Robes and Backpacks: When an International Human Rights Tribunal Goes in the Field

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

My internship took an unexpected turn when, halfway through the summer, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) announced that its next session of hearings, from August 26th to September 6th, would not take place in San José as planned. Instead, they would be a “special session” or “extraordinary session” in Barranquilla and Bogotá, Colombia.

Day 1 of the IACtHR’s Special Session in Barranquilla, Colombia

Interns are allowed to attend the extraordinary sessions of the Court, they often don’t because they must undertake all the travel planning and expenses themselves. Coincidentally, I had happened to book a holiday to Colombia to visit family after my internship before the extraordinary session in Colombia was even announced. The dates coincided perfectly, so I decided to take advantage of the chance to see what happens when an international human rights tribunal goes in the field.

The Court holds hearings four times per year on-site in San José (called “ordinary sessions”) but since 2005 it sometimes adds sessions on-location in countries that have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights (these are called “extraordinary” or “special” sessions). You can see the list of past sessions here. Unusually, there weren’t any ordinary sessions scheduled during my internship at the Court. This was why I made the effort to go to Colombia: I wanted to see the Court in action!

 

The Role of the IACtHR in Guaranteeing Human Rights in the Hemisphere

Colombia’s President, Iván Duque, makes a speech at the inauguration of the Special Session.

The hearings in Barranquilla were open to the public and held in a university, the Universidad del Norte. The first day, August 26th, consisted of the inauguration ceremony for the special session and a one-day seminar on the role of the Court in guaranteeing human rights in this hemisphere. When I arrived, I noticed that security was tight. There were a lot of police officers and each guest had to present identification. When I got into the auditorium where the sessions would be held, I was very impressed: the room was huge! There must have been 1000 seats and they were all full. I soon found out the reason for the extra-tight security as well. Colombian president Iván Duque had made the trip to Barranquilla to deliver a speech and open the session. Before President Duque, Adolfo Meisel, the Rector of the Universidad del Norte and Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor, the President (Chief Justice) of the Court gave their remarks.

I was really inspired by Justice Ferrer’s remarks, in which he named what he sees as today’s most significant challenges to human rights:

  1. Persistent poverty, especially considering that Latin America is the most unequal region of the world;
  2. Discrimination and violence against women, as well as the exclusion of women from decision-making;
  3. Migration crises (specifically in Venezuela and Central America), where we face a crisis of migration as well as solidarity;
  4. Climate change and its specific impact on the most vulnerable populations;
  5. Organized crime and violence which are an increasingly large threat to the region; and
  6. Authoritarianism, and discourse that aims to restrict rights and freedoms, recognizing that democracy requires a diverse range of views, but cannot exist when certain groups are labelled enemies of the state or when we allow hate speech.

Justice Ferrer also explained the purpose of the Court’s special sessions, of which 30 have taken place in 19 different countries. Colombia is the country who has hosted the largest number of special sessions: 5 in total (two in Bogotá, one in Medellín, one in Cartagena, and now in Barranquilla and Bogotá again). He said the special sessions are important because it facilitates the work of the Court, both by bringing the system closer to the victims of human rights violations (such as when the court holds hearings to monitor a state’s compliance with its previous decisions), but also brings people closer to the system, facilitating a useful dialogue between the Court, governments, and civil society.

Here you can see the size of the audience at the Court’s inauguration.

In the first panel discussion, a reflection on 40 years of interpretation and application of the American Convention on Human Rights by the Court, Professor Mariela Morales from the Max Planck Institute gave a very interesting overview of the history of the Court and its unique contributions to the development of international human rights law. She mentioned that the Court is unique because it is a “Corte de toga y mochila” (a Court with robes and backpacks), as it travels to member states to hold hearings, echoing the comments of Justice Ferrer. She explained how the Court was born from the aftermath of the wave of military dictatorships in Latin America around the 1970s and 1980s, and how due to this history, one of its first contributions to international human rights law was developing a legal framework on how states must respond to forced disappearances.

Indeed, I noticed a strong thread of public legal education throughout the sessions. A printed program on each seat in the auditorium included the “ABC’s of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights”, a short guide to the structure and purpose of the Court. The whole first day was geared towards people who maybe didn’t have a 100% familiarity with the system, complete with explanations of the purpose and history of the Inter-American Human Rights System. You can see video recordings of all the seminars and public hearings here. As the sessions took place on a university campus, I noticed groups of students wandering in and out of the auditorium to listen to the seminars and hearings between their classes.

Justice Odio Benito speaking about the 25th anniversary of the Belem do Pará Convention.

My favourite panel was reflecting on 25 years since the ratification of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women (also known as the Belem do Pará Convention). It was moderated by Justice Elizabeth Odio Benito, the only woman judge currently sitting on the IACtHR. Justice Odio’s opening remarks touched on how much progress has been made in terms of women’s rights in the past 25 years, but also that we have a long way to go.

