One Anniversary, Two Declarations: The UDHR and the Inter-American Human Rights System

As the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) approaches, it is important to remember that it was preceded by the Western Hemisphere’s American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the world’s first general international human rights instrument, which inspired and influenced the language of the UDHR. As both the American Declaration and the Universal Declaration were adopted in 1948, there is cause for celebrating the anniversary of both instruments.

Along with other subsequent legal instruments and bodies, the American Declaration was the foundational document for what evolved into one of the most robust regional human rights systems, monitoring and defending human rights in countries that are members of the Organization of American States (OAS). In March 1946, the Inter-American Juridical Committee published the first draft of the American Declaration, before the UN Preparatory Committee tasked with drafting the Universal Declaration had even held its first meeting, and the American Declaration was adopted seven months before the UDHR. Just like the language of other Inter-American legal instruments (beyond human rights) inspired other regional or more universal instruments, there is no doubt that the American Declaration heavily influenced the drafting of the UDHR.

With the creation of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in 1959 came a permanent body to monitor human rights in the region and receive cases of violations. In order to strengthen protections further, the American Convention on Human Rights was adopted in 1969, which obligated signatory countries to respect its provisions once it came into force in 1978. This came shortly before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights was established in 1979. The commission and the court, along with these human rights declarations and conventions, jointly constitute what is known as the inter-American human rights system.

Both the commission and the court can receive cases of human rights violations and issue recommendations or judgments regarding individual complaints concerning alleged human rights violations. They may also issue emergency provisional or precautionary measures when there is an imminent threat to the physical integrity of a person or potential irreparable harm, and these have been recognized as one of the most effective tools to protect human rights. However, the protections provided by the system are weakened by the fact that 10 countries have failed to ratify the convention, and 14 do not accept the jurisdiction of the court. Nevertheless, the citizens of all OAS member countries are offered at least the protections contained in the American Declaration and the compliance mechanism of the IACHR, which represents an improvement over the UDHR which does not have a compliance mechanism other than the non-case specific and politicized Universal Periodic Review.

The IACHR’s work includes 12 rapporteurships, the number of which has grown steadily over the past 30 years demonstrating a progression or widening of the scope of human rights concerns in the region. They address topics of particular concern in the Americas, such as the rights of indigenous peoples, women, LGBTQ+ people, older people, migrants, and environmental rights. Finally, the system is complemented by 10 specific inter-American conventions, covering a range of rights.

While the inter-American system has evolved and become more sophisticated, it has not been spared challenges or even attacks on its authority. In the 1970s and 80s, the IACHR played a key role in documenting abuses carried out by repressive military regimes in Central and South America. With the return of democracy across the region in the 1990s, engagement and cooperation with the commission increased. However, this proved to be relatively short-lived, with a more active commission being seen in some quarters as exceeding its powers. With the rise of a number of populist leaders in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela, who began to flout human rights protections, especially freedom of expression, came proposals to “reform” the human rights system in the 2010s, which were in effect concerted efforts to diminish its authority. Proposals ranged from abolishing the commission altogether to creating a new system under the control of governments, and even relocating the IACHR to another country to reduce perceived U.S. influence. Fortunately, these attacks on the commission failed, but it still has other challenges, including funding constraints which have led to a large backlog, with very long delays in the processing of some cases. Another challenge is that countries increasingly put forward candidates who tend to be largely aligned with their own politics rather than strictly on the qualifications and experience of the candidates.

While the American Declaration and Universal Declaration systems operate in parallel, the IACHR and the UN Human Rights Office cooperate extensively on emblematic human rights cases, they share findings, experiences, best practices, jointly issue guidelines and joint statements, and launch joint initiatives. There is much on this 75th anniversary to celebrate in this collaboration and on the existence of the two systems based on the UDHR and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

Christopher Hernandez-Roy is deputy director and a senior fellow with the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.