The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which marks its 60th year in 2019, is a crucial player in efforts to promote and protect human rights in the Americas region. Find out how you can use it to bolster your free expression advocacy.
This is one in a series of IFEX explainers aimed at strengthening the ability of civil society to engage in global spaces for free expression advocacy. To visit the hub page and see the whole set, click here.
1. What is it?
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, or “the Commission”) is an autonomous organ of the Organization of American States (OAS), charged with promoting and protecting human rights in OAS member states. It is headquartered in Washington D.C.
It’s important not to confuse the IACHR – the Commission – with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. We refer to the latter, below, as the Court.
2. Who is involved?
a. The Commissioners
The IACHR is made up of seven Commissioners who are elected by the OAS General Assembly from a list of candidates proposed by the member states. Each of the Commissioners serves a dual-role, as a country rapporteur and a thematic rapporteur. They monitor and follow up on the human rights situation in a specific country or on the protection of a specific right or vulnerable group in the region.
The Commissioners are elected for a four-year term, and may be re-elected for one additional term.
They are not stationed permanently at IACHR headquarters.
Click here to learn more about the current Commissioners and the thematic rapporteurships.
b. The Secretariat and Executive Secretary
The IACHR Secretariat is the administrative unit in charge of carrying out tasks entrusted to it by the Commission. The Secretariat is under the supervision of an Executive Secretary.
The Executive Secretary is elected for four years, and may be re-elected for one additional term.
The Secretariat and Executive Secretary are permanently stationed at the IACHR’s headquarters.
c. IACHR Special Rapporteurs
There are two special rapporteurships: one responsible for freedom of expression and the other for economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.
The Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression can:
- Assist the IACHR in the evaluation of precautionary measures or cases involving freedom of expression concerns;
- Assist the IACHR in visits to OAS member states and conduct their own official country visits
- Provide technical advice to the OAS member states, for example in the adoption of legislation or public policies with a potential impact on freedom of expression.
- Attend academic conferences with key actors to promote the right to freedom of expression and access to public information.
- Prepare thematic reports, as well as an annual report on the situation of freedom of expression in the Americas;
- Issue statements and joint declarations on urgent cases and issues related to freedom of expression.
To learn more about the Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, click here.
The Special Rapporteurs are chosen by the IACHR for a three-year period, renewable for one term. They are supported by a team of specialists. They report to the Commission, and carry out their work in coordination with the Executive Secretariat.
IACHR Special Rapporteurs are permanently stationed at the IACHR’s headquarters.
3. What does the IACHR do?
Congratulations on making it through the descriptions of the people and offices involved! Now we can get into what the IACHR actually does to promote and defend human rights in OAS states. We list the main activities below:
- Receives and investigates individual petitions about human rights violations, in order to determine if a member state is responsible. (For more information on the petition system and associated requirements, click here.)
- Requests that states take precautionary measures in urgent and serious situations in order to prevent irreparable harm to the human rights of a person or group. A request for these measures can be submitted regardless of whether or not there is a pending petition at the Commission. (To learn more about precautionary measures, click here.)
- Brings cases to the Court. If the IACHR determines that the state is responsible for a rights violation, and if the state does not comply with its recommendations to remedy the situation, the IACHR can present the case to the Court.
- May request the Court, in cases of extreme urgency and seriousness, to order provisional measures to prevent irreparable harm to persons or a group.
- Conducts site visits to OAS member states, to observe the human rights situation or investigate a particular issue in a member state in greater depth.
- Publishes reports about a country’s general human rights situation, on specific situations of concern, or on a vulnerable group in the region. (Click here to see the full list of thematic reports. Click here to see the full list of country reports.)
- Requests Advisory Opinions from the Court. The Court is responsible for interpreting the American Convention on Human Rights, and so, in addition to adjudicating contentious cases, the IACHR can request advisory opinions from the Court.
- Requests information from member states regarding measures taken to uphold their obligations to protect human rights.
- Holds public hearings concerning the human rights situation in a country or the region. Public hearings usually involve the participation of state representatives and civil society.
- Participates in or organizes activities with key actors involved in the promotion of human rights, such as Inter-American Court Judges, UN Special Rapporteurs, or the office of the High Commissioner for Human rights. An example is the Forum of the Inter-American Human Rights System.
- Publishes an annual report that provides an overview of the human rights situation in all OAS member states, and a report of their activities during the year. The report is presented to the OAS Permanent Council.
- Publishes press releases about the human right situation in the hemisphere and promote calls such as call for public hearings or present inputs for reports or announce in site visits. (To see examples of press releases, click here.)
4. How can civil society interact with the IACHR?
Ready to engage? There are lots of ways interacting with the IACHR can bolster your advocacy work.
a. Present individual cases. If you find that domestic remedies have been exhausted, and the State is the alleged perpetrator of a violation of a right covered under the American Convention, including freedom of expression, the case can be brought to the IACHR. (To obtain more information on how to present a petition, click here. To present a petition, click here.)
b. Intervene in cases at the Court. Civil society can participate in the proceedings as representatives of the victims and can introduce new information and evidence. Also, Civil society can present an Amicus Curiae brief “at any time during contentious proceedings for up to 15 days following the public hearing.”
c. Request precautionary measures. If you are facing an urgent and serious threat involving your right to freedom of expression (or any other right) with a risk of irreparable harm that the State has failed or refused to address, precautionary measures are available as a last resort. (To find out more about the requirements and how to fill out a request, click here. To present a precautionary measure, click here. For a full list of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR, see here.)
d. Contribute to advisory opinions. When the Court accepts a request for an advisory opinion, this is an opportunity for civil society to present an Amicus Curiae. The call for inputs from civil society is usually published on the Court´s web site.
e. Request public hearings. The IACHR places an open call on its website prior to each session for civil society to apply for a hearing. It may also convene public hearings. The public hearings are broadcast live, on the IACHR’s website. (To find out more about the hearings and upcoming sessions, click here.)
f. Provide information for reports. Civil society input for country, annual and thematic reports is needed to ensure their accuracy and effectiveness. Monitor the IACHR’s communication channels, especially press releases, where calls for contributions or consultations are announced.
g. Comment on candidates for executive secretary and special rapporteurships. As part of the election process, there is an opportunity for civil society to make observations about the candidates. This helps ensure that the person elected is qualified and prepared for the position, and supports a transparent and open election process. The calls to present observations as well as announcements of the positions are published on the IACHR’s web site.
h. Follow up on recommendations issued by the IACHR in its thematic and country reports.
i. Push your state to invite the IACHR and Special Rapporteur on Freedom of expression for an on-site visit.
j. Promote reports and standards developed by the IACHR, the Special Rapporteurs and the Court, and use them in your daily activities.
5. Useful links
Inter-American Court web site: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/index-en.cfm
nter American Commission web site: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/
IACHR distribution list-subscription: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/subscribe.asp
IACHR individual petition system portal: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/portal/
IACHR Courses: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/activities/courses.asp
IACHR press releases: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/media_center/press_releases.asp
American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/mandate/Basics/declaration.asp
American Convention on Human Rights “Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica”: http://www.oas.org/dil/treaties_B-32_American_Convention_on_Human_Rights.htm
ABC The Inter American Court of Human Rights. 2019
Protective measures in the Inter-American Human Rights System. Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada: https://www.lrwc.org/ws/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/Protective-measures-Inter-American-System.pdf