The first speaker was Julissa Mantilla, a commissioner-elect of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). She spoke about the need to develop a further framework to look at the presence and impact of sexual violence specifically as a part of forced disappearance and in truth commissions. She raised 5 important points when it comes to women’s rights in the Americas: 1) we must always use a differentiated analysis consider the specific impact on women in human rights issues; 2) it is important to note the impacts of intergenerational trauma; 3) violence against women is seriously under-reported; 4) the IACHR now has more women than men serving as commissioners, but we still need to make progress in the representation of women as decision-makers; 5) femicide (intentional murder of women) is still a huge problem in society, and in order to tackle it we need to remember that it is not a women’s issue, but rather a human rights issue that is a problem for everyone.

I was also really interested in the talk by María Paulina Riveros Dueñas, who was until recently the Deputy Attorney General of Colombia. She talked about how gender issues were incorporated into the negotiations of Colombia’s historic peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which ended more than 50 years of war in the country (the peace agreement has hit a big bump in the road this week, after Ms. Riveros’s talk). Ms. Riveros that the peace agreement was revolutionary for the way it gave women’s groups and victims’ representatives a seat at the table. She pointed out three significant developments related to gender that came out of the agreement: 1) it underlined the importance of helping victims heal and move beyond the state of being a victim in transitions from war to peace; 2) the Truth Commission created by the agreement has a specific working group charged with completing a gender-differentiated analysis of the conflict; and 3) the agreement created a gender research group as part of Colombia’s Special Jurisdiction for Peace (JEP), which is a special tribunal created to implement transitional justice in Colombia.

 

Azul Rojas Marín vs. Perú

I sat with the Court’s Registrar (Secretario), Pablo Saavedra, and my supervisor to assist with the hearing of Rojas Marín vs. Perú.

On August 27th I had the chance to help out with the morning and afternoon hearings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Case Azul Rojas Marín vs. Perú. I was a little more involved in helping out with this particular case as my supervising lawyer was the Court’s point-person on this file. The case is about violence motivated by discrimination against a member of the LGBT community, and also questions how we define torture in international law. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) considered that Peru had violated its obligation to protect victims of sexual violence, with the aggravating factor of prejudice against members of the LGBT community.

I had learned a lot about the Court and how it functions over the course of my internship, but it was definitely a different experience to see a hearing in person. One thing that really stood out to me was how the Court hearings involve three parties: the State, the victims and their legal representatives, and the Inter-American Commission. It makes a big difference to be in a courtroom with three parties instead of just two, as I am used to seeing in Canada.

If you’re familiar with the procedure of the IACtHR, you know that victims cannot present complaints directly to the Court. Rather, they must first approach the Commission. The Commission will make a determination of whether the State was in violation of its regional obligations and make recommendations. Then, if necessary, it will refer the matter to the Court for a binding ruling.

As such, in hearings of the Court, the Commission is the first of the parties to speak, presenting a summary of the case. Then the victims’ representatives and the State make their oral arguments. Finally, all three parties have the chance to make final statements and respond to the arguments of the other parties. The judges have a chance to ask questions to the lawyers after each party’s allotted time. I didn’t observe judges interrupting lawyers with questions as often happens in Canadian courts: rather, they hold their questions until the end.

 

A successful innovation

The Special Session was highly publicized on social media, with this logo.

In 2009, Pablo Saavedra, the Court’s registrar, and Gabriela Pacheco, a former lawyer for the Court, wrote that Special Sessions “have been the most innovative and successful initiatives created by the Court” (my translation). The primary benefit they site of these sessions is that they facilitate the work of the Court. On the one hand, they permit the Court to hold more hearings per year and process more cases. On the other hand, they permit the Court to interact with internal state organs of the countries concerned, which fits with the Court’s belief that respect for human rights is primarily an obligation internal to States. Finally, they are accompanies by training and education in human rights for state agents and civil society, as I experienced in Barranquilla, which empower individuals to use the Inter-American Human Rights System.

Overall, I count myself extremely lucky to have had the chance to travel to Colombia to observe what happens when an international human rights tribunal packs up its robes and heads into the field. Having seen the Court in action, I am convinced that its special sessions are an important part of its work, as they bring the Court closer to the communities it serves and give the legal community and the general public the opportunity to learn about the Inter-American Human Rights System. Because of the Special Sessions, it is truly a corte de ciudadanas y ciudadanos (a court of the people).

Living my best student life while grabbing lunch on campus at the Universidad del Norte, where the Special Session took place.

What Canada can learn from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

My internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is now almost over… time flies! In the time since my last post, I have had the chance to get to know even more colleagues from different countries around the Americas and overseas and to think about some of the most pressing human rights issues facing this region, as well as to deepen my reflection of Canada’s relationship with this institution.

