Thirty-Five Years Defending Human Rights

By Abi-Mershed, Elizabeth | Americas (English Edition), November-December 1994 | Go to article overview

Thirty-Five Years Defending Human Rights


Abi-Mershed, Elizabeth, Americas (English Edition)


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) is the institutional embodiment of an ideal. Its establishment in 1959 as an expression of the commitment of the America states "to a system of freedom for the individual and of social justice based on respect for fundamental human rights" translated the ideal into action.

The creation of a special body to oversee the situation of human rights in the Americas was one of a number of pioneering efforts by the Organization of American States in this field. The OAS Charter of 1948 incorporated the "fundamental tights of the individual" as one of the principles on which the Organization was founded. The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, also approved by the General Assembly in 1948, was adopted to serve as "the initial system of protection" for human rights in the hemisphere. The Declaration affirms the essential human rights that flow from the inherent dignity of the individual, and records the commitment of the American states to increasingly strengthen the protection of human rights in the Americas. This initial step in the creation of an inter-American human rights system actually predated the adoption of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights by six months, and set the stage for the creation of a human rights commission.

Although the Commission was established in 1959 with the vague mandate "to promote human rights," its role has evolved over these thirty-five years to include specialized action to protect human rights. When the Commission started receiving information in 1960, it was not authorized to consider individual complaints as such. This shortcoming was remedied with the statutory expansion of the Commission's powers in 1965. The Commission's individual petition system is a critical element of its work program, in addition to its on-site fact-finding and the preparation and publication of its annual and special reports. When the OAS Charter was amended in 1967, the Commission was elevated to the status of a principal organ of the Organization. The entry into force of the American Convention on Human Rights transformed the Commission and the inter-American human rights system. The Convention established the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and attributed the Commission with new specialized functions. The Commission now exercises treaty-based jurisdiction over the member states that are parties to the Convention, and retains Charter-based jurisdiction over other member states. Thus, the Commission's current twofold mandate of promotion and protection reflects the incremental but dramatic development of its role from past to present.

The IACHR is the principal organ of the Organization of American States mandated to promote and protect human rights. The Commission is composed of seven members, nominated by member states and elected by the General Assembly of the OAS. The members are elected to four-year terms, which may be renewed once. Each member serves in his or her individual capacity as an expert in the field of human rights, and the Commission collectively represents all the member states of the Organization.

The Past: As Prologue

The gross human rights abuses of authoritarian rule are both the past and prologue for a hemisphere in which many countries are struggling with the transition to representative democracy. The use of disappearances as a policy tool, most prevalent during the 1970s and into the 1980s, is a manifestation of the insidious nature of human rights abuses under authoritarian rule. To be "disappeared" means to be kidnapped and held in a secret location. In most cases it means to be tortured, summarily executed, and buried clandestinely. It is a violation that by its very nature conceals itself. One of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina, testified before the IACHR in 1979:

In this whole affair there was one hated word but one repeated without end: "disappeared. …

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