The legal foundation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was established by the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969. However, a series of complications and delays to the Convention’s ratification in the requisite number of countries meant the Court did not actually commence operations until 1979. It was not until later – in the 1988 ruling on Velasquez Rodriguez vs. Honduras – that the Court began to exercise its jurisdiction and use its legal powers in earnest.
The Costa Rica-based Court has a narrower remit than does the Commission. For a case to be heard, it must either be brought by one member state against another or, in the case of non-state actors, have already completed the petition procedure in the Commission. Moreover, the Court has jurisdiction only over the more limited number of OAS members which have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, and which have additionally opted in to the clause accepting its jurisdiction. Currently, just over two-thirds of member states fall into this category. The United States, which has signed but not ratified the Convention, is a notable omission. All OAS members are able to access the Court’s advisory function, through which it responds to requests for guidance on interpreting and applying human rights instruments at the national level.
For those cases which do fall within its remit however, the Court has greater formal powers than does the Commission. Unlike the Commission, the Court is able to order states to make compensation payments to victims of human rights violations. Any such award must be limited to the extent of emotional harm, legal costs and actual damage arising from the violation; the Court cannot order punitive damages. In addition, the institution may order states to take other steps to rectify violations, such as publicly acknowledging their liability for offences, initiating domestic criminal proceedings against perpetrators, and/or making amendments to problematic areas of local legislation.
Cases are heard by a panel of seven judges, who are elected for a six-year term by the OAS General Assembly. While their judgements are theoretically binding, in practice they are often not wholly applied at the national level. Mechanisms to enforce rulings within the system are limited, and compliance with Court judgements is patchy.
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