One of my favourite parts of this internship has been the opportunity to participate in the rich academic life of the Court and neighbouring institutions. San José has become a hub of human rights law in the Americas, and interns at the Court have been invited to participate in lots of interesting talks inside and outside the Court. I went to a talk about the place of social, economic, and cultural rights in the Inter-American system at the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights. I also went to a talk about Costa Rica’s asylum policy at the University of Costa Rica’s Law Faculty.

Going to a talk at the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights

Despite these enriching experiences, some of the best talks I’ve had have been with other interns as well as the Court’s lawyers over the lunch table. I love that it is part of the organizational culture here for everyone to take a break from their desks in the middle of the day to eat with colleagues. In these lunchtime chats, the interns and visiting professionals really get the chance to get to know each other and to learn about each other’s countries. Our topics cover everything from favourite dishes, to constitutional law, to the most important human rights issues.

On June 3rd the Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released, and I mentioned it at lunch that day. The reaction was split: some lawyers knew of Canada’s poor track record in treatment of Indigenous peoples, but others could not believe their ears. “Missing and murdered Indigenous women, in Canada?” they asked me. The word “missing” in Spanish – desaparecido or desaparecida – comes with a lot of baggage.

Enjoying an outdoor lunch with my colleagues at the Court

In Latin America, the word “disappeared” is most commonly used to refer to people who have been forcibly disappeared by state actors in the context of authoritarian governments. Forced disappearance can happen in any part of the world, but its widespread use in Latin America has made it a common topic at the Inter-American Court.[i] Indeed, the Court’s development of the legal concept of forced disappearance, from its very first case in 1988,[ii] has been one of its most groundbreaking bodies of jurisprudence. For example, in the case Radilla Pacheco Vs. México, the Court explains that:

In International Law this Tribunals’ jurisprudence has been precursor of the consolidation of a comprehensive perspective of the gravity and continued or permanent and autonomous nature of the figure of forced disappearance of persons. The Court has reiterated that it constitutes a multiple violation of several rights protected by the American Convention and places the victim in a state of complete defenselessness, implying other related violations, especially grave when it forms part of a systematic pattern or practice applied or tolerated by the State.[iii]

In the same case the Court outlines the main components of forced disappearance, which have been developed through jurisprudential developments since 1988:

a) the deprivation of freedom; b) the direct intervention of state agents or their acquiescence, and c) the refusal to acknowledge the arrest and reveal the fate or whereabouts of the interested person.[iv]

Now, no one is suggesting that the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada can be attributed to the “direct intervention of state agents” as outlined in Radilla Pacheco and other cases. However, the Court’s jurisprudence has expanded beyond disappearance by state agents and has examined disappearances committed by non-state actors. I think that these cases could teach some important lessons to Canada and Canadian courts for responding to the Final Report of the National Inquiry.

For example, the Court has said that state parties to the American Convention on Human Rights have the obligation to guarantee respect for the rights contained in that instrument and to prevent such violations. One part of the need to prevent and guarantee is to diligently investigate human rights violations, regardless of whether the suspected perpetrators are state agents or private individuals. The Court has also identified that states have an accentuated obligation of due diligence in the investigation of disappearances of people who have an accentuated risk of being victimized, including women.

One of the first such cases was the Case of González et al. (“Cotton Field”) v. Mexico (“Campo Algodonero” in Spanish), which deals with a situation of missing and murdered women in Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. The decision jointly analyses violations of rights contained in the American Convention and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, known as the Convention of Belém do Pará, of which Canada is also not a signatory. The Court said:

States should adopt comprehensive measures to comply with due diligence in cases of violence against women. In particular, they should have an appropriate legal framework for protection that is enforced effectively, and prevention policies and practices that allow effective measures to be taken in response to the respective complaints. The prevention strategy should also be comprehensive; in other words, it should prevent the risk factors and, at the same time, strengthen the institutions that can provide an effective response in cases of violence against women. Furthermore, the State should adopt preventive measures in specific cases in which it is evident that certain women and girls may be victims of violence. This should take into account that, in cases of violence against women, the States also have the general obligation established in the American Convention, an obligation reinforced since the Convention of Belém do Pará came into force. (emphasis mine)[v]

The Court has also established that States must adopt norms and regulations that allow the authorities to investigate cases of violence against women with the required due diligence. It has suggested that the state can satisfy this requirement through the standardization of protocols, manuals, and expert consulting and judicial services.[vi]

The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls

In comparing IACtHR jurisprudence with Final Report of the National Inquiry, I saw an overlap between types of problems identified in cases like Campo Algodonero and the challenges faced by Indigenous Women, Girls, members of the LGBTQ2S community, and their families. The National Inquiry reports descriptions of “police apathy in cases involving violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA people”, mentioning that this apathy “often takes the form of stereotyping and victim-blaming, such as when police describe missing loved ones as ‘drunks,’ ‘runaways out partying,’ or ‘prostitutes unworthy of follow-up.’”[vii] However, police services are not the only problem. When the National Inquiry spoke to police services, many cited “insufficient equipment and resources as impeding their efforts to engage in proper investigation, as well as in crime prevention, in First Nations communities.”[viii] It is easy to make the connection between the gaps revealed in the report and the standards called for by the Inter-American Court.

