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Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Established 22 May 1979 (1979-05-22)
Country The Americas
Location San José, Costa Rica
Authorized by American Convention on Human Rights
Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Judge term length Six years
Number of positions Seven
Website Official Website
Currently Diego García Sayán
Since 2004
Currently Manuel E. Ventura Robles
Since 2012

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is an autonomous judicial institution based in the city of Americas.


  • Purpose and functions 1
    • Adjudicatory function 1.1
      • Written phase 1.1.1
      • Oral phase 1.1.2
    • Advisory function 1.2
  • Criticisms 2
  • Composition 3
    • Current Judges 3.1
    • Former Presidents of the Court 3.2
    • Former members of the Court 3.3
  • Notable cases heard by the Court 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Purpose and functions

The Organization of American States established the Court in 1979 to enforce and interpret the provisions of the American Convention on Human Rights. Its two main functions are thus adjudicatory and advisory. Under the former, it hears and rules on the specific cases of human rights violations referred to it. Under the latter, it issues opinions on matters of legal interpretation brought to its attention by other OAS bodies or member states.

Adjudicatory function

The adjudicatory function requires the Court to rule on cases brought before it in which a state party to the Convention, and thus has accepted its jurisdiction, is accused of a human rights violation.

In addition to ratifying the Convention, a state party must voluntarily submit to the Court's jurisdiction for it to be competent to hear a case involving that state. Acceptance of contentious jurisdiction can be given on a blanket basis – to date, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela have done so[1] – or, alternatively, a state can agree to abide by the Court's jurisdiction in a specific, individual case.

Trinidad and Tobago originally signed the Convention on 28 May 1991 but suspended its ratification on 26 May 1998 (effective 26 May 1999) over the death penalty issue. In 1999, under President Alberto Fujimori, Peru announced it was withdrawing its acceptance of the Court's jurisdiction. This decision was reversed by the transitional government of Valentín Paniagua in 2001.

The United States signed but never ratified the Convention.

Under the Convention, cases can be referred to the Court by either the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or a state party. In contrast to the European human rights system, individual citizens of the OAS member states are not allowed to take cases directly to the Court.

The following conditions must be met:

  • Individuals who believe that their rights have been violated must first lodge a complaint with the Commission and have that body rule on the admissibility of the claim.
  • If the case is ruled admissible and the state deemed at fault, the Commission will generally serve the state with a list of recommendations to make amends for the violation.
  • Only if the state fails to abide by these recommendations, or if the Commission decides that the case is of particular importance or legal interest, will the case be referred to the Court.
  • The presentation of a case before the Court can therefore be considered a measure of last resort, taken only after the Commission has failed to resolve the matter in a noncontentious fashion.

Proceedings before the Court are divided into written and oral phases.

Written phase

In the written phase, the case application is filed, indicating the facts of the case, the plaintiffs, the evidence and witnesses the applicant plans to present at trial, and the claims for redress and costs. If the application is ruled admissible by the Court's secretary, notice thereof is served on the judges, the state or the Commission (depending on who lodged the application), the victims or their next-of-kin, the other member states, and OAS headquarters.

For 30 days following notification, any of the parties in the case may submit a brief containing preliminary objections to the application. If it deems necessary, the Court can convene a hearing to deal with the preliminary objections. Otherwise, in the interests of procedural economy, it can deal with the parties' preliminary objections and the merits of the case at the same hearing.

Within 60 days following notification, the respondent must supply a written answer to the application, stating whether it accepts or disputes the facts and claims it contains.

Once this answer has been submitted, any of the parties in the case may request the Court president's permission to lodge additional pleadings prior to the commencement of the oral phase.

Oral phase

The president sets the date for the start of oral proceedings, for which the Court is considered quorate with the presence of five judges.

During the oral phase, the judges may ask any question they see fit of any of the persons appearing before them. Witnesses, expert witnesses, and other persons admitted to the proceedings may, at the president's discretion, be questioned by the representatives of the Commission or the state, or by the victims, their next-of-kin, or their agents, as applicable. The president is permitted to rule on the relevance of questions asked and to excuse the person asked the question from replying, unless overruled by the Court.

