Q & A: The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights


On February 7, 2011, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted Precautionary Measures for the Rapa Nui Nation on Rapa Nui Island (also known as “Easter Island”).  This article provides some background information on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) and precautionary measures granted by the Commission.

What is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights?

The Commission is an independent organ of the Organization of American States (OAS), created by member countries to promote and protect human

rights in the Americas.  Seven commissioners from different member countries lead the Commission; these commissioners are elected by the General Assembly of the OAS.  The Commission also has a permanent staff of lawyers and administrators who assist the commissioners.  This link directs you to a page listing the names of the commissioners and staff of the commission: http://www.cidh.oas.org/personal.eng.htm

The Commission is governed by the main international agreements.  These agreements include the OAS Charter, the American Convention on Human Rights and the Commission’s Statute and Rules of Procedures.  You can access these documents and others here: http://www.cidh.oas.org/Basicos/English/Basic.TOC.htm

What has been the Center’s involvement with the Commission?

The Center has been bringing cases to the Commission on behalf of indigenous peoples since 1979.  The Center brought a case on behalf of the Yanomami against Brazil that year.  The case involved the right of indigenous communities to control development in their territories and the state’s duty to prevent violence and killings of indigenous peoples.  The Center assisted Miskito leaders from Nicaragua to seek aid from the Commission in the 1980s, as well as the Awas Tingni Community to redress the violation of their collective property rights to land in the 1990s.  This work culminated in changes to the Nicaraguan Constitution and the creation of laws that recognized the collective rights of the indigenous peoples to their lands, territories, and natural resources.  Other cases include the case of the Maya of the Toledo District against Belize, and the case of Mary and Carrie Dann against the United States.  Through these cases, the Commission has recognized that the collective human rights of indigenous peoples are protected through the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights.  Today, indigenous peoples in the Americas rely on the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for protection when their rights have been violated.

What does the Commission do?

1)      Issues Precautionary Measures.  The Commission can issue recommendations to a country to take actions to prevent “serious and irreparable harm” to the human rights of individuals or groups.

2)      Processes cases.  These are brought as petitions by individuals and/or groups, including indigenous communities to redress human rights violations.  It often takes the Commission a long time to process each case because of the complexity of the process and the fact that the Commission receives more than a thousand petitions every year.  The Commission can refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights if countries fail to resolve human rights violations found by the Commission.

3)      Publishes reports.  The Commission publishes several reports every year on various topics.    Indeed, it produces reports documenting the general state of human rights in member countries and “special reports” examining particular situations in a specific country. http://www.cidh.oas.org/pais.eng.htm  For example, the Commission recently released a report on Indigenous Peoples Rights over their Ancestral Lands. http://www.cidh.oas.org/Comunicados/English/2011/13-11eng.htm

4)      Conducts on-site visits.  Based on a request by a member country, Commissioners may visit a country in order to learn more about a particular human rights situation.  These often result in the publication of a report.  For instance, the Commission published this report on the situation of Guarani indigenous peoples held in slavery in the Chaco region of Bolivia after making an on-site visit  to Bolivia.  http://www.cidh.org/pdf%20files/BOLIVIA-CAPTIVE-COMMUNITIES.eng.pdf

5)      General awareness-raising.  The Commission organizes conferences and meetings to educate the public about human rights concerns.  It also holds public thematic hearings within its Period of Sessions that take place twice a year in Washington D.C., where organizations or individuals can report to the Commission about urgent human rights situations.  For example, within the 141st Period of Sessions, which will be held from March 21 until April 1, 2011,there will be several public thematic hearings.  http://www.cidh.oas.org/Comunicados/English/2011/20-11eng.htm

How does the Commission grant Precautionary Measures?

The Commission generally receives a Request for Precautionary Measures alleging that a member country is violating the human rights of an individual or community. The request may be related to a case already filed with the Commission or  it may be filed independently.  The Commission analyzes the request to determine whether there is enough proof that the potential beneficiaries (victims) are threatened with “serious and irreparable harm.”  Serious and irreparable harm includes violence and killings, but it can also include threats of violence, wrongful imprisonment, and the failure of the state to provide sanitary and healthy conditions that threatens the right to life.  During the process of reviewing the request, the Commission asks the country for information.  The Commission receives many Requests for Precautionary Measures every year, but only grants a fraction of those requests.  You can view the Precautionary Measures the Commission granted here: http://www.cidh.oas.org/medidas.eng.htm

What happens after the Commission has granted Precautionary Measures?

First of all, the most important reason to bring an issue to an international body is to raise awareness of human rights violations.  Countries are less likely to continue violating human rights when others are watching. 

On a more technical level, after the Commission grants Precautionary Measures, it asks the targeted country to take appropriate measures in order to implement the Commission’s recommendations.  In so doing, the country must file a report concerning its implementation.  The Commission continues to follow up on the situation until it is satisfied that the beneficiaries of the precautionary measures are no longer threatened with serious and irreparable harm.  That is to say, the Commission supervises the full implementation of the granted precautionary measures.