The more I learn about the Inter-American Human Rights System, the more I realize that Canada shares a lot of struggles with Latin American countries. Indeed, a history of colonization and genocide of Indigenous peoples is common to almost every country in the Americas, including Canada and the United States. One could say it’s what brings us together and unites us, our common legacy of colonization.

The Canadian government and Canadian courts should look to the rich jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court for inspiration on how to tackle the problems outlined in the National Inquiry’s Final Report. Although Canada is not a signatory of neither the American Convention nor the Convention of Belém do Pará, human rights are universal and the developments in this regional system could inspire and inform interpretations of Canadian law and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Perhaps one day Canadians will be able to directly benefit from the protections offered in the Inter-American System by bringing complaints directly to the Court.

Not all work: Making new friends of the animal variety on a weekend trip to Manuel Antonio National Park

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[i] For more information, the Court publishes Case Law Handbooks on a variety of topics, including forced disappearance http://www.corteidh.or.cr/sitios/libros/todos/docs/cuadernillo6.pdf (available in Spanish only). For the full list of Handbooks, see: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/publicaciones-en.html.

[ii] Caso Velásquez Rodríguez Vs. Honduras. Sentencia de 29 de julio de 1988. (Fondo). Ser. C No. 4 (1988).

[iii] Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. México. Excepciones Preliminares, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 23 de noviembre de 2009, párr. 139

[iv] Caso Radilla Pacheco vs. México. Excepciones Preliminares, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 23 de noviembre de 2009, párr. 140

[v] Caso González y otras (“Campo Algodonero”) Vs. México. Excepción Preliminar, Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 16 de noviembre de 2009. Serie C No. 205, párr. 258

[vi] Caso López Soto Vs. Venezuela.Fondo, Reparaciones y Costas. Sentencia de 26 de septiembre de 2018, párr 131, Caso González y otras (“Campo Algodonero”) Vs. México, supra, párr. 388, y Caso Velásquez Paiz y otros Vs. Guatemala, supra, párr. 148.

[vii] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Executive Summary of the Final Report. June 2019. Available at: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/, p 38.

[viii] National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. Executive Summary of the Final Report. June 2019. Available at: https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/final-report/, p 38.

Abortion in the Americas: Article 4(1) of the American Convention on Human Rights

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

I can’t believe it’s been more than a month since I arrived in Costa Rica to start my internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights! Of course, when I think back on all of the experiences I’ve had in the past 6 weeks, professionally and personally, I can see that I have been busy during this short time.

My idea for this post came as I was doing research for my last blog post on Canada’s place in the Inter-American Human Rights System. In my reading, I learned that Article 4(1) is frequently cited as a potential obstacle for Canada’s ratification of the American Convention of Human Rights. The article reads:

Not just work: I got to go hiking in Rincón de la Vieja National Park in the province of Guanacaste one weekend.

Article 4: Right to Life

  1. Every person has the right to have his life respected. This right shall be protected by law and, in general, from the moment of conception. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.[i] (emphasis mine)

… What??? I could not believe my eyes. In my opinion, the right to end a pregnancy (whether potentially dangerous, unviable, or simply unwanted) is intrinsically linked to bodily autonomy and gender equality. How could an international human rights instrument include such a clause that undermined gender equality? I was flabbergasted.

Article 4(1) of the American Convention reminded me of the 8th amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, which was repealed in 2018. The amendment read:

The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.[ii]

Savita Halappanavar, Irish Times

As a feminist, and as an Irish woman, I have had strong feelings about abortion since I was an undergraduate student. I was living in Ireland in the fall of 2012, when Savita Halappanavar died of sepsis in an Irish hospital after doctors refused to terminate her pregnancy. Even though it was a much-wanted pregnancy, she was having a miscarriage that quickly became a danger to her life.[iii] Her doctors refused to accelerate the end of her pregnancy because the fetus still “had a heartbeat,” while hospital staff reportedly told her husband that Ireland was a “Catholic country.”[iv] Protests ensued. Feminists replied that “she had a heartbeat too.”[v]

At the time, Ireland had one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe.[vi] The public outrage at the injustice done to Ms. Halappanavar and the tireless effort of feminist groups eventually led to a successful 2018 referendum to repeal the 8th amendment and legalize the procedure in the Republic, now allowed regardless of reason until 12 weeks gestation. The Irish Times wrote after the vote that “[m]any point to a young woman called Savita Halappanavar as the reason they became revolutionaries.”[vii] I guess I could say the same of myself.

