The Inter-American Court, an autonomous judicial institution, is one of two bodies of the Organization of American States, the system for the promotion and protection of human rights in the Americas. The Court was established in 1979 and has its headquarters in San Jose, Costa Rica. It is one of three regional courts for the protection of human rights; the other two are the European Court of Human Rights and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Court has jurisdiction only over those states who have declared that they recognize the American Convention on Human Rights as binding and further recognize the Court’s juris-diction on all matters relating to the interpretation of the Convention. Only member states and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) can submit cases to the court.
Seven judges sit on the Inter-American Court, each elected for a six-year term in his or her individual capacity and no two of which may be from the same member state. They must be of the “highest moral authority” and possess “recognized competence” in human rights, as well as the qualifications to exercise the highest judicial function in their home state. The Court possesses two functions: judicial and advisory.
The judicial function is exercised when a case is referred to the Court by the IACHR. Only the Commission may refer a case – individuals cannot. Once the case is referred, the Commission appears before the Court as the representative of the individual party. The first phase of a judicial proceeding is the “admissibility” phase, at which the Court determines if all the necessary criteria for exercise of its jurisdiction have been met. If so, the case proceeds to the “merits” stage, with briefing and a hearing to determine the facts and the law. OAS member states may also raise matters which might find their way to the Court, by alleging that another state has “committed a violation of a human right” set forth in the American Convention. If the matter is not finally resolved at the Commission level they or the state may take it to the Court.
Decisions of the court are final and are not subject to appeal. If there is a disagreement between the parties as to the meaning or scope of a decision, either may request clarification from the Court within 90 days of its published opinion. The judgment may order a specific action (release a prisoner) as well as fair compensation to the injured party. The fair-compensation damages available are first, material damages, then moral or emotional damages, then costs (including attorneys fees). No punitive damages are permitted and money judgments are enforced in the domestic courts of the appropriate state. The Inter-American Court can monitor compliance with its judgments by holding hearings and/or revising periodic reports which are submitted to it by the effected member state (and the substance of which victims and the Commission may object to).
Advisory opinions may be issued when a state requests interpretation of the Convention or other human rights treaties or the compatibility of a domestic law with international human rights instruments.
Finally, the court can issue provisional measures in matters which are extremely grave and therefore require immediate action to protect the people involved (such as in death penalty cases).