Inter- American Human Rights System

In 1948, the Ninth Pan-American Conference established the Organization of American States (OAS). Concurrently, the Ninth Pan-American Conference adopted the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, an instrument similar to, but coming a full seven months before, the Universal Declaration of the United Nations, and setting out the duties as well as the rights of the individual citizen (a throwback, perhaps, to Greco-Roman and medieval natural law theories). Subsequently, in 1959, a meeting of consultation of the American Ministers for Foreign Affairs created, within the framework of the OAS, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has since undertaken important investigative activities concerning human rights in the Americas. Finally, in 1969, the Inter-American Specialized Conference on Human Rights, meeting in San José, Costa Rica, adopted the American Convention on Human Rights, which, among other things, made the existing Inter-American Commission on Human Rights an organ for the Convention's implementation and, to the same end, also established the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which sits in San José. Of the 26 western hemispheric states that so far have signed the Convention, only the United States has yet to ratify it.

Both the substantive law and the procedural arrangements of the American Convention, which entered into force in 1978, are strongly influenced by the UN covenants and the European Convention and its protocols, and they were drafted also with the European Social Charter in mind. Thus, the core structure of the Inter-American human rights system is similar to that of its European counterpart. Some noteworthy differences exist, however, and three stand out in particular.

First, reminiscent of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, the American Convention, unlike the European Convention, details individual duties as well as individual rights. Second, relative to individual applications or petitions, the American Convention reverses the approach taken initially under the European Convention (i.e., prior to its Protocol 11). Whereas Europe once utilized a mandatory interstate and optional individual application procedure, the Americas utilize an optional interstate complaint and mandatory individual petition procedure. Finally, both the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court (but especially the Commission) operate beyond as well as within the framework of the American Convention. The Commission is as much an organ of the OAS Charter as it is of the American Convention, with powers and procedures that differ significantly depending on the source of the Commission's authority, particularly in relation to human rights petitions. The Court, while primarily an organ of the Convention, nonetheless has jurisdiction to interpret human rights provisions of treaties other than the American Convention, including the human rights provisions of the OAS Charter.

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