“ABORTO YA” (“ABORTION NOW”) graffiti on my way to work in San José, painted in the same green colour used by the Argentinean movement.

Abortion has long been a controversial issue in Latin America, home to some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world. The Center for Reproductive Rights, an NGO that uses law to advance reproductive rights as fundamental human rights around the world, writes:

Latin America and the Caribbean are home to some of the most restrictive and punitive abortion laws in the world. In El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Suriname, abortion is completely illegal—with no exception. In El Salvador, the government has taken this even further and interpreted the law such that women are imprisoned for obstetric emergencies out of suspicion of their having had an abortion. In Guatemala, abortion is criminalized in all instances except when a pregnant woman’s life is at risk, which is typically interpreted to mean immediate and imminent death.[viii]

In recent weeks abortion has been a hot topic in Latin America from Guatemala to Argentina. On May 29th, four women from Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Guatemala filed complaints against their respective governments before the UN Human Rights Committee, represented by the Center for Reproductive Rights.[ix] The women were all under 14 years old when they became pregnant as a result of rape perpetrated by older men. They argue that their lives were put at risk when their governments denied them abortions.

Activists hold green handkerchiefs, which symbolizes the abortion rights movement, during a rally to legalize abortion, outside the National Congress in Buenos Aires, Argentina May 28, 2019. REUTERS/Agustin Marcarian

There is more optimism happening in Argentina, where on May 28th, when an attempt to legalize abortion was introduced to Argentina’s congress for the 8th time. Last year, a similar bill passed the House of Deputies but was narrowly defeated in the Senate.[x] One of the loudest opponents of the effort to legalize abortion is the Catholic Church: on May 25th Pope Francis, who is Argentinean, compared abortion to “hiring a hitman.”[xi]

An Argentinean colleague at the Court, named Nina, told me that she wished she could be home to participate in the demonstrations in favour of the bill, which have come to be symbolized by the pañuelo verde (green hankerchief) that pro-choice protesters wear. Currently, abortions are available in Argentina only in cases of rape and when the mother’s health is at risk.[xii] However, in practice, many women are not able to access the care they are allowed by law. In February of 2019, a 12-year-old girl was forced to deliver a baby by cesarean section after hospital and government administrators blocked her request for an abortion. She had become pregnant after being raped by her grandmother’s boyfriend.[xiii] A similar abortion law also failed to save Savita Halappanavar in Ireland.

My work colleague, Nina, with her symbolic pañuelo verde that she wears to pro-abortion demonstrations in her home city of Córdoba, Argentina.

Given this context of strict abortion laws, it is perhaps unsurprising that there would have been pressure to include a provision such as Article 4(1) in the drafting of the American Convention. In the case Baby Boy vs United States of America (1981), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights talked about the origins of the clause.[xiv] The American Convention was preceded by the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. Canada accepted the American Declaration when it became a full member of the OAS in 1990, although it didn’t participate in the drafting of either document. Article 1 of the Declaration made no mention of conception. According to the Commission, the preliminary draft of this article protected life from the moment of conception, but was dropped in the final version due to the objection of states that permitted abortion in some circumstances (Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela at the time).[xv]

According to the Commission in Baby Boy, the first draft of the American Convention sought to protect life from the moment of conception. However, the words “and, in general” were added by majority vote of the Council of the OAS to accommodate states that permitted abortion in cases such as “to save the mother’s life, and in the case of rape.”[xvi] Some states, such as Ecuador, objected to this change.[xvii] Given this history, the Commission firmly established that the right to life from the moment of conception is not absolute.[xviii]

After Baby Boy, there was no jurisprudence on the subject of the rights of embryos under Article 4(1) until the 2012 case Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica, which related to the legality of in vitro fertilization.[xix] In Artavia Murillo, the Inter-American Court said that the addition of the words “and, in general” means that the right to life from conception is not absolute, but rather is gradual and evolves along with the development of the fetus.[xx] The Court also concluded that it was impossible to consider an embryo to have full legal personhood, and noted that no other international human rights instruments grant personhood to the unborn.[xxi]

Nevertheless, Article 4(1) has been pointed out as a potential obstacle to Canada’s adherence to the convention. In 2003, there was a Senate Commission on Canada’s involvement in the Inter-American system. The Commission said:

Even though article 4(1) does not impose an obligation to prohibit abortions, it may impose an obligation to regulate them. However, at the moment, there is no Canadian legislation or regulation with respect to abortions. The Supreme Court of Canada found in R v Morgentaler that the procedure created under section 251 of the Criminal Code for obtaining an abortion was incompatible with a woman’s right to the security of her person. No new provision has been adopted to replace s. 251.[xxii]

Despite this concern (and others), the Senate ultimately recommended that Canada join the system.[xxiii] Sixteen years later, Canada’s law on abortion has not changed, and therefore, in my opinion, the concerns of the Senate Committee remain valid.