After hearing the witnesses and experts and analyzing the evidence presented, the Court issues its judgment. Its deliberations are conducted in private and, once the judgment has been adopted, it is notified to all the parties involved. If the merits judgment does not cover the applicable reparations for the case, they must be determined at a separate hearing or through some other procedure as decided on by the Court.

The reparations the Court orders can be both monetary and nonmonetary in nature. The most direct form of redress are cash compensation payments extended to the victims or their next-of-kin. However, the state can also be required to grant benefits in kind, to offer public recognition of its responsibility, to take steps to prevent similar violations occurring in the future, and other forms of nonmonetary compensation.

For example, in its November 2001 judgment[2] in the Barrios Altos case – dealing with the massacre in Lima, Peru, of 15 people at the hands of the state-sponsored Colina Group death squad in November 1991 – the Court ordered payments of US$175,000 for the four survivors and for the next-of-kin of the murdered victims and a payment of $250,000 for the family of one of the victims. It also required Peru:

  • to grant the victims' families free health care and various forms of educational support, including scholarships and supplies of school uniforms, equipment, and books;
  • to repeal two controversial amnesty laws;
  • to establish the crime of extrajudicial killing in its domestic law;
  • to ratify the International Convention on the Nonapplicability of Statutory Limitations to War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity;
  • to publish the Court's judgment in the national media;
  • to publicly apologize for the incident and to undertake to prevent similar events from recurring in the future;
  • and to erect a memorial monument to the victims of the massacre.

While the Court's decisions admit no appeal, parties can lodge requests for interpretation with the Court secretary within 90 days of judgment being issued. When possible, requests for interpretation are heard by the same panel of judges that ruled on the merits.

Advisory function

The Court's advisory function enables it to respond to consultations submitted by OAS agencies and member states regarding the interpretation of the Convention or other instruments governing human rights in the Americas; it also empowers it to give advice on domestic laws and proposed legislation, and to clarify whether or not they are compatible with the Convention's provisions. This advisory jurisdiction is available to all OAS member states, not only those that have ratified the Convention and accepted the Court's adjudicatory function. The Court's replies to these consultations are published separately from its contentious judgments, as advisory opinions.


The Court's behaviour has also been criticized. Among other issues, some authors have criticized the politization of the Court.[3] Some of the latest criticisms come from Peru [4] and Venezuela.[5] Up to now Trinidad and Tobago is the only State who has withdrawn from the system.[6] Peru tried to do so, but did not follow the appropriate procedure.[7] The last of these criticisms is directed against the Court's decision in the case of the Mapiripán Massacre declaring that some people were murdered with the consent of the Colombian state, many of whom were subsequently found alive.[8]


As stipulated by Chapter VIII of the OAS General Assembly; each judge may be reelected for an additional six-year term.

Unlike the commissioners of the Inter-American Commission, judges are not required to recuse themselves from hearing cases involving their home countries; however no member state may have more than one representative judge serving on the Court at any time. In the event a member state is party to a case as a defendant does not have a representative judge sitting on the Court, the member state is entitled to appoint a judge to the court ad hoc for the case.

After the Convention came into force on 18 July 1978, the first election of judges took place on 22 May 1979. The new Court first convened on 29 June 1979 at the Organization of American States Headquarters in Washington, D.C., United States.

Current Judges

Name State Position Term
Diego García Sayán Peru President 2010-2015
Manuel E. Ventura Robles Costa Rica Vice-President 2010-2015
Alberto Pérez Pérez Uruguay Judge 2010-2016
Eduardo Vio Grossi Chile Judge 2010-2016
Roberto de Figueiredo Caldas Brazil Judge 2013-2018
Humberto Antonio Sierra Porto Colombia Judge 2013-2018
Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor Poisot Mexico Judge 2013-2018

