Preparing Human Rights Advocates: Institutionalizing from Below

Article excerpt

The success of the Inter-American system would not have been possible without advances in the preparation and training of law students. Even still, human rights must be better integrated into the culture and curricula of law schools.

Over the past 50 years, the Inter-American human rights system has become instrumental to the evolution of democracy in the region. Gradually expanding the scope of its mandate to include everything from political rights to gender rights and rights of vulnerable groups, the system has not only helped shape domestic policies but has also served as a key tool for legitimizing respect for human rights in the Americas.

Its increasing relevance is reflected in the ever-growing interest in human rights on the part of law students and the expansion of programs-which in turn have helped the evolution of the system. While these curricular and academic advancements have been crucial, they are insufficient. Ensuring the systematic protection of human rights requires its institutionalization into every aspect of law school curricula. This is also important because of the continuing need to improve democratic institutions and avoid a return to authoritarian regimes. For a region undergoing important changes, the human rights narrative contributes to providing a democratic direction to those changes.

Never before has a complete understanding of the complex and evolving field of human rights been so important. Currently, the Inter-American system receives more than 1,200 petitions per year. This is a dramatic increase from the early 1990s, when the principal approach to human rights violations was publicizing country reports prepared by the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights (Commission). The region's transition to democracy over the following decade required a more formal mechanism of semi-judicial and judicial bodies in which adjudication and legal precedent has become increasingly important.

During its early years, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court) did not receive a single case. That has changed dramatically. In 1986, the Court had three trial cases in process. In 2009, this number already exceeds 110. Over the course of its activity, the Court has adopted critical jurisprudence on issues such as due process, nondiscrimination, freedom of expression, the rights of indigenous populations, impunity, vulnerable groups, and conditions of detention. At the same time, the Court has developed the procedural aspects of human rights law (e.g., the burden of proof and rights of petitioners before the Court), thereby strengthening the legal framework for human rights matters which, too often, have been politicized and compromised by the application of double standards and ideological preferences. This "legalization" now needs to be a core element in the education and training of future lawyers.

Human Rights Post-World War II

The lessons learned following the human rights atrocities committed during World War II led the international community to tragically understand that the nation-state could not be solely entrusted with the well-being of its inhabitants. In Europe and elsewhere, including the Western Hemisphere, states had been directly responsible for mass and gross violations of human rights. The aftermath saw the formal declaration of internationally and regionally defined rights and norms, such as the International Bill of Human Rights, and the creation of supervisory bodies (e.g., commissions and courts) to ensure compliance with international human rights obligations.

Needless to say, the actual application of these principles has not always matched the rhetoric. Nationalism, fanaticism, extensive poverty and ignorance continue to frustrate the effective realization of the International Bill of Human Rights. To complicate matters, the continuing evolution of human rights has not been accompanied by widespread law school curriculum reform anywhere in the Americas. …