This photo with the flag of the Organization of American States was taken in the room where the judges of the Court deliberate important cases such as Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica.

Even with the limits on Article 4(1) circumscribed by the Court, I do not think that the right to life as set out in the American Convention is compatible with Canadian law on the subject of abortion. Bernard Duhaime writes in “Ten Reasons Why Canada Should Join the ACHR” that the interpretations of the Article in Baby Boy and Artavia Murillo bring the Article in line with obligations of other human rights treaties ratified by Canada, and would not pose an obstacle for Canada’s acceptance of the Convention.[xxiv] I respectfully disagree. It is clear from the jurisprudence that Article 4(1) allows abortion in some circumstances, such as in the case of rape and to save the life of the mother. However, the jurisprudence is silent on whether the Article permits the termination of a pregnancy that is simply unwanted, as is currently allowed in Canada. Duhaime does acknowledge that “any remaining concern could also be addressed by entering a reservation or an interpretative declaration as to specific aspects of the American Convention, when adhering to it.”[xxv] On this point I agree: any adherence by Canada would require such a reservation, which would relieve Canada of the obligation of Article 4(1).

In conclusion, the lack of protection of a women’s right to end a pregnancy is a pressing issue in Latin America, from Argentina to Mexico, and, increasingly the United States as well (but that’s another issue[xxvi]). The American Convention, unfortunately, does little to protect women’s reproductive rights due to the protection of a fetus’s right to life in Article 4(1). Clearly, the Inter-American Human Rights System allows abortion in at least some circumstances, but it is not clear whether a legal framework such as Canada’s would be allowed. Consequently, if Canada were to ratify the American Convention, it would be essential to include a reservation with regards to Article 4(1). The complex topic of abortion in the Americas, therefore, should not necessarily prevent Canada from playing a bigger role in the Inter-American Human Rights System.

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[i] American Convention on Human Rights, available at: https://www.cidh.oas.org/basicos/english/basic3.american%20convention.htm

[ii] Constitution of Ireland, available at: https://www.gov.ie/en/publication/d5bd8c-constitution-of-ireland/?referrer=/DOT/eng/Historical_Information/The_Constitution/Constitution_of_Ireland_-_Bunreacht_na_h%C3%83%E2%80%B0ireann.html

[iii] BBC, Woman dies after abortion request “refused” at Galway Hospital, 14 November 2012, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-20321741

[iv] Ibid.

[v] See, for example, Ann Rossiter, “‘She Had A Heartbeat Too’: The Tragic Death of Savita Halappanavar in an Irish Hospital,” 21 Jan 2013, Feministing, http://feministing.com/2013/01/21/she-had-a-heartbeat-too-the-tragic-death-of-savita-halappanavar-in-an-irish-hospital/

[vi] For a comprehensive look at the state of abortion rights in the world, see: Center for Reproductive Rights, “The World’s Abortion Laws 2019,” updated in real time, http://worldabortionlaws.com/

[vii] Kitty Holland, “How the death of Savita Halappanavar revolutionised Ireland,” The Irish Times, 28 May 2018, online: <https://www.irishtimes.com/news/social-affairs/how-the-death-of-savita-halappanavar-revolutionised-ireland-1.3510387>.

[viii] Center for Reproductive Rights, “They Are Girls: Reproductive Rights Violations in Latin America and the Caribbean,” 2019, online: <https://www.reproductiverights.org/document/just-girls-reproductive-rights-violations-in-latin-america-and-the-caribbean>.

[ix] The Guardian, Latin America rape survivors who were denied abortions turn to UN, May 29, 2019, online: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/may/29/latin-american-survivors-who-were-denied-abortions-turn-to-un>.

[x] BBC, “Argentina abortion: Senate defeats bill after polarising debate,” 9 August 2018, online: <https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-45125687>.

[xi] Semana, “‘Abortar equivale a contratar un sicario’: Papa Francisco,” 25 May 2019, online: <https://www.semana.com/mundo/articulo/papa-reitera-que-abortar-es-igual-a-contratar-un-sicario/617162>.

[xii] Walter Bianchi, “Argentine activists try again with new bill to legalize abortion,” Reuters, 28 May 2019, online: <https://www.reuters.com/article/us-argentina-abortion/argentine-activists-try-again-with-new-bill-to-legalize-abortion-idUSKCN1SY2NO?>.

