Human Rights Law Research Guide

This guide will lead researchers through primary materials and introduce important secondary sources. While general human rights sources are covered in the guide, special attention is paid to resources that specifically address international women's human

The Inter-American Human Rights System

Table of Contents

The Organization of American States (OAS)

The Organization of American States (OAS) was established by charter in 1948.  It replaced an earlier organization, the Union of American Republics (commonly known as the Pan American Union), making it the world's oldest regional inter-governmental organization.  Currently all 35 independent nations in the Western Hemisphere are member states of the OAS.

The OAS's mission is to promote human rights, democracy, regional security, and regional economic development by facilitating dialog and cooperation among its member states.  Much of the OAS's work in the field of human rights is accomplished through the drafting of multilateral treaties.

Inter-American Human Rights Instruments

  • Charter of the Organization of American States (1948)
    Article 5(j) recognizes the "fundamental rights of the individual without distinction as to race, nationality, creed or sex," but it does not define what these fundamental rights are.
  • American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man (1948)
    Although it was not considered legally binding at the time it was adopted, the Declaration has evolved into a normative instrument which identifies the "fundamental rights" guaranteed by Section 5(j) of the Charter.
  • American Convention on Human Rights (1969)
    Chapter II (Articles 3-25) recognizes core civil and political rights.  Chapter I obligates state parties to uphold these rights with respect to all persons, regardless of race, sex or social condition.  Twenty-three of the 35 OAS member states are currently state parties to the Convention.
    • 1st Protocol (1988) - social & economic ("2nd generation") rights.
      Sixteen of the 35 OAS member states have ratified this protocol.
    • 2nd Protocol (1990) - abolition of death penalty in peacetime.
      Thirteen of the 35 OAS members states have ratified this protocol.
  • Basic Documents of the Inter-American Human Rights System
    Visit this gateway page to access the full texts of all human rights instruments drafted under the auspices of the OAS, information about the ratification status of each instrument, and related documentation.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is an official organ of the OAS, governed by an OAS-authored statute.  It is based in Washington, D.C., but often conducts field work and holds hearings in other jurisdictions.  The Commission plays a dual role, functioning as both a "charter organ" and as a "treaty organ."

  • Authority Under the OAS Charter:
    • Monitors the compliance of member states with their human rights obligations by conducting investigations and publishing reports.
    • Establishes thematic rapporteurships to document the vulnerability of specific peoples and groups to human rights abuses.
    • Adjudicates individual petitions alleging violations of rights guaranteed under the Charter, as enumerated in the Declaration.
  • Authority Under the American Convention on Human Rights:
    • Acts as a gatekeeper by conducting an initial review of individual petitions alleging violations of rights guaranteed by the Convention.
    • Makes recommendations, if violations found.
    • Refers petitions to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for adjudication, if a state party fails to comply with its recommendations.
    • Participates in all cases pending before the Court in its capacity as a ministerio publico.

The Commission's primary working languages are Spanish and English.  Commission documents and publications are often available in both languages.  Visit the Commission's website to access to the following:

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is also an official organ of the OAS.  It was established in 1979, upon the entry into force of the American Convention on Human Rights, and is located in San José, Costa Rica.  The Court's principle role is to act as the final adjudicator of petitions seeking redress for the violation of rights guaranteed under the Convention.  It also issues advisory opinions.

  • Contentious Jurisdiction
    • The Court only hears petitions upon referral by the Commission.  Individuals may not petition the Court directly.
    • State parties to the Convention still must consent to the Court's jurisdiction, either on a blanket basis or on a case-by-case basis.  To date, 20 of the 23 state parties have done so on a blanket basis.
  • Advisory Jurisdiction
    • The Court may issue an advisory opinion at the request of any OAS organ or member state, even one that has not ratified the Convention.
    • An advisory opinion may interpret any human rights treaty to which the requesting member state is a party.

Bear in mind that the the Coutr's working language is Spanish.  Substantive judgments in contentious cases are translated into English, but most other Court documents and publications are only available in Spanish.  The Court's website provides access to the following materials in English:  the Court's governing statute, its procedural rules, its annual report, and a brief history.

Case Law of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

IACHR Jurisprudence Finder
The Court's free database offers the most comprehensive coverage of its jurisprudence and related documentation, but it can only be searched effectively by using Spanish search terms.  The database includes English translations of final judgments in contentious cases, and sometimes also English summaries (abstracts) thereof, but it often takes years for these translations to be added to the database.  Other documents, such as provisional measures and advisory opinions, are only available in Spanish.   

To quickly retrieve a judgment from a known case, it is often more efficient to use this browsing menu.  Begin by selecting the defendant state party (country).  Then browse chronologically by year of decision, beginning with the most recent.  Visit this page for status information about pending cases awaiting a decision on the merits (Spanish only).

Alternative Sources for English Translations of IACHR Judgments

The following resources selectively publish English translations of the most significant judgments issued by the IACHR, along with explanatory headnotes and other editorial enhancements.  These commercially published translations usually become available much sooner than the Court's own translations.

  • Oxford Reports on International Law
    Use the Jurisdiction menu to select American Organizations/Institutions.  After the page refreshes, select Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  Then use the filters on the left to narrow or search  by keyword.
  • Butterworths Human Rights Cases,  Call No. K3239.23 .B88 
    Dates of Coverage:  1997-2012 (in print).  Also available online on Lexis.
  • International Human Rights Reports,  Call No. K3239.23 .I57
    Dates of Coverage:  1994-present.

The Organization of American States

Flag of the OAS.  Image by Sodacan via Wikimedia Commons.
CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Find More Books About the Inter-American Human Rights System

To locate additional materials on the Inter-American Human Rights system from the Georgetown Law Library's collection, use the Advanced Search and select Law Library Catalog.  Then select Subject as the search field and search for one of the following subject headings as an exact phrase:

For greater precision, use the first line to search for one of the subject headings listed above, and use the remaining lines to search for additional words or exact phrases using the default Any Field setting.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

Members of the Commission, 2018
Photo by Fran Afonso via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0 license)

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Justices of the Inter-American Court, 2018. 
Image by the IACHR via Flickr.  (CC BY-SA 2.0 License)