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Print this pageGlossary: The Inter-American System of Human Rights




Child Rights International Network

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Admissibility: Complaints alleging that a violation of human rights has occurred must meet a number of criteria which make them acceptable or ‘admissible’ for the Commission to examine. An example of one of these conditions is that the applicant must have made all possible efforts to find a remedy in their national courts. To see all admissibility criteria, see Articles 31 to 34 of the Commission’s Rules of Procedure.

Advisory opinions: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has the power to interpret American States’ human rights obligations to clarify or expand on articles of the American Convention on Human Rights and other human rights treaties relating to the Americas. These interpretations are called Advisory Opinions and they can be requested by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights or by States who are members of the Organisation of American States or other organs of the Organisation of the American States.


Burden of proof:
This is the responsibility to prove the facts of a case to be true. In the Inter-American system, the petitioner bears the initial burden of proving the facts of a case to be true. Any facts that are not challenged by the State where the alleged violations have taken place are presumed to be true.


Commissioners: The Inter-American Commission is made up of seven members, called Commissioners, who are elected for a term of four years.

Contentious jurisdiction: The Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ authority to rule on cases of alleged violations of the American Convention. The Court only has this authority where States parties to the Convention have specifically accepted the contentious jurisdiction of the Court. A State can accept the Court’s authority to rule on cases through a declaration of acceptance when they ratify the Convention or at a later time.


Due process:
Access to remedies and ability to exhaust them in domestic judicial proceedings, usually this means in national courts.


Exhaustion of domestic remedies:
When communications are presented to the Commission, the applicant must show that they have exhausted all means of remedying the situation through domestic courts of law. If domestic remedies have not been exhausted, the victim must show that they have tried to exhaust domestic remedies but failed because: 1) those remedies do not provide for adequate due process; 2) access to those remedies was denied, or; 3) there has been undue delay in the decision on those remedies.

Exclusionary rule: The exclusionary rule, which is established under the Inter-American Convention against Torture, prohibits the use of any statement in legal proceedings which has been extracted by using torture. The American Convention goes further by prohibiting the use of statements elicited by coercive means, which could include inhuman and degrading forms of punishment.


Fourth instance formula:
This establishes that the Commission will not act as a court of appeal for decisions in domestic courts of law unless there is an alleged violation of rights protected by the American Convention. The Commission will not review cases where the petitioner claims that the domestic decision was wrong and but it does not violate any right contained in the Convention. If the petitioner alleges that they have been denied access to remedies within the domestic justice system, or invoking a domestic remedy is dangerous in itself, such cases constitute violations of their rights under the Convention and can be examined.


Any person, group of persons, or other interested parties may request a hearing while their petition is being processed. The Commission may also hold hearings on its own initiative. As hearings are the only opportunity the petitioner has to present oral testimonies and expert evidence, they are usually held as part of a litigation strategy or to mobilise public opinion in support of a case. Hearings can be held to provide more information, determine the admissibility of a case, or to initiate a friendly settlement. Both parties are present at hearings to set out their legal arguments. Hearings at the Commission must be requested in writing 40 days prior to the beginning of a Commission session; hearings at the Court may be presented at any time.


Individual petitions:
Any person, group of persons or non-governmental organisation may present a petition to the Commission alleging violations of the rights protected in the American Convention and/or the American Declaration.

There are two parallel individual complaints systems. The first deals with individual cases alleging violations of rights by States parties to the American Convention. The second deals with cases alleging violations of rights by OAS Member States that have not ratified the Convention; in these cases the Commission applies the American Declaration. The Commission may only refer cases to the Court if the State has ratified the American Convention and recognised the jurisdiction of the Court to rule on such cases.

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights: The Inter-American Commission is one of two bodies in the inter-American system for the promotion and protection of human rights. The Commission has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. Read more here.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights: The Inter-American Court is an autonomous judicial institution. Its purpose is to apply and interpret the American Convention on Human Rights. Read more here

Inter-State complaints: A State party may submit a complaint about violations of the American Convention by another State party, provided that both have accepted the Commission’s jurisdiction over inter-State complaints. States may also submit complaints against other States directly to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, but both parties must have recognised the Court’s authority to rule on such cases.


A decision as to whether a State is or is not in breach of its obligations.


Organisation of American States (OAS): The OAS is a regional body of 35 Member States in North, Central and South America and the Caribbean which aims to strengthen cooperation on democratic values, defend common interests and debate the major issues facing the region. The member countries set policies and goals through the General Assembly, which meets once a year and is made up of the member countries’ Ministers of Foreign Affairs. The Permanent Council is responsible for ongoing activities and is made up of ambassadors appointed by the member States. Only 34 States participate actively as the government of Cuba, a member state, has been suspended from participating since 1962.

On-site visits (in-loco visits): On-site visits are carried out by Commissioners to observe the general human rights situation in a country or investigate a specific situation. In the past, on-site visits were conducted by all seven Commissioners, but these are now usually undertaken by Commissioners who have responsibilities (or ‘Rapporteurships’) relating to the issue or country of concern.


Petitioners bring cases of alleged violations of human rights to the Inter-American Commission. Petitions can be submitted by individuals, groups of people, NGOs. In addition, States parties to the American Convention can allege violations by other States parties, provided both States have recognised the Commission’s jurisdiction over inter-State cases.

Precautionary measures: The Inter-American Commission may request States to adopt precautionary measures in urgent and serious cases to prevent harm to alleged victims, witnesses or others while a case is being processed. Cases which could lead to the irreparable harm to the life or physical integrity of a person include: risk of torture, death threats, etc. Precautionary measures are recommendations rather than binding judicial decisions. A request for precautionary measures does not prejudice the Commission’s final decision on the case.

An example of precautionary measures recommended by the Commission include those made in February 2006 on behalf of the adolescents detained in CAJE (Center for Specialist Juvenile Care) in the city of Brasilia, Brazil. It requested the State to adopt measures to resolve overcrowding in the centre in line with minimum international standards; ensure the safety of detainees by providing security staff who are trained to deal with adolescent detainees; eliminate the use of indefinite detention without access to the yard or the prohibition of family visits as disciplinary measures; separate detainees according to the gravity of the crimes of which they are accused, their age, and in line with each one’s disciplinary record, making allowances for the conflicts which may exist between detainees; publish a list of the causes of the detention of each of the adolescents in the Centre; and ensure access to appropriate and effective judicial remedies, and ensure the legality of the causes that justify their detention.

Provisional measures: If a State fails to take precautionary measures requested by the Commission to protect a victim while their case is being processed, the Commission may ask the Court to order the State to take provisional measures, which have the binding force of a court order. For examples go here


Rules of procedure: The Rules of Procedure of the Commission and the Rules of Procedure of the Court detail the practices and working methods that each has developed.


Six-month rule:
An individual communication must be sent to the Inter-American Commission within six months of the petitioner being informed of a final decision which exhausts all possible domestic remedies.

Special Rapporteurs are appointed to focus on thematic areas of concern. Their activities include making on-site visits and preparing special reports. All Special Rapporteurs are Commissioners except the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression who is an independent expert.

Current thematic mandates include: the rights of children, the rights of women, the rights of migrant workers and their families, detainees and prison inmates, freedom of expression and Afro-descendants and racial discrimination.




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Last updated 19/10/2007 10:04:58

Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.

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