Emblematic Cases

To date, the Commission has processed more than 12,000 petitions, and the Court has ruled on a diverse range of rights issues throughout the Americas. The political, social and/or legal impact of a number of decisions made by these bodies has proved particularly significant in that they helped highlight abuses of certain governments, overturned local efforts to cover past violations and protect their perpetrators, established new legal precedents, and encouraged judicial and legislative reform at the national level. Below is a (by no means exhaustive) selection of some of these emblematic cases:

Velásquez Rodríguez et al. v. Honduras (1988):

The Court’s first major case concerned the arbitrary detention, torture and disappearance of Manfredo Velásquez Rodríguez, and others, by security forces in Honduras in 1981. The Court found in favour of the claimant and the Honduran government was ordered to pay damages to his next of kin, Angel Manfredo Velásquez-Rodríguez. This was the first time the American Convention on Human Rights had been used to hold government officials to account for the actions of paramilitary organisations with which they were tacitly allied.

Barrios Altos v. Peru (2001):

One of several cases handled by the Court and Commission that helped draw international attention to abuses committed by the former president of Peru, Alberto Fujimori. Proceedings in the Barrios Altos case concerned the murder of a group of 15 people in a neighbourhood of Lima in November 1991. The operation was carried out by Grupo Colina, a clandestine paramilitary organisation under the control of Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori’s spy chief. The Court became involved after the Fujimori government blocked domestic investigations into the event. In 2001, after the president’s fall, the state accepted liability for the incident and was ordered to pay over USD 3m to the surviving victims and the families of the deceased.

Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua (2001):

This case concerned an indigenous group in Nicaragua which sought to prevent a logging firm from carrying out commercial activities on their traditional lands. The Court found against the Nicaragua state, arguing that it had failed to provide sufficient protection, or legal recognition, of the community’s collective land and resource rights. The ruling was significant in that it was the first time an international court had issued a legally binding verdict, backing collective property rights of indigenous peoples over those of the state.

Plan de Sánchez Massacre v. Guatemala (2004):

In 1982, more than 250 people, predominately from the Achi Maya ethnic group, were killed by state and paramilitary forces in the Baja Verapaz province of Guatemala. The massacre occurred in a particularly intense phase of the civil war, in which the government sought to stamp out any last vestiges of resistance. Following the gradual reduction of the military’s influence during the 1990s, survivors and their relatives attempted to pursue the case in Guatemala courts. However, these efforts were repeatedly frustrated by local amnesty laws and other political interventions by those allied to the intellectual authors of the attack. Survivors and victims’ relatives filed a petition before the Commission in 1996, and the case was later referred to the Court. After initially contesting the claim, Guatemala later accepted responsibility. Monetary damages awarded by the court in 2004 totalled US 8m; the largest reparations sum in its history.

Herrera-Ulloa v. Costa Rica (2004):

A freedom of expression case concerning articles published in 1995 in Costa Rican newspaper La Nacion. The journalist, Mauricio Herrera-Ulloa, reproduced allegations from Belgian press reports that implicated a Costa Rican diplomat in a corruption scandal. In 1999 Costa Rican courts found Mr Herrera guilty of four counts of defamation, and ordered him to pay the plaintiff damages and court costs. He was also added to a register of criminals in the country. The Court found the Costa Rican judgement had violated Mr Herrera’s right to freedom of expression and ordered the reversal of the punitive measures. The ruling also highlighted several shortcomings in Costa Rica’s legal procedures and due process, spurring judicial reform in the country.

Gomes Lund et al. v. Brazil (2010):

The first case in which the Court established a ‘right to the truth’. The case was brought by a group of Brazilians who had sought to establish the fate of family members believed killed during a violent clampdown on dissent in the 1970s by the then military government. Efforts to achieve this in domestic courts had proved unsuccessful because of a Supreme Court decision to uphold the country’s amnesty law. In its decision, the Inter-American Court overturned the Brazilian ruling, arguing that the state was obliged, under Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights, to provide the information sought by the complainants.

Further reading:

  • Anaya, J. and Grossman, C. (2002) ‘The Case of Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua: A Step in the International Law of Indigenous Peoples’, Arizona Journal of International and Comparative Law vol.19 no. 1, pp. 1-15.
  • Méndez, J. and Mariezcurrena, J. (1999) ‘Accountability for Past Human Rights Violations: Contributions of the Inter-American Organs of Protection’, Social Justice Vol. 26, No. 4, pp. 84-106.
  • Parra Vera, O. (2012) ‘La jurisprudencia de la Corte Interamericana respecto a la lucha contra la impunidad: algunos avances y debates’, Revista Jurídica de la Universidad de Palermo, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 5-50
  • Tittemore, B. (2005) ‘Ending Impunity in the Americas: The Role of the Inter-American Human Rights System in Advancing Accountability for Serious Crimes Under International Law’, Southwestern Journal of Law & Trade in the  Americas, vol. 12, pp. 429-467.