Inter-American Court of Human Rights

What is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights?

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is one of two bodies established by the Organization of American States to monitor human rights in the Americas. The other is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The Court was created by Article 33b of the American Convention on Human Rights to safeguard the rights enshrined in the Convention. It is based in San José, Costa Rica, was established in 1979, and is made up of seven judges who are elected as independent experts for a term of six years who may be re-elected once.

What does the Court do?

The role of the Court is twofold:

The Court interprets the articles of the American Convention and other international human rights instruments to give more in-depth guidance about the provisions of the articles and how States might implement them. This is its consultative work.

The Court’s contentious function allows it to make decisions, take protective measures and issue sentences on cases of individual violations of human rights, as well as inter-State violations of human rights. However, the Court can only do this in cases where the State concerned has already said it would allow the Court to rule on such cases. Where the State concerned has not accepted the Court’s jurisdiction, the case can only be brought before the Inter-American Commission. If the State has not ratified the American Convention, the Commission will apply the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

A State may accept the contentious jurisdiction of the Court, which means it agrees the court can rule on such cases, when it ratifies the American Declaration, at a later date, or on an ad hoc basis for a particular case. The declaration of acceptance may be unconditional, conditional, for a specific case, or for a limited period of time.

What kinds of cases have been brought before the Inter-American Court?

The first ever case involving a violation of children’s rights to be heard by the Inter-American Court was that of five street children who were murdered by police officers in Guatemala in June 1990.

The case, which is known as "Bosques San Nicolás", was brought before the Commission (which then referred it to the Court) by Casa Alianza and CEJIL. In 1999 the Court found the State of Guatemala guilty of violating Article 4 of the American Convention on Human Rights, which enshrines the right to life. The State was ordered to build a school with a plaque in memory of the victims, pay compensation to the victims’ families, investigate the facts of the case and identify and sanction those responsible, and adapt its domestic legislation in accordance with Article 19 of the American Convention.

Some of the other cases to come before the Court and establish important precedents include:

How can I submit a complaint to the Court?

Only the Inter-American Commission and States parties to the American Convention may submit complaints directly to the Court (according to Article 61.1 of the American Convention). If you are an individual, group or organisation, you must submit complaints to the Inter-American Commission. Then if the complaint meets certain requirements, the Commission will refer the case to the Court. Read more on submitting a complaint to the Inter-American Commission.

How can civil society influence the Court's work?

Civil society organisations cannot present cases directly to the Inter-American Court; they must submit allegations of human rights violations to the Inter-American Commission. If the Commission determines the case ‘admissible’, it will refer it to the Court.

A civil society organisation may try and obtain ‘provisional measures’, which are orders issued by the Court to protect a victim or other party while a case is being processed (more below on these). The organisation can only request these measures directly from the Court if the case has already been passed to the Court by the Commission. If the case is not known to the Court, the organisation must approach the Commission to issue ‘precautionary measures’.

The only way civil society organisations can influence the Court’s consultative function – that is its work in interpreting the American Convention and other international human rights instruments – is by presenting third party written statements (or amicus curiae) on a particular theme under investigation. The Court, however, does not have to take these statements into account.

Advisory opinions

The Inter-American Court can, if asked by the Commission or by a State party to the American Convention, issue advisory opinions. These Opinions are a way for the Court to give its interpretation of particular aspects of the Convention.

To date, the Court has issued one Advisory Opinion on Child Rights:

The Court has also confirmed the human rights obligations of Member States of the Organization of American States (OAS) to prohibit and eliminate all corporal punishment of children, following a request for an advisory opinion by the Inter-American Commission. The full text of the Court’s decision is available in English (unofficial translation) and Spanish.

The Inter-American Commission has also issued a report with recommendations for OAS Member States on steps to abolish corporal punishment.

Provisional measures

The Court can order a State to take ‘provisional measures’ to protect victims of human rights violations, witnesses, family members of the victim, or others from immediate or serious harm while a case is being processed. The Court monitors compliance with provisional measures, ordering the State to report within a specified time frame on the steps it has taken to comply with the order. Provisional measures can only be requested if the Court is already aware of the case, otherwise petitioners must seek precautionary measures from the Commission.

An example of provisional measures ordered by the Court is that of children and young people detained in the "Complexo do Tatuapé" of FEBEM (the State prison system) in Brazil, in November 2005.

The “Complexo do Tatuapé” holds approximately 1,600 children and young people. In 2004, 28 riots broke out in different units of the complex, while 15 erupted in the first five months of 2005. The Inter-American Commission received information suggesting the causes of the riots, some of which were violent, had not been investigated. Escape attempts, poor conditions of detention and mistreatment were among those factors thought to have sparked the unrest. On 8 October 2005, the IACHR asked the Court to order the Brazilian State to take provisional measures protecting the life and physical integrity of the children and young people detained in the complex.

The Court ordered provisional measures to: reduce overcrowding; seize weapons possessed by young inmates; provide necessary medical attention; carry out periodic supervision of the detention conditions, and the physical and emotional state of the detainees; plan protection measures with the participation of the young people affected; forward an updated list of all young inmates in the complex with information about their identity, date and time of entrance, eventual transfer and liberation, etc; and report on provisional measures adopted every two months.

For more details of particular children's rights cases brought to the Inter-American Court, search on CRIN's legal database.

For more information, contact:

Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Apartado Postal 6906-1000, San José, Costa Rica
Tel: (506) 234 0581 | Fax: (506) 234 0584
Email: [email protected]

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
1889 F Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., U.S.A.
Tel: (1) 202 458 6002
Email: [email protected]

For more information about children’s rights in the Americas, contact:

The Inter-American Children’s Institute
Av. 8 de Octubre 2904, Casilla de Correo 16212, Montevideo (11600), Uruguay
Tel: (598) (2) 487 2150 | Fax: (598) (2) 487 3242
Email: [email protected]

For more information about the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, contact:

The Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
1630 Connecticut Avenue, NW Suite 401, Washington, D.C. 20009, U.S.A.
Tel: (1) 202 319 3000 | Fax: (1) 202 319 3019