Highlights of the 157th period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

By Dr. Clara Sandoval & Paola Limón

Dr. Clara Sandoval and Paola Limón, members of the Human Rights Centre and the School of Law at the University of Essex, were present at the 157th regular period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as part of their research activities under the ESRC-funded Human Rights Law Implementation Project (HRLIP) and the Leverhulme-funded Inter-American Human Rights Network. This blog will address some of the notable outcomes from this session, with a particular focus on efforts to address the backlog within the Inter-American system.

These sessions marked the official beginning of the work of four new Commissioners –Francisco Eguiguren Praeli (Peru), Margarette May Macaulay (Jamaica), Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño (Panama), and Enrique Gil Botero (Colombia)– the first two of whom were elected, respectively, as First and Second Vice-Chairs of the IACHR’s Board for 2016.

The Commission held 49 public hearings, as well as numerous private meetings regarding a wide range of human rights issues affecting the people of the Americas. A special mention should be made regarding

  • Innovative approaches to thematic hearings. For only the second time in its history, a UN Special Rapporteur participated in a public hearing before the IACHR. In this case, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Dubravka Simonovic, participated as an expert in the hearing – convened ex officio by the IACHR – on “Follow-up on the Report ‘Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia, Canada’”. If repeated, this approach would not only increase dialogue between the regional and international human rights experts, but it could also facilitate joint monitoring of thematic- and/or country-specific situations.
  • The killing of Berta Cáceres. Berta Cáceres was an inspirational human rights defender in Honduras, known for defending the ancestral lands and rivers of the Lenca people. Her killing on 2 March 2016, transcended Honduran borders, representing an attack against human rights defenders across the entire region. For this reason, her family, together with a number of organizations (COPINH, MADJ, and CEJIL), requested the establishment of an independent group of experts designated by the IACHR to investigate the facts. The IACHR expressed its willingness to appoint such a group.
  • Mexico denying its human rights crisis. Mexico rejected the IACHR’s report on the “Situation of Human Rights in Mexico” and refused to extend the mandate of the Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) working on the investigations in relation to the whereabouts of the 43 students disappeared in Ayotzinapa in September 2014. The IACHR decided to establish a special mechanism to follow-up on the recommendations set out in its resolution on precautionary measures and in the GIEI’s reports.
  • Increased dialogue between the UN and the regional system. A “Regional Consultation of the IACHR, the Inter-American Court and the United Nations with Civil Society in the Americas” took place. Among the issues that stood out were those related to challenges on implementation of the bodies’ decisions, problems faced by human rights defenders and the responsibility of corporations in relation to human rights violations.
  • Up-coming selection of the IACHR executive secretary. The current Executive Secretary, Mr. Emilio Alvarez Icaza Longoria, will be concluding his mandate on 15 August 2016. The IACHR has published the list of shortlisted candidates for the post: Elizabeth Abi-Mershed (United States of America), Paulo Abrão (Brazil), Renzo Pomi (Uruguay), Michael Reed-Hurtado (Colombia), and Lisa M. Shoman (Belize). Their résumés and cover letters are available here and anyone can submit observations until 30 May 2016. Choosing the right person for this position is crucial to ensure that the Commission fulfils its mandate. Key qualities that the new Executive Secretary should have are a solid knowledge and understanding of the System and the OAS organs, including the challenges the system faces, great management and funding skills as well as the capacity to inspire the excellent group of people working under its leadership, political leverage and vision to respond strategically to the new human rights challenges the region faces.
  • The endemic financial crisis of the System.The exacerbation of the financial crisis affecting both the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights due to the reduction of the budget of the OAS and the withdrawal of an important amount of funds coming from international cooperation.

But, perhaps the issue of greatest concern regarding the functioning of the IACHR –and, consequently, of the Inter-American System as a whole– is the backlog of pending cases before it and the measures that it could potentially use to resolve it. Indeed, according to its 2015 Annual Report, until the end of that year, a total of 9673 petitions were pending initial evaluation and 1903 were at the admissibility and/or merits stages. These are worrisome numbers if it is taken into account that the IACHR is understaffed and under-resourced, and that people in the Americas region are relying more on the IASHR to protect their rights.

In various civil society side events, Commissioners mentioned several potential ways forward, including 1) a more active archiving of “old” cases; and, 2) the possibility of accumulating large numbers of petitions/cases related to a particular national context and publishing a single report on the human rights violations perpetrated in that context (without these cases having the possibility of ever being referred to the Inter-American Court).

However, the IACHR has not issued an official or definite pronouncement as to how it will process the backlog. It is crucial that any decision in this regard is undertaken in consultation with all interested parties, particularly those who have turned to the Inter-American System for justice they did not obtain in their own countries, and who, after many years, may be facing an additional obstacle in their search for truth, justice, and reparation.

While the backlog is of grave concern to all users of the Inter-American System, the IACHR – a body mandated to protect human rights – should be mindful not to infringe those rights itself, in an effort to minimize criticism for its inability to respond effectively to past and present human rights situations. Indeed in many respects the source of this issue can ultimately be traced back to OAS Member States, not only for their international responsibility for the human rights violations committed, but also for the lack of adequate funding provided to the bodies charged with hearing these cases. In this sense, echoing President Cavallaro’s words, the States of the Americas must assume their responsibility towards the Inter-American System of Human Rights, assigning adequate financial resources for the effective dispatch of its mandate.

After the public hearings and activities of the IACHR’s sessions, Par Engstrom (UCL), Rossana Rocha (University of São Paulo), Jorge Contesse (Rutgers School of Law) and Clara Sandoval presented, during a meeting organised by the Inter-American Human Rights Network and CEJIL, the findings of two years of work by academic members of the Network. The findings are incorporated in the Reflective Report “Strengthening the Impact of the Inter-American Human Rights System through Scholarly Research”, which highlights key areas where academia can complement the working of the System.

Finally, CEJIL organised an event as part of the celebrations of its 25th anniversary, where the discussion revolved around the partnership and experience of CEJIL and academia working together and empowering each other. Viviana Krsticevic (Director of CEJIL), Claudio Grossman (American University), Claudia Martin (American University), Par Engstrom (UCL) and Clara Sandoval headed the discussions.


Dr. Clara Sandoval is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Essex School of Law & Human Rights Centre. She is Director of the Essex Transitional Justice Network and a member of the Advisory Board of the Human Rights Clinic. Ms. Paola Limon is a senior researcher for the Americas Team of the ESRC Human Rights Law Implementation Project.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.

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