Engaging Regional Human Rights Mechanisms

Inter American Commission on Human Rights

Conversation Details

Dates of conversation: 
Monday, April 21, 2014 to Friday, April 25, 2014
Conversation type: 
Type of tactical goal: 

Summary available

Thank you for joining Lisa Reinsberg of the International Justice Resource Center and the New Tactics community for the online conversation on Engaging Regional Human Rights Mechanisms from April 21 to 25, 2014.

Regional human rights mechanisms play an important role in monitoring government compliance with human rights obligations. These courts and commissions provide a way for individuals and groups to hold governments accountable for the failure to protect human rights. In the Americas, Europe and Africa, regional human rights bodies receive individual complaints, monitor and report on human rights conditions, and issue emergency protective measures. These are powerful mechanisms for holding governments accountable for their human rights records if you know how and when to engage them.  

In this discussion, we explored:

  • How and when to engage which mechanisms
  • Reparations available to victims through these mechanisms
  • How technology helps and hinders in seeking justice through these mechanisms

Tactical Examples:

  • The Ogiek community in Kenya has engaged the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights to protest the government’s destruction of the Mau Forest Complex and protect indigenous land rights.  
  • The Justice Defenders Program at the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court of a country that was simultaneously resisting implementation of Inter-American Court decisions in unrelated cases.  In this way, they engaged in both regional and domestic human rights bodies to achieve their goal.  
  • Using a diverse set of tools over decades, civil society's efforts in Guatemala have yielded success including several prosecutions and the creation of a community committed to reform.
  • Information from a submission by the Advocates for Human Rights to the ACHPR on LGBTI rights in Cameroon was useful for the United Nations Human Rights Council during Cameroon's Universal Periodic Review.
  • CEJIL and the Center for Constitutional Rights have utilized multiple advocacy channels before the Inter-American and UN bodies to create traction on issues such as Guantanamo detainees.
  • Civil society actors in Africa have engaged in advocacy to help produce outcomes from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, such as the Model Law on Access to Information in Africa.

What are regional human rights mechanisms and why engage them?

Regional human rights mechanisms monitor, promote, and protect human rights in several areas of the world.  They remind countries party to the mechanisms of their duties and responsibilities towards their people.  Civil society organizations can learn how to influence regional human rights mechanisms’ processes and how to represent victims and the rights of the most vulnerable in society before these mechanisms.  Currently, the main regional human rights bodies are:

The impact of these mechanisms differs across regions.  ASEAN in southeast Asia and the Arab Human Rights committees have been recently developed and have had limited impact in comparison to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights.

Some participants asked, where should human rights mechanisms come from? Should they be regionally-focused or international? In response to this question, participants suggested that initiatives for these mechanisms should come from civil society and that civil society should be involved in all steps of the formation of these bodies. In addition, organizations such as the Advocates for Human Rights have suggested that countries should join other region’s mechanisms, creating a cross-regional pollination of human rights discourse.  

Regional human rights mechanisms can seem inaccessible to individual citizens, however individuals and NGOs can bring a complaint against states that have ratified the relevant human rights instrument and participate in other activities of these human rights bodies.  In order to become familiar with these bodies’ procedures and overcome the seeming inaccessibility, individuals can attend hearings and sessions  in person, see the bodies in action, meet with their staff or members, and connect with other advocates engaged in advocacy before the regional human rights court or committee.  Using technology such as mobile phones, Skyping, or live-streaming video of the proceedings is another way to overcome the geographical and other barriers that can make it difficult to engage with human rights bodies.  

Human rights organizations often face challenges accessing information from regional human rights bodies, encountering delays or barriers to their complaints concerning human rights abuses.  For example, in Africa, the Americas, and Europe, human rights bodies issue communications and documents most often in English, French, and Spanish, making it difficult for speakers of other languages, including indigenous languages, to obtain the necessary information.  Developing personal contacts with allied organizations and human rights bodies’ staff; subscribing to information newsletters; looking at activity reports, annual reports, and similar documents; and contacting reliable individuals can allow advocates to circumvent these challenges.    

How have you engaged regional human rights mechanisms?

Regional human rights mechanisms have varying effectiveness and must be engaged in diverse ways.  NGOs should combine grassroots advocacy with political and legal engagement when engaging with these mechanisms.  For example, civil society organisations can advocate for more powers and freedoms for regional mechanisms in order to motivate many people to approach them.  In the Americas, civil society organizations have:

  • contributed to the development and the consistency of the Inter-American doctrine,  
  • helped draw the Commission's attention to particular areas of concern, and
  • supplemented the Commission's work through organizations' own reports, trainings, and public education activities.  

Attending human rights body sessions is an effective way of ensuring that complaints are heard and assessing the implementation of human rights reforms and policies.    

While organizations will rarely have to choose between multiple regional bodies, there may be shared jurisdiction between regional human rights mechanisms and a United Nations human rights treaty body, for example. Advocates can utilize these different mechanisms as part of an overarching strategy and to reinforce advocacy at the regional level; however, advocates must be aware of each body’s different procedural requirements, including the non-duplication requirement for individual complaints.

Regional human rights mechanisms can be used to address larger human rights policy or specific issues such as indigenous land disputes within a country.  Some organizations, such as The Advocates for Human Rights, engage with regional human rights bodies to advocate for LGTBI rights as a part of their larger international campaign against LGTBI discrimination and abuse.  NGOs can also send short submissions and write shadow reports outlining a country’s pending obligations from regional courts and commissions to the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) process and other UN bodies.  This action amplifies the achievements of the regional system and ensures coordination between the universal and regional systems.    

What lessons have you learned?

Engaging regional human rights mechanisms can be challenging and occasionally disheartening. These mechanisms are often better at setting human rights norms than in forcing states to comply with their international obligations. In order to achieve success, advocates agreed that they must adapt multi-faceted, persistent advocacy by simultaneously pursuing multiple avenues of redress, including strategic litigation in in local courts and public advocacy campaigns. In certain cases, expedited processing is available in specific situations. Oftentimes, organizations achieved greater success when they worked with partners to bring issues before human rights courts and commissions.    

It is important to understand the requirements for submitting a case to a regional mechanism, for example the requirement to exhaust domestic and regional remedies.  

In addition to traditional engagement with regional human rights bodies, organizations and civil society actors can petition for observer status in human rights commissions and petition other governments to raise specific issues during the Universal  Periodic Review of another country.  Amicus and third-party intervenor briefs may also be submitted by NGOs to focus on jurisdictional issues with other regional human rights bodies or to address specific human rights issues.

Resources Shared:

Articles and Databases:

Regional Human Rights Bodies:


Image: Special meeting of the Inter American Commission on Human Rights Permanent Council, January 30, 2013. Credit: Juan Manuel Herrara/OAS shared under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license

Conversation Leaders

LReinsberg's picture
Lisa Reinsberg
International Justice Resource Center
Rachel Nicholson's picture
Rachel Nicholson
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
niyves's picture
Yves Niyiragira
Bikjo's picture
Joseph Bikanda
East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project
Amy Bergquist's picture
Amy Bergquist
The Advocates for Human Rights
jprestholdt's picture
Jennifer Prestholdt
The Advocates for Human Rights
Cabbott.CEJIL's picture
Charles Abbott
Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Brittany.Benowtiz's picture
Brittany Benowitz
American Bar Association, Center for Human Rights - Justice Defenders Program