Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Organization of American States created the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to promote human rights and monitor violations by the organization’s member nations.

Summary of Event

The Ninth International Conference of American States Ninth International Conference of American States (1948) , held in Bogota, Colombia, in 1948, adopted the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS), which introduced a regional political and military framework for the Americas. One of the areas addressed was human rights, as the charter advocated “a system of individual liberty and social justice based on respect for the essential rights of man.” It contained some specific human rights provisions, most significantly Article 5(j): “The American States proclaim the fundamental rights of the individual without distinction as to race, nationality, creed or sex.” The same meetings also produced the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man , an extensive listing of twenty-eight “rights” and ten “duties.” Human rights;commissions Inter-American Commission on Human Rights[InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights] Organization of American States [kw]Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created (Aug. 12-18, 1959)[InterAmerican] [kw]American Commission on Human Rights Is Created, Inter- (Aug. 12-18, 1959) [kw]Human Rights Is Created, Inter-American Commission on (Aug. 12-18, 1959) [kw]Rights Is Created, Inter-American Commission on Human (Aug. 12-18, 1959) Human rights;commissions Inter-American Commission on Human Rights[InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights] Organization of American States [g]Latin America;Aug. 12-18, 1959: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created[06160] [g]Chile;Aug. 12-18, 1959: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created[06160] [c]Human rights;Aug. 12-18, 1959: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created[06160] [c]Organizations and institutions;Aug. 12-18, 1959: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created[06160] [c]Diplomacy and international relations;Aug. 12-18, 1959: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Is Created[06160] Mora, José A. Escudero, Gonzalo Bianchi Gundián, Manuel Sandifer, Durward V.

Nevertheless, the Inter-American Juridical Committee subsequently turned down the assignment of creating a human rights court after concluding that the OAS charter and the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man could not be entwined to create a binding legal obligation on the states. Hence, no institutional framework to oversee human rights existed within the OAS until the creation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Fifth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs in Santiago, Chile, August 12-18, 1959. The meeting’s eighth resolution directed the OAS council to elect seven persons to serve as individuals (rather than as representatives of their states) on an Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which was charged with “furthering respect for human rights” and carrying out other “functions which the Council assigns to it.”

By June, 1960, the council of the OAS had approved a statute for the new commission. According to the statute’s Article 9, the commission was authorized “to develop an awareness of human rights”; to recommend “progressive . . . domestic legislation” to the states; “to prepare such studies and reports” on human rights as were appropriate; to urge the states to give the commission information on human rights matters within their domestic jurisdictions; and to be an “advisory body” to the OAS on human rights.

The debates surrounding the adoption of Article 9 revealed that states wished both to support the concept of human rights and at the same time to sustain the principle of nonintervention in domestic affairs. Most of these states already had human rights provisions in their individual constitutions. In reality, however, nondemocratic regimes and large-scale poverty throughout Latin America made the realization of human rights problematic, at best. Nevertheless, the subsequent history of the commission was one of steadily expanding activity and authority resulting from its aggressive interpretation of the mandate and the resulting perception among OAS members of a solid record of success.

The most disputed issue regarding the statute was whether the commission should be entitled to receive petitions alleging human rights violations from states, groups, or individuals. Despite the vigorous efforts of Ecuador’s Gonzalo Escudero (who was later a member of the commission), this option was defeated in all forms. The commission, however, subsequently interpreted its mandate to include the right to receive “information” from individuals. This was embellished by its accompanying assertion of the need to interrogate witnesses and carry out on-site investigations when appropriate. The commission also began making recommendations to individual states, thereby identifying the human rights record of each state.

Reports were completed in the early 1960’s on human rights matters in Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. A vital turning point for the commission came with the 1965 crisis in the Dominican Republic. Amid civil strife, José A. Mora, secretary-general of the OAS, informed the Tenth Meeting of Consultation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs that he considered “essential and urgent the presence in Santo Domingo of [the] Inter-American Commission on Human Rights” to represent the OAS. The United States had already sent in military forces, which the OAS transformed into an “Inter-American Peace Force” in May.

