Rights Wire

The Human Rights Blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice

A victims-based approach in the Inter-American human rights system

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By Hannah Jane Ahern

This summer, I interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica. I had a chance to observe the court in session, conduct legal research, and work on publications, press releases and speeches. My work this summer was my first exposure to legal work in international human rights, and it was also a crash course in the Inter-American System for human rights protection. I found the public hearings at the Court, and the Court’s system for ordering and monitoring reparations, to be especially compelling and effective means of promoting human rights.


The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is one of two bodies created by the American Convention on Human Rights to ensure the promotion and protection of human rights in the region (the other is the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, based in Washington, DC). The American Convention is an international treaty outlining the rights and freedoms that must be respected by States; it was adopted by the Organization of American States (OAS) in 1969 and went into effect in 1979. The Court hears cases of human rights violations committed by member states that have ratified the Convention and accepted the contentious jurisdiction of the Court. Those countries are Argentina, Barbados, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Surinam and Uruguay.

The Court is made up of seven judges, all of whom are citizens of member States of the OAS, and serve a term of six years. States submit a list of nominees to the Secretary General, and each judge is elected by representatives of the member states. They can each be reelected for a second term. The Court convenes for four regular sessions a year at the headquarters in Costa Rica, and two special sessions in other countries. During the rest of the year while the Court is not in session, there is a permanent Secretariat in San José made up of lawyers, interns and other who work on investigations, resolutions and sentences.


There were three public hearings during the 109th session that I was present for, two for contentious cases and one related to an advisory opinion. I attended the entire hearing for the first case, Chinchilla Sandoval y otros Vs. Guatemala, which involved the violation of multiple human rights of a diabetic woman with disabilities in a Guatemalan women’s prison. Among the rights violations alleged were the right to life, the right to personal integrity, the right to a fair trial and the right to judicial protection. Due to both acts and omissions on the part of the State, the victim received grossly inadequate medical care and suffered horrible pain and abuses while a prisoner. Her diabetes worsened because of lack of adequate treatment, resulting in the amputation of her leg. On the day she was scheduled to be released from prison, she was found dead, her daughter said.

During the first part of the hearing, we heard over an hour of testimony from the victim’s daughter, detailing the steady decline in health and worsening of conditions that her mother suffered over the course of nearly a decade in prison. She also discussed the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death. It was heartbreaking to hear the allegations of what this woman suffered, and to know that this was a single case among thousands of similar ones of prisoners being denied healthcare and access to justice around the world. At the same time, it was such a powerful experience to be in that courtroom, everyone listening with rapt attention, hearing the victim’s story as told by her family.

After the victim’s daughter testified, we heard from an expert witness who was a lawyer and expert in disability rights. The representatives for Guatemala gave him a particularly hard time, challenging his ability to discuss certain things. For example, they argued that he was not qualified to discuss the medical treatment received because he wasn’t a doctor. The Court rejected this argument completely, saying that medical treatment for a person with disabilities who is in the custody of the State was relevant, and they allowed him to continue. It was gripping and moving to hear from the expert witness about the legal obligations of the State in the case of people with disabilities and, in particular, those deprived of their liberty while imprisoned. While the basic facts of the case were related by the victim’s daughter, the expert witness put them in the context of the State’s internal and international legal obligations.

I also deeply appreciated the focus that the expert witness, and the Court as a whole, put on the intersectional nature of the discrimination suffered by the victim as a woman with disabilities, who is imprisoned. More judicial bodies should appreciate and emphasize the fact that so many abuses stem from multiple and overlapping forms of discrimination. Having had the opportunity to read a great deal of the Court’s jurisprudence, in addition to observing the public hearings, I have been consistently struck by the astute recognition on the part of the Court of this kind of intersectionality and the consequences that it has for so many victims of human rights violations.


After the hearings are completed, cases enter the merits phase, the stage at which Chinchilla Sandoval y otros Vs. Guatemala is at now. At this stage of the judicial process, the judges deliberate on the merits of the case, weighing the evidence of each alleged violation. The final judgment includes their decision regarding every violation, as well as an order to make reparations. The reparations ordered by the Court are intended to make the victims whole, or as close to whole as possible, as well as ensure that the violations that occurred are not repeated. Reparations always include some kind of public and permanent commemoration of the victims, as well as publication of the judgment in national newspapers or other media that will get widespread attention. They also often include orders for States to amend their internal legislation so that the violations that occurred are formally criminalized within their internal legal systems. Following the judgment and order of reparations, the Court continues to monitor compliance with the reparations until all of the measures ordered have been completed. It is a radical and comprehensive way of ensuring that States conform to the standards of the American Convention, and providing justice to victims and their families.

Working at the Court, witnessing the victims’ stories being told in a legal, international and public forum, and having the opportunity to see through some kind of justice in the form of reparations decided by the Court is the most fulfilling experience I have ever had. We hear about human rights abuses across the world all of the time in the newspaper and on the news; however, it is a completely different experience to see and hear actual victims telling their story in their own words, having a judicial body give credence to what they are saying, and working to figure out a way to right some of the horrific wrongs they have suffered.

Hannah Jane Ahern was a 2015 Leitner Center Summer Fellow. She interned at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.

Photo credit: Eli NW/Creative Commons

Author: leitnercenter

Rights Wire is the human rights blog of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice at Fordham Law School.

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