The Long Road Toward Inter-American Justice

By Laura Lyons*


The growth of the international justice systems has been positive since more cases have been adjudicated and rights protected. But its growth has generated a greater demand for judicial review that, given the limited resources of these institutions, has become a barrier for the adequate resolution in a timely manner of the petitions presented.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of this is the case of the Inter-American Human Rights System, which allows individuals to petition the Commission and later the Court if they have been victims of human rights violations. The Inter-American System’s individual complaint procedure is in many cases the only opportunity for thousands of people in the Americas to be heard and eventually receive an effective remedy.

Imagine then the frustration a person would feel if after attempting to resolve their case at all the relevant institutions at a national level, they finally are able to access the Inter-American System by presenting a petition before the Commission, and then they have to wait over a decade to be given a substantive decision in their case.

This is the reality people who present petitions to the Inter-American System experience. In effect, the decisions issued by the Court in 2013 took an average of 11 and a half years to be resolved since they were first presented to the Commission. As an example, in the Osorio Rivera y Familiares c. Perúcase, the petition was first presented in 1997 but the substantative decision was not issued by the Court until 2013. The Mémoli c. Argentina case is another example. A decision in this case was issued in 2013, 15 years after the initial petition before the Commission.

The average length of time between the receipt of a petition at the Commission and the issuance of a substantive decision of the Court between 2008 and 2013 was 9.16 years. The following graph shows the yearly average during this period:

While the average length of time petitions take to pass through the Commission has increased, the Court has significantly improved its processing time for these complaints. In other words, while the cases passed on to the Court by the Commission in 2013 had been received by the Commission about ten years prior, the Court resolved this cases in about a year and a half.

The Court’s shorter adjudication process is mainly the result of two phenomena: 1) the small number of cases annually reviewed by this Tribunal (an average of 13 between 2002 and 2012, compared to the 1400 petitions received by the Commission during this same period) and 2) a greater increase in terms of percentages of the Court’s budget compared to the Commission’s budget. In addition to these factors, the brevity of the Court’s adjudication time is also due to certain measures this Tribunal has taken. Among them are holding fewer hearings and reducing the number of witnesses per case.

The decrease in the time it takes to resolve these cases before the Court appears to indicate that these measures have improved the general functioning of the System. However, if we examine the effects of these measures more closely we find that to increase efficiency, other important factors of an effective human rights protection in the region have been jeapordized. For example, in the Velásquez Rodríguez c. Honduras (1988) the Court reviewed 22 witness statements over a weeklong period, but in the last couple of years the Court has limited public hearings to one or two per case, as the Court’s 2012 Annual Report shows.

While these measures may increase the efficiency of the System, they sacrifice the rigorous review that should be done in individual cases given the high levels of complexity of most matters. They also affect the sense of justice the victims perceive, since in most cases the public hearings have a great symbolic and healing effect.


*Laura Lyons is a researcher at Dejusticia (The Center for Law, Justice and Society)

Photo Credit: OAS