Former Presidents of the Court

Years Country Judge
2008-2009  Chile Cecilia Medina
2004-2007  Mexico Sergio García Ramírez
1999-2003  Brazil Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade
1997-1999  Ecuador Hernán Salgado Pesantes
1994-1997  Mexico Héctor Fix Zamudio
1993-1994  Colombia Rafael Nieto Navia
1990-1993  Mexico Héctor Fix Zamudio
1989-1990  Uruguay Héctor Gros Espiell
1987-1989  Colombia Rafael Nieto Navia
1985-1987  United States Thomas Buergenthal
1983-1985  Venezuela Pedro Nikken
1981-1983  Honduras Carlos Roberto Reina
1979-1981  Costa Rica Rodolfo E. Piza Escalante

Former members of the Court

Year State Members of the Court President
1979–1981 Colombia César Ordóñez
1979–1985 Venezuela Máximo Cisneros Sánchez
1979–1985 Jamaica Huntley Eugene Munroe
1979–1985 Honduras Carlos Roberto Reina 1981–1983
1979–1989 Costa Rica Rodolfo E. Piza Escalante 1979–1989
1979–1989 Venezuela Pedro Nikken 1983–1985
1979–1991 United States Thomas Buergenthal 1985–1987
1981–1994 Colombia Rafael Nieto Navia 1987–1989, 1993–1994
1985–1989 Honduras Jorge R. Hernández Alcerro
1985–1990 Uruguay Héctor Gros Espiell 1989–1990
1985–1997 Mexico Héctor Fix-Zamudio 1990–1993, 1994–1997
1989–1991 Honduras Policarpo Callejas
1989–1991 Venezuela Orlando Tovar Tamayo
1989–1994 Costa Rica Sonia Picado Sotela
1990–1991 Argentina Julio A. Barberis
1991–1994 Venezuela Asdrúbal Aguiar Aranguren
1991–1997 Nicaragua Alejandro Montiel Argüello
1991–2003 Chile Máximo Pacheco Gómez
1991–2003 Ecuador Hernán Salgado Pesantes 1997–1999
1998–2003 Colombia Carlos Vicente de Roux-Rengifo
1995–2006 Barbados Oliver H. Jackman
1995–2006 Venezuela Alirio Abreu Burelli
1995–2006 Brazil Antônio Augusto Cançado Trindade 1999-2003
2001-2003 Argentina Ricardo Gil Lavedra
2004–2009 Chile Cecilia Medina Quiroga 2008
2004–2009 Mexico Sergio García Ramírez 2004-2007

Notable cases heard by the Court

Case Date Ruling
Caracazo v. Venezuela 11 November 1999 [1]
"The Last Temptation of Christ" (Olmedo-Bustos et al.) v. Chile 5 February 2001 [2]
Barrios Altos v. Peru 14 March 2001 [3]
Myrna Mack Chang v. Guatemala 25 November 2003 [4]
Plan de Sánchez Massacre v. Guatemala 29 April 2004 [5]
Herrera-Ulloa v. Costa Rica 2 July 2004 [6]
Lori Berenson-Mejía v. Peru 25 November 2004 [7]
Moiwana Community v. Suriname 15 June 2005 [8]
"Mapiripán Massacre" v. Colombia 15 September 2005 [9]
Gomes Lund et al. ("Guerrilha do Araguaia") v. Brazil 24 November 2010 [10]
Atala Riffo and daughters v. Chile 24 February 2012 [11]

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^ José Francisco García G. y Sergio Verdugo R., Libertad y Desarrollo, “Radiografía Política al Sistema Interamericano de DD.HH.” (in Spanish)
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^

Further reading

  • T. Buergenthal, R. Norris, D. Shelton, Protecting Human Rights in the Americas. Cases and material, Kehl, N.P Engel Publisher. Verlag, 1995.
  • L. Burgorgue-Larsen, A. Ubeda de Torres, The Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Case law and Commentary, Oxford, OUP, 2011.
  • L. Hennebel, "The Inter-American Court of Human Rights: The Ambassador of Universalism", Quebec Journal of International Law, Special Edition, p. 57, 2011.

External links

  • Inter-American Court of Human Rights
  • IACHR case law and basic documents
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