Is Three a Crowd? The Procedural Nature of the Inter-American Human Rights System

2015-lachapelle-kaley By Kaley Lachapelle

Because Canada is not a State Party to the American Convention on Human Rights (also referred to as the Pact of San Jose, Costa Rica), many Canadians are not familiar with the Inter-American System for the protection of human rights.  Having returned to Canada just over a month ago, I have had the opportunity to discuss my experience at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (hereinafter the Court) with a number of fellow law students, family and friends.

When describing the adjudicative body and function of the Inter-American System, I find that people are often surprised to learn that there are three parties to a dispute brought before the Court: the State, the alleged victims (or their representatives) and the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (hereinafter the Commission) (Articles 23 – 25 of the Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights).

The Courtroom at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

The Courtroom at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights

In accordance with Article 33 of the American Convention, compliance by states with the provisions of the Convention is ensured by two supervisory organs: the Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  Once domestic remedies have been exhausted,  an alleged victim may lodge a petition against a State Party before the Commission (Articles 44 & 45 of the American Convention).  The purpose of the Commission is to amicably reach a settlement between the parties (Article 48(f) of the American Convention).  If, however, the State fails to implement the provisions of the settlement agreement and/or does not comply with the recommendations made by the Commission within the period prescribed, the Commission may submit the petition to the Court, in accordance with Articles 48 – 51 and 61 of the American Convention.  States Parties may also submit a case before the Court.  Alleged victims or their representatives, however, may not bring a claim before the Court; rather, a claim must be brought on their behalf by the Commission.

The procedure for bringing a case before the Court is desirable as it encourages parties to engage in a dialogue with one another in a conciliatory fashion with the purpose of reaching an out-of-court agreement.   Only in cases where the State has not taken action to implement its commitments or the recommendations of the Commission will the adversarial dispute resolution organ of the Inter-American system be engaged.

So, to answer the question, ‘is three a crowd?’, I would say that no, it is not.   Although some may argue that, in essence, the alleged victim is represented twice before the tribunal, by both its own counsel as well as by the Commission, it is important to note that the Commission does not always put forward the same arguments as the representatives.  Furthermore, while there can be cost-efficiency arguments made in favour of a two-party dispute resolution mechanism, as having three parties to the dispute is inherently more costly and time-consuming, I would argue that the Commission is well placed to offer a balanced, informed position before the Inter-American Court and that, therefore, its presence is desirable.

My experience working at the Court this summer taught me that both the Court and the Commission play very important, yet distinct, roles in monitoring compliance with the human rights obligations of states.

A touch of sun with my café con leche: A glimpse into the day-to-day life of an Inter-American Court of Human Rights intern.

2015-lachapelle-kaleyBy Kaley Lachapelle

As I sit sipping on my coffee at a local coffee shop in Calgary, I reflect on my summer spent in Costa Rica.  What an enriching summer it was.

I was selected by the McGill Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism to participate in a Human Rights Internship for the summer, 2015 at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  The Court is located in San José, Costa Rica.

The internship at the Court provides a very comprehensive experience, professionally, culturally and socially.  In order to fully benefit from the experience, fluency in Spanish is a requirement for the position, as it is the working language of the Court.  During the course of my twelve-week internship, I was part of a group of approximately twenty visiting professionals and interns from across the Americas and Europe.

Interns and visiting professionals at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, summer 2015

Interns and visiting professionals at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, summer 2015

The Court is the judicial institution of the Organization of American States responsible for applying and interpreting the American Convention on Human Rights (Art. 1, Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights).  While neither Canada nor the United States of America are state parties to the Convention, twenty-five American states have ratified or acceded to the treaty, thus providing the Court with jurisdiction over Convention related disputes.

During the course of the internship, my day-to-day generally consisted of providing legal research in a number of areas to support a team of lawyers and legal assistants.  The Court’s lawyers largely represent jurisdictions across the Americas.  The diversity of legal knowledge and experience in the area of human rights at Court is arguably unparalleled in the region.

For two and half weeks during my internship, the Court was in session and public hearings were held. I, along with the other interns and visiting professionals, was invited to attend the public hearings of the 109th session.  The hearings are recorded and can be viewed online.  It was a very unique opportunity to work at the Court during the public hearings, as I was able to meet and interact with the Court’s seven judges.

The Court is located in the city of San José at 1200 m (3700 ft) above sea level in the central valley of the small, Central American country.   Surrounded by mountains and volcanoes, San José is the country’s largest city and its political and economic capital.  I travelled to Costa Rica during the rainy season; from May through November, the mornings in the Central Valley are hot and humid (between 25 – 30 degrees celsius), with the temperature often dropping in the afternoon with the tropical, torrential downpours.

The beauty of Costa Rica is that one can travel from a lush, green mountainous landscape (or, more accurately in my case, the bustling city of San José) to the sunny, sandy beaches along the coast in a short drive of a couple of hours.  There is so much to see and enjoy outside of San José, that small getaways form an integral part of the intern’s experience. From pineapples, to bananas, to sugarcane and coffee, Costa Rica has a diverse, breathtaking landscape.  Weekends are spent sightseeing, hiking, swimming and relaxing with colleagues, as there is always someone keen to escape the capital for a few days.

Undoubtedly, the greatest part of my experience in Costa Rica was establishing very positive professional relationships, that evolved into friendships, with lawyers, law students and Court staff from across the Americas as well as from Europe.  Today I feel very connected to the legal and human rights community globally; bonds that will endure well past law school and will undoubtedly shape my legal career.  My experience in Costa Rica this summer taught me that my legal education is not only about the destination; rather I have come to value this unique, unforgettable journey as a McGill law student.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. July, 2015

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