Measuring Transformation: At the 50th anniversary of the American Convention on Human Rights, a move to maximize its structural impact

Members of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights | Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

By Flávia Piovesan and Julia Cortez da Cunha Cruz

Latin American and Caribbean countries are among the most violent and unequal nations in the world. Only 8% of the global population, the region accounts for 37% of the world’s homicides. At the same time, of the twenty most unequal countries in the world