[xiii] El País, “Obligada a dar a luz por cesárea otra niña argentina que había sido violada y pidió un aborto,” 28 February 2019, online: <https://elpais.com/sociedad/2019/02/27/actualidad/1551292176_461936.html>.

[xiv] Baby Boy vs United States of America [1981], Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Res 23/81, Case 2141, online: <http://www.cidh.org/annualrep/80.81eng/USA2141.htm>.

[xv] Ibid., at paras 18-19.

[xvi] Ibid., at para 25.

[xvii] Ibid., at para 29.

[xviii] Ibid., at para 30.

[xix] Artavia Murillo and others vs. Costa Rica, Decision 28 November 2012 (Preliminary exceptions, merits, reparations and costs), online: <http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_257_ing.pdf>.

[xx] Ibid., at paras 188 and 264.

[xxi] Ibid., at para 223.

[xxii] Senate, Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, “Enhancing Canada’s Role in the OAS: Canadian Adherence to the American Convention on Human Rights (May 2003), online: <https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/Committee/372/huma/rep/rep04may03-e.pdf >, at p. 43.

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Bernard Duhaime, “Ten Reasons Why Canada Should Join the ACHR,” Revue générale de droit, Vol. 49 (2019), at p. 196.

[xxv] Ibid, at p. 197.

[xxvi] The Guardian, “US abortion policy is ‘extremist hate’ and ‘torture’, says UN commissioner,” 4 June 2019, online: <https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/jun/04/us-abortion-policy-extremist-hate-torture-un-commissioner-kate-gilmore>.

Canada and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Kelly O’ConnorBy Kelly O’Connor

On May 8th I flew to San José, Costa Rica to start my internship at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Despite arriving at the beginning of Costa Rica’s rainy season – which Costa Ricans call invierno (winter) – the warmth and humidity was a welcome change from Montreal’s still-lingering winter. I spent my first days here settling in: finding the nearest supermarket, exploring the San Pedro neighbourhood where I live, and making new contacts with friends-of-friends who live in the city.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has a permanent internship program, which runs in three sessions: September-December, January-April, and May-August. The Court allows the interns to choose their start and end dates, so the interns all have slightly different start dates. The coordinator of the internship program put all the interns for the May-August period in touch via email, and we have since been corresponding through a WhatsApp group chat (if you’ve spent any time in Latin America, you know that WhatsApp groups are the preferred method of communication… even in a professional context, to my great surprise!). Most of the approximately 25 interns had already started their internships, 5 of us starting on Monday, May 13th.

My first day at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

On the Friday before starting my internship, my future colleagues who had already begun wrote in the WhatsApp group that they were planning to meet up for a sort of 5 à 7 at a Venezuelan restaurant in the trendy Escalante neighbourhood. Having already arrived in San José, I decided to join them. I was nervous to meet all my future colleagues for the first time (not to mention to chat with them in my third language!) but I felt immediately welcomed into the group. I haven’t met all the other interns yet, but those who I met hailed from Argentina, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru.

At the event, my new colleague, Manuel from Argentina, asked me if Canada recognized the competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. To my great embarrassment, I realized I didn’t definitively know the answer, despite spending the last two years learning about the Court and immersing myself in its jurisprudence. I knew that Canada was not a member of the Court, but I was not sure of its relationship to the Commission. So, I decided to inform myself, and hopefully any future intern who might read this post!

With Manuel and some other colleagues, taking a break to taste Argentinean mate (a kind of tea)

To this end, I consulted an article called “Canada and the inter-American human rights system: Time to become a full player” by Bernard Duhaime, one of the most well-known Canadian legal scholars who focuses on human rights in the Americas. [1] It’s a great starting point for anyone who wants to know more about Canada’s place in the Inter-American Human Rights System.

I already knew, of course, that Canada has been a full member of the Organization of American States (OAS) since 1990. As a member of the OAS, Canada has an obligation to respect human rights contained in the OAS Charter and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. I also knew that Canada has not signed or ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, which is the main international human rights instrument for the Americas and also establishes the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

What I did not know was that when Canada became a member of the OAS, it also accepted the competence of the Inter-American Commission to “formulate recommendations to member states and to receive and process individual petitions” against states. [2] However, since Canada has not ratified the American Convention, the Commission can only consider petitions that claim violations of provisions of the American Declaration. Many provisions in these two instruments are similar.

Actions against Canada make up only 0.4% of the petitions presented before the Commission. In another, more recent article, Duhaime presents a brief overview of reports by the Commission that concern Canada:

Very few individual actions have been brought against Canada before the Commission, which has only adopted three Canadian decisions on the merits, six on admissibility, and three on inadmissibility. The IACHR has also published two thematic reports on Canada, the first concerning the Canadian Refugee Determination System (2000) and the second on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women in British Columbia (2014). [3]

Of these, the Commission has only decided one case against Canada: Manickavasagam Suresh v Canada (2016), which concerned judicial review of immigration detention for a refugee found inadmissible to Canada on the grounds of national security, but who would risk torture upon return to his country of origin.

