Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

 

 

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is one of two bodies in the Inter-American system for the promotion and protection of human rights, the other being the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica. The IACHR is based in Washington, D.C. and its mandate is laid down in the American Convention on Human Rights. It represents all of the member countries of the Organization of American States. 

The IACHR provides protection to human rights defenders (HRDs) in the Americas in a variety of ways, including requesting information from States on their situation, issuing press releases, holding public hearings (see below), preparing reports on the situation of defenders and adopting precautionary measures in cases of emergency where the HRD is under serious threat (see below).

Rapporteurs

Each of the 7 members of the IACHR (the commissioners) is a rapporteur who has particular responsibility for a number of countries as well as one or more human rights issues. Human rights violations can be reported directly to them (contact details are at the bottom of each page on the link below).    

There is a Rapporteur for human rights defenders, as well as a number of others which are relevant to women human rights defenders (WHRDs) defending land and environmental rights, including

 See full list of rapporteurs.

Precautionary measures and petitions

Two formal procedures for the protection of HRDs and the rights they defend are precautionary measures for emergency situations and the petition system which is a longer-term process. The IACHR has produced a brochure which provides information on how to apply for them. The form and contact details are the same for both and available here:

  • Precautionary measures -  In emergency situations, where a human rights defender is under serious threat, the IACHR can request that a State adopt precautionary (protection) measures for them.  The state authorities must contact the beneficiaries to agree upon the protection measures for them, members of their organisations and, when applicable, their families. These measures may take a variety of forms, such as physical protection by  police escorts, or political protection through public statements supporting the work of HRDs. The IACHR may also ask the state for measures to ensure that the HRD can continue with her work in defence of human rights. In the case of extremely grave and urgent situations, the IACHR may ask the Inter-American Court to order States to adopt provisional measures to prevent irreparable harm. See brochure for guidance on how to apply for these measures.
    The precautionary measures are an important means of protection for HRDs, and have saved many lives. However, the IACHR has no means of obliging states to implement them, and in some cases states have failed to provide them either adequately or at all.    
  • Petitions - Human rights defenders may also submit to the IACHR petitions (complaints) concerning alleged violations of the Inter-American human rights treaties. (See brochure for the rights covered by these treaties and how to submit a petition when they are violated). If the IACHR decides to accept the petition after an initial evaluation, it investigates the situation and can make recommendations to the State responsible to restore the enjoyment of rights whenever possible, to prevent a recurrence of similar events, to investigate the facts and to make reparations. The IACHR may decide to refer the case to the Inter-American Court. (See Legal Support below).
    As with complaints before UN human rights treaty bodies (see on United Nations page), the IACHR normally requires HRDs to have “exhausted domestic judicial remedies” (that is, taken the case through the courts in their own countries as far as it could go) before they can submit a petition, although there are exceptions.
    The petition system is an important means of calling states to account for human rights violations, and the IACHR and the Inter-American Court have made ground-breaking rulings. It is a long-term process, and it normally takes a number of years before a ruling is made on a case. (See page 26 of “Advocacy before the Inter-American System: A Manual for Attorneys and Advocates” for a flow chart on the different stages of the process and how long each takes).
Public hearings

It is also possible for organisations to present testimony or information to the IACHR on human rights issues that concern them at the IACHR's regular public hearings, which generally take place in Washington DC. At most such hearings, a number of organisations working on the same theme will collaborate and make a joint presentation of their case to the hearing (see Article 66 of the IACHR's Rules of Procedure for more details of how to apply). They are an important means of drawing attention to human rights issues and for calling states publicly to account.

Legal Support

CEJIL (Center for Justice and International Law) was founded to provide greater  access to the Inter-American System for victims of human rights violations. It provides support for individuals and organisations presenting cases to the IACHR, with a particular focus on HRDs at risk and emblematic cases. See also its Pro Bono Guide for a list, by country, of organisations willing to provide free legal advice for representation before the Inter-American System.

The IACHR also operates a Legal Assistance Fund where the person who has submitted a petition and/or the victim does not have the means to meet the expenses of the case, such as the cost of gathering evidence and attendance at hearings of the IACHR.

Guides to the Inter-American System

There are a number of guides, for example: