The principle of an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was originally provided for under the OAS charter of 1948, but the Commission itself was not created until 1959. The body held its first meeting in 1960, and conducted its first in-country assessment visit, to the Dominican Republic, the following year. The mandate of the Commission, which is based in Washington DC, was initially fairly narrowly defined. However, this was broadened dramatically in 1965 when the Commission expressly received mandate to examine individual human rights cases. The body became increasingly active from this date. Today it receives approximately 1,500 petitions and holds around 100 hearings annually.
The Commission’s main role is to assess petitions concerning allegations of human rights abuses filed against any of the 35 OAS members. Complaints can be lodged wherever a petitioner feels a state has violated – either through action or omission – any of the civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights set out in the various human rights instruments of the Inter-American System. Petitions may be filed by any individual, group or NGO recognised in at least one OAS member country. They need not be filed directly by the victim in question, or by their relatives. Indeed, third parties are able to submit petitions for alleged abuses even without the victims’ knowledge or consent. A pre-requisite for all cases however, is that petitioners demonstrate that they have first exhausted all domestic legal channels, or that their efforts to do so have been blocked, excessively delayed or suffered some other serious procedural abuse.
Where petitions are deemed valid by the Commission, it will subsequently solicit responses and testimony both from the state concerned and the party or parties bringing the complaint. Wherever possible, it will seek to guide the two sides towards a mutually acceptable resolution (referred to as a “friendly settlement”) of the issue. If such efforts prove unsuccessful, the Commission will release a report of its findings and make recommendations for remedial action on the part of the state involved. It may find that the state should pay compensation to victims for the abuse they suffered, but any such recommendation is generally considered non-binding; the Commission does not have the authority to directly award pecuniary payments itself. That said, if the state does not comply – and various other jurisdictional criteria are met – the Commission can opt to submit the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.
The above functions of the Commission are largely responsive, in that they are carried out only after a petition is received. Aside from this, the Commission also periodically initiates its own investigations into the human rights situation in OAS member states. A number of rapporteurs within the Commission’s structure are responsible for carrying out in-country visits, conducting research, and raising awareness of particular rights issues and areas of concern. These posts oversee a diverse range of subjects, including: freedom of expression, the rights of women, migrant workers and children, human rights defenders, as well as the rights of indigenous and other minority groups. However, the limited funding and personnel available for investigative work frequently limit the capacity of the Commission to develop activities in this area.
- Canton, S. (2001), ‘The Role of the OAS Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression in Promoting Democracy in the Americas’, University of Miami Law Review vol. 56, pp. 307-328.
- Goldman, R. K. (2009) ‘History and Action: The Inter-American Human Rights System and the Role of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’, Human Rights Quarterly vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 856-887.
- Farer, T. (1997) ‘The Rise of the Interamerican Human Rights Regime: No Longer a Unicorn, Not yet an Ox’, Human Rights Quarterly vol. 19, pp. 510-546.