On June 1, 1965, the commission’s chair, Manuel Bianchi Gundián, arrived in the Dominican Republic. Subsequently, individual members, each with full authority, took turns representing the commission on two-week tours of duty. The commission proceeded to throw itself into the fray by mediating between the two sides, defending the rights of prisoners taken on each side, and saving nonparticipants caught in the cross fire. The commission continued as an “action body” for the OAS in the Dominican Republic for a full year, verifying the legitimacy of its June 1, 1966, elections. The United States’ member, Durward V. Sandifer, noted that during the crisis the commission was literally on the “firing line” for human rights—not confining itself to studying and reporting from the sidelines, but “using its resources and prestige to help . . . end the excesses and the violations of human rights.”

This episode led to a favorable review of the commission’s performance at the Second Special Inter-American Conference, in 1965. The conference used the commission’s record since 1959 to justify granting it additional powers. The most important of these was the right to receive petitions from individuals alleging complaints, not merely as “information.” Revised Article 9 of the commission’s statute also authorized the commission to request information from governments, make recommendations to them, and report on their compliance—all functions the commission had “interpreted” for itself under the previous mandate in Article 9. The commission was also directed to focus its activities upon the most fundamental rights of the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.

No less important for the future of the commission was the Third Special Inter-American Conference, held in 1967 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which revised the OAS charter and ended the commission’s dubious status as an “autonomous entity” in the OAS. Thereafter, Article 51 of the revised OAS charter anchored the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on a firm constitutional basis as a “principal organ” within the OAS. Article 112 spelled out its functions: “to promote the observance and protection of human rights and to serve as a consultative organ of the organization in these matters.” The revised OAS charter entered into force in February, 1970.

The human rights to be protected were identified and created in a significant sense by the commission itself, which had worked for several years on a draft treaty based on the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. The Second Special Inter-American Conference (which also enhanced the commission’s authority) requested in 1965 that a final draft be prepared by the commission and sent to the OAS council. In April, 1966, the commission’s review of the draft culminated in significant revisions, including the removal of numerous social and economic rights because they were less suited to legal enforcement and more dependent on a government’s resources.

The Inter-American Specialized Conference on Human Rights convened in San José, Costa Rica, in November, 1969, and was attended by representatives of nineteen of the twenty-four OAS members. Its fruition, put forward on November 22, 1969, was the American Convention on Human Rights American Convention on Human Rights (1969) (ACHR). It listed twenty-three human rights, created an Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and redesigned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to give it additional authority through a mechanism to take complaints on violations of the ACHR from individuals and to give it authority over state-to-state complaints. The ACHR entered into force with the necessary eleventh ratification on July 18, 1978.


The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in a profound sense, created the inter-American system for the protection of human rights. None of the participants at its creation in 1959 anticipated its swift emergence as a vigorous advocate for human rights, as it had been set up quickly with no well-thought-out role or procedure. Numerous observers echoed the view that the commission skillfully and imaginatively expanded its powers and thereby transformed itself.

As noted, there was a substantial gap between the reality of human rights in most OAS states in 1959 and the ideal espoused by governments in public and official forums. The commission had to deal with numerous arbitrary arrests, systematic torture, hundreds of “disappeared persons,” and other flagrant human rights violations. The idea of a regional organ promoting human rights appeared to be an exercise in futility. It is to the credit of the commission that it managed, with few tools but publicity in the hands of its tenacious and dedicated personnel, to find points of leverage that could be brought to bear on its own clients.

A review of the commission’s work reveals that smaller states received the bulk of critical attention in the early years. For example, no attacks were directed on the system of segregation still in place at the time in the United States. Using the credibility stored up from its astute management of these circumstances, it proceeded to take on the more politically formidable larger states, some of which were further protected by political connections with the United States.

Once the commission attained the right to receive individual petitions in 1965, it adapted this mechanism to cope more effectively with its particular social and economic context. Receiving a flood of petitions—more than a thousand new cases were opened in 1978 alone—the commission decided to “assume” the facts as alleged in a petition if an accused government failed to respond within 180 days. Moreover, the commission used individual petitions to identify “serious and repeated violations of human rights.” Its country reports were the means by which the commission publicized gross, systematic violations discovered in its “general case” examinations.

