Inter-American human rights system

The Inter-American human rights system was born with the adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in Bogotá, Colombia, in April of 1948. The American Declaration was the first international human rights instrument of a general nature.

In 1959, the Organization of American States (OAS) created the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission, whose mission it is to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere, is a principal and autonomous organ of the OAS and has its headquarters in Washington, D.C. It is composed of seven independent members who serve in their personal capacity for a four-year term, renewable once.

In 1969, the American Convention on Human Rights was adopted by the OAS member States. The American Convention entered into force in 1978. The Convention enunciates a series of rights, creates the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and defines the functions and procedures of both the Commission and the Court. The Court was officially installed in 1979 in San José, Costa Rica. It is composed of seven judges elected in their individual capacity for a six-year term. 

The Inter-American system and the prevention of torture

Since its early days, the Inter-American Commission has examined many cases of violations of the right to humane treatment. Both the Commission and the Court have developed an important jurisprudence on this issue.

In 1985, the General Assembly of the OAS further developed the normative framework by adopting the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture.

While the American Convention already recognized the right to humane treatment, this specialized treaty includes a detailed definition of torture and obliges States parties to severely punish the perpetrators of torture. States are also obliged to adopt measures to prevent and punish any other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The treaty entered into force in 1987 and has 18 States parties.

The Commission always gave particular attention to the rights of persons deprived of their liberty and it conducted numerous visits to places of detention throughout the hemisphere. It was not, however, until 2004, that the Commission established the Special Rapporteurship on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Their Liberty. The Rapporteur’s mandate includes in-country missions with visits to a wide range of places of detention and a permanent a dialogue with national authorities on its observations and recommendations. Since its creation, the Rapporteurship also contributed to the development of new protection standards by preparing and promoting the adoption of the Principles and Best Practices on the Protection of Persons Deprived of Liberty in the Americas.

In March 2008, the Commission approved this document, which establishes a series of general principles on the rights of persons deprived of their liberty, their conditions of detention and the systems of deprivation of liberty.

In early 2012, the Rapporteurship published a report on the human rights of persons deprived of their liberty, providing for the first time a thorough analysis of the main problems identified in the detention facilities of the region.