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The Role of the Inter-American Human Rights System in Shaping Transitional Justice and Democratization in Latin America

Open Panel

Abstract

The Inter-American system of human rights (IAHRS) has emerged, from its roots as a quasi-judicial entity with an ill-defined mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region, as a legal regime formally empowering citizens to bring suit to challenge the domestic activities of their own government. The access of individuals to the human rights regime has strengthened over time as the system has evolved into a judicial regime with a procedural focus on the force of legal argumentation and the generation of regional human rights jurisprudence. Following the transitions to democracy in Latin America, the evolution of the IAHRS became bound up with the question of how to deal with human rights abuses under previous regimes. This paper provides an evaluation of the contribution of the IAHRS to the shaping of regional transitional justice trends in Latin America. The IAHRS has become increasingly important in inserting itself into transitional justice debates in multiple ways, including as an opportunity structure for civil society activism, and in the increasingly authoritative jurisprudence available to domestic litigants and judges. Clearly a range of domestic factors explain the evolution of transitional justice over time in the region. This is particularly the case with the more recent moves in a number of countries towards the unravelling of political bargains (e.g. amnesties) struck in the earlier phases of democratization and the opening of trials for human rights abuses committed under previous regimes. Yet, this paper demonstrates that approaches to issues of accountability for past human rights abuses continue to vary. This raises a number of important questions with regards to the impact of the system on the one hand and whether and how these recent post-transitional justice trends in Latin American actually “matter” on the other.