The Inter-American System is comprised of two entities: a Commission with broad promotion and protection responsibilities; and a Court with authority to decide contentious cases submitted to it by the Commission, authorize provisional measures to protect individuals at risk, and respond to requests by States or other Organization of American States (OAS) organs for advisory opinions on issues pertaining to the interpretation of the Inter-American instruments.  The Commission and Court are composed of seven members each, elected for a renewable four- and six-year terms, respectively.


Seat: Washington, DC       Instrument: OAS Charter      Operating Since: 1960

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights addresses human rights conditions and violations in the 35 Member States of the OAS.  It began operating in 1960, observing human rights conditions via on-site visits, and in 1965 was authorized to begin processing specific cases of human rights violations; the Commission also holds thematic hearings on specific topical areas of concern, publishes studies and reports, requests the adoption of precautionary measures to protect individuals at risk, and has established several thematic rapporteurships for the study of particular rights or particular groups in the hemisphere.

Complaints (petitions) may be submitted to the Commission by individuals, groups of individuals, and NGOs recognized in any OAS Member State.  During the years 1997 to 2007, the Commission processed between 425 (1997) and 1,456 (2007) complaints each year.

The Commission’s Statute and Rules of Procedure (recently revised) outline its structure, objectives, and procedures, although many aspects of the day-to-day processing of cases are determined by the legal staff of the Executive Secretariat.


Seat: San José, Costa Rica     Instrument: American Convention      Operating Since: 1979

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights jurisdiction is more limited, as it depends on OAS Member States’ consent in order to hear contentious cases, which pass first through the Commission.  Only States Parties and the Commission may refer contentious cases to the Court.  Currently, 25 OAS Member States have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, 21 of whom have opted to accept the Court’s contentious jurisdiction in accordance with Article 62 of the American Convention, which provides for the optional declaration accepting as binding the Court’s jurisdiction over matters relating to the Convention, on an unconditional, conditional, or otherwise limited basis.

The Court began operating in 1979, and soon issued several advisory opinions, but did not begin exercising its contentious jurisdiction until 1986, when the Commission submitted the first contentious case: Velasquez Rodriguez v. Honduras, in which case the Court issued a judgment on the merits in 1988.

Over the Court’s 30 years in operation, its annual case load has more than doubled; many more States have found themselves before the Court; and the Court has adjudicated a significant range of rights protected by the American Convention and ancillary agreements, from the ‘bread and butter’ extrajudicial execution and disappearance cases, to labor, land, and freedom of expression rights.

The Court’s Statute and Rules of Procedure (recently revised) outline its structure, objectives, and procedures.


The Commission and Court are charged with interpreting and applying a number of regional human rights instruments, in addition to the American Declaration and American Convention.  They include:

Additionally, the following instruments guide the Court and Commission’s interpretation of the above conventions:


The individual commissioners of the Inter-American Commission, plus one special rapporteur, also oversee human rights conditions on topics of particular concern to the Commission and/or OAS Member States.  The following rapporteurships have been established to weigh in on individual cases, contribute to thematic reports, and generally strive to raise awareness:

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