  ECHR, individuals cannot directly access the IACHPR to seek redress for the violation of their rights. They must file their complaints with the Inter-American Commission, which, in turn, seeks vindication. A narrower and conditional access explains why the IACHPR has been able to render only one-tenth of the judgments given by its European analogue per year. Other handicaps include the fact that the IACHPR consists of only seven judges, irrespective of the number of States that have recognized the jurisdiction of the Court. Unlike their colleagues in Strasbourg, the judges in San Josť, Costa Rica, sit only part-time. Moreover, as a further peculiarity and contrast to the ECHR, although the Court is formally an organ of the Inter-American Convention and not of the OAS, its judges may be nationals of any member State of the OAS, whether or not they are parties to the Convention.

While the ECHR has eventually become a fundamental institution, much cherished by its constituency for fostering democracy and individual's rights and freedoms in Europe, in Latin America the IACHPR is still coping with uneven and erratic support. In 1998, the Inter-American Court's budget was only four percent of that of its European analogue. It had one-tenth of the personnel and no fund to assist claimants to pay the costs of litigation. At the same time, its docket is as crowded as ever.


PICT Data obtained from the Project on International Courts and Tribunals (PICT)


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