Reforming the Human Rights System

Juan Manuel Herrera / OAS

The Inter-American Dialogue and the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame organized a joint event to discuss the main challenges facing the Inter-American human rights system (IAHRS). Since the OAS Permanent Council created the Special Working Group to Reflect on the Workings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 2011, there has been much debate over how to make the Inter-American system more effective in defending human rights and advancing democratic principles across the hemisphere.

Douglass Cassel, Professor of international human rights and international humanitarian law at Notre Dame, and Paolo Carozza, Director of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, joined the Dialogue to identify the main areas of concern with the Inter-American system. Both panellists raised issues relating to the complex relationships between the system and national jurisdictions, the Inter-American system’s petition processes and the appointments to the Inter-American Court (IACtHR) and Commission (IACHR). The Dialogue’s Michael Shifter moderated the discussion.

Carozza first pointed to the Anglo-Latin divide and its weakening impact on the IAHRS. Even though the United States and Canada contribute more than 3/4th of the OAS budget, neither has ratified the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. According to Carozza, the English-speaking world’s lack of compliance undermines regional support for the IAHRS as well as the system’s legitimacy. The underlying problem, however, remains the relative strength of international law in relationship to traditional and national conceptions of law and rights.

Carozza also tackled the structural concern the Commission poses to the sustainability of the IAHRS. He stressed the need for greater internal coherence and coordination between the Secretariat, the Commission and the Court to resolve the delays in processing contentious petitions. Cassel agreed with Carozza also noting the “massive disproportion between the current mandate of the commission and its material resources.”

Cassel then emphasized the need for a more transparent method to elect qualified candidates and uphold the IAHRS’commitment to safeguard human dignity. Cassel criticized inter-state competition during judge elections for undermining meritocracy. He also called for greater representation and diversity, saying that the “absence of women on the Inter-American Court is a scandal.”

Referencing Laurence Burgorgue-Larsen’s working paper Between Idealism and Realism, Cassel also identified some selection models adopted by multilateral bodies that could help guide the IAHRS when reforming commissioner and judge election. Cassel discussed the European Union’s model for which an expert committee provides binding recommendations on judge selection, the European Court of Human Rights and the ABA model for which the expert committee’s recommendations are only advisory as well as a “status quo enhanced model” where IAHRS candidates would be interviewed in public. Both speakers conceded that the European Union’s system is not utopian even though it has taken procedural steps to improve both the legitimacy of commissioners and judges and the efficiency of their Human Rights system. Ultimately, for Cassel, an expert committee sponsored by civil society would be a useful addition to the Inter-American Human Rights selection process.

Throughout the discussion, it was clear that sovereignty and non-intervention continue to trump Human Rights and weaken the Inter-American system. Concluding, Carozza warned that “the system will only survive if the social and political foundations of legitimacy of the Inter-American HR system are attended to.” Ultimately, the future of the protection and defense of Human Rights in the Americas will depend on the political will to reform.