I brought this information back to Manuel, but he immediately asked me: Why? Why did Canada decide to join the OAS and ratify the American Declaration, but did not adhere to the American Convention? I had a feeling that the reason was political: as a student of human rights I am aware of some of the hot-button human rights issues in Canada, such as the state’s relationship to Indigenous peoples and our immigration and refugee system. I thought that maybe Canada wanted to avoid having its dirty laundry displayed on the world stage, with possible repercussions for its image as a human rights defender. I found that the answer is much more complicated than I thought.

In researching this topic I happened upon a special issue of the Revue générale de droit entitled “Canada’s Role in Protecting Human Rights in the Americas.” In this issue, the Honourable Marie Deschamps, former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, warns of problems that Canada could face if it were to join the system in “L’approche canadienne : assurer la protection des droits de la personne de façon distinctive.” [4]

Deschamps points out that Canada has long hesitated to get involved in the Inter-American system. While the OAS Charter was adopted by in Bogotá in 1948, Canada didn’t join the OAS as an observer until 1972, and not a as a full member until 1990. The American Convention has been in effect since 1978, but Canada has still not signed, let alone ratified it. [5]

Deschamps argues that there are good reasons for Canada’s reticence, pointing out problems with the Inter-American Human Rights System and identifying potential problems of incompatibility with Canadian law. [6] Her main issues are:

  1. The IACtHR’s use of “creative” remedies to human rights violations and its procedures for monitoring compliance with its decisions
  2. Long delays between first complaint and final decision from the IACtHR

First, Deschamps points out that the IACtHR has a history of identifying “creative” remedies for human rights violations beyond pecuniary damages. For example, in the case Favela Nova Brasilia v Brazil, the Court required Brazil to undertake some unconventional remedies such as publishing a summary of the decision on the government’s Twitter and Facebook pages and creating and implementing a training program on sexual violence for police officers and health care workers. Deschamps suggests that these types of “creative” remedies are not compatible with Canada’s separation of powers, citing Canada c Khadr (2010) [7]. On a similar note, Deschamps observes that, while supervision of compliance with Court decisions is de rigueur in the Inter-American System, such actions are only undertaken by Canadian courts in very exceptional circumstances, per Doucet-Boudreau v Nova Scotia (Minister of Education) (2003), also due to the separation of powers [8].

Second, Deschamps cites long delays between the first complaint and the Court’s decision, which can stretch more than 20 years in the Inter-American System. These fall well outside the “reasonable” 18-month deadline set by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Jordan (2016) [9]. I also found out that in 2003 there was a Senate Commission on Canada’s involvement in the Inter-American system, which cited these long delays as a worry but ultimately recommended that Canada join the system. [9]

In addition to the above, the Senate report expresses concern about Article 4(1) of the American Convention, which protects the right to life, “in general, from the moment of conception” and which appears prima facie to contradict Canadian jurisprudence on the subject of abortion as provided in R v Morgentaler (1988). [10]

Visiting San José’s Parque Metropolitano La Sabana on the weekend

Through my research for this blog post, I discovered that the question of whether Canada should adhere to the American Convention and recognize the competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was much more complicated than I had thought. I was persuaded by some of the arguments presented by Justice Deschamps, and I find myself particularly concerned about Article 4(1) of the Convention. I guess my next step would be to research the arguments in favour of Canada’s adherence to the Convention and the potential impact of Article 4(1). I think I would like to dive more deeply into my internship, the jurisprudence, and arguments for and against before I make a decision on this topic.

In the meantime, I will keep learning and exploring. Until next time!

 

—————-

[1] Bernard Duhaime, “Canada and the inter-American human rights system: Time to become a full player,” International Journal, Summer 2012.

[2] Ibid, at p 641.

[3] Bernard Duhaime, “Ten Reasons Why Canada Should Join the ACHR,” Revue générale de droit, Vol. 49 (2019), at p 189.

[4] Marie Deschamps, “L’approche canadienne : assurer la protection des droits de la personne de façon distinctive,” Revue générale de droit, Vol. 49 (2019).

[5] Ibid, at p 37.

[6] Ibid, at p 38.

[7] Ibid, at p 39.

[8] Ibid, at p 39.

[9] Senate, Report of the Standing Senate Committee on Human Rights, “Enhancing Canada’s Role in the OAS: Canadian Adherence to the American Convention on Human Rights (May 2003), online: <https://sencanada.ca/content/sen/Committee/372/huma/rep/rep04may03-e.pdf >.

[10] Ibid.

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