The commission not only found a way effectively to promote human rights in the absence of a formal treaty document legally binding on the states but also essentially drafted that vital document—the American Convention on Human Rights—in three intensive years of work before the San José Conference. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been a clear success. It has provided a more useful and relevant model than the European system for many developing nations in which similar regimes—feudalistic, militaristic, or totalitarian—have had to be goaded and shamed into honoring their citizen’s human rights. Human rights;commissions Inter-American Commission on Human Rights[InterAmerican Commission on Human Rights] Organization of American States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blaustein, Albert, Rogers Clark, and Jay Sigler, eds. Human Rights Source Book. New York: Paragon House, 1987. All the major international and regional human rights documents are provided. Contains the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man, the statute and regulations of the commission, and the statute and rules of procedure of the Court of Human Rights as well as other documents and judicial decisions. Index and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buergenthal, Thomas, Robert Norris, and Dinah Shelton, eds. Protecting Human Rights in the Americas: Selected Problems. Strasbourg, France: International Institute of Human Rights, 1990. This first English-language textbook on the Inter-American Human Rights system was written by a judge on the Court of Human Rights. Its first edition won the 1982-1983 Book Award from the Inter-American Bar Association. Includes cases and materials, index, and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Buergenthal, Thomas, Dinah Shelton, and David P. Stewart. International Human Rights in a Nutshell. 3d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group, 2002. A simple but substantive introduction to the history, theory, and practice of international human rights. Indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dykmann, Klaas. Philanthropic Endeavors or the Exploitation of an Ideal? The Human Rights Policy of the Organization of American States in Latin America, 1970-1991. Frankfurt/Main, Germany: Vervuert, 2004. A history of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the Organization of American States, and Latin American human rights generally. Bibliographic references.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farer, Tom J., ed. The Future of the Inter-American System. New York: Praeger, 1979. Farer was a member of the commission; the book was a special project for the American Society of International Law. Excellent background of the multiple aspects of the Inter-American system, including economics and development, trade, military issues, and nuclear proliferation as well as human rights. Includes a chapter on “Human Rights in the Inter-American System.” Index but no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Farer, Tom J., and James P. Rowles. “The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.” In International Human Rights Law and Practice, edited by James Tuttle. Chicago: American Bar Association, 1978. Explanation of the commission’s composition, the authority of the commission, and the process of bringing a complaint before the commission. Contains a model complaint form. An appendix contains the commission’s regulations regarding the communication of complaints.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Goldman, Robert K. The Protection of Human Rights in the Americas: Past, Present, and Future. New York: New York University Center for International Studies, 1972. A thoroughly footnoted, comprehensive summary of the origins of the Inter-American system. Offers a sustained focus on the role of the commission through its redesign under the American Convention on Human Rights. United States participation is also examined. No index or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gros Espiell, Hector. “The Organization of American States.” In The International Dimensions of Human Rights, edited by Karel Vasak. Vol. 2. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1982. Gros Espiell’s chapter highlights the commission, the American Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Women, and the Inter-American Children’s Institute. Index. Superb 50-page bibliography on international human rights law.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Laqueur, Walter, and Barry Rubin, eds. The Human Rights Reader. New York: Meridian Books, 1989. Four essays on human rights introduce the documentary compilation: two on the concept of human rights, one on the politics, and one on the development of human rights in international law. Sections are excerpts from writings and documents on the philosophy of human rights, various constitutional provisions, important speeches and letters, and human rights treaties. No index. Lengthy twenty-six-page bibliography of commentaries on the materials included in the text, broken down by topics and time periods.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Medina Quiroga, Cecilia. The Battle of Human Rights: Gross, Systematic Violations and the Inter-American System. Dordrecht, the Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, 1988. The book, a comprehensive study of the origin and development of the inter-American system in the face of gross violations, is the Chilean author’s doctoral dissertation. Includes two chapters on the commission, pre- and post-ACHR. Her concluding chapter on “Lessons of the Inter-American Experience” focuses on the commission’s role. Index. Bibliography includes secondary references as well as an elaborate thirteen-page citation of all OAS documents used.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Robertson, A. H. Human Rights in the World. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1982. Robertson, a former director of human rights for the Council of Europe, has a chapter on the American Convention on Human Rights that contains sections on the inter-American commission and court. The author presents enormous amounts of information yet retains a lucid text. Index, no bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schreiber, Anna P. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Leiden, the Netherlands: A. W. Sijthoff, 1970. Perhaps the best single source on the early years of the commission. Excellent, in-depth examination of the debate over the commission’s initial mandate and its evolution. Covers the general development of the inter-American human rights system and gives detailed case studies of the crucial episode in the Dominican Republic. Index. Extensive bibliography, including both primary and secondary material. Appendix includes the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man.

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Categories: History