A House for Justice in Costa Rica

By Padilla, David | Americas (English Edition), January-February 1996 | Go to article overview

A House for Justice in Costa Rica


Padilla, David, Americas (English Edition)


World War I and the League of Nation's so-called Permanent Court of Justice. World War II and the UN's World Court at the Hague, Nuremburg, and the Japanese war crimes trials. Bosnia and the UN's International War Crimes Tribunal. Rwanda. The same thing. Conflict and injustice on a massive scale, followed by the world community's efforts to restore justice.

In the Americas of the 1960s, beset by dictators, torture, and forced disappearances, the answer took the form of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. This court is a creation of the 1969 treaty known as the American Convention on Human Rights, more popularly called the Pact of San Jose, named for the Costa Rican city of its birth.

But it has had a slow gestation period. First, the treaty did not enter into force until 1978 and then only thanks to a hemispheric full-court press led by U.S. president Jimmy Carter. (Ironically, the United States is one of the few countries in the hemisphere yet to ratify the Convention.) Then, it took almost two years to elect the first seven judges, appoint a registrar, and open for business.

In the beginning, cases were few and far between and the Court, by and large, was limited to rendering advisory opinions, part of its unique jurisdiction, on points of law contained in the treaty. These holdings, however, were far from trivial. Among other things, they limited suspension of habeas corpus, further defined the right to life and freedom of expression, and made the Court accessible to indigent persons who had no further recourse within the system of national courts.

The early work of the Inter-American Court was not unlike that of the European Court of Human Rights, upon which it was modeled, both in terms of the paucity of eases litigated as well as the trailblazing significance of the few judgments it rendered. In 1986 - more than fifteen years after its creation - the Court received its first three contentious cases, all involving alleged disappearances. The defendant state was Honduras. In two of these cases, those of Manfredo Velasquez Rodriguez and Saul Godinez Cruz, the Court determined that agents for the defendant government committed forced disappearances of the victims. In such cases, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which dates from 1959 and constitutes the Court's sister agency, acts as gatekeeper and prosecutor. The upshot was a historic judgment, which not only defined the pretrial procedures to be employed in future cases, but also set the standard of proof to be applied in human rights matters. In addition, the Court held that a state party to the Convention has the affirmative duty to investigate, convict, and punish human rights violators. Finally, the judges established precedents for the purpose of calculating monetary damages.

Judges, like the members of the Inter-American Commission, are nominated by OAS member states and serve in their individual capacities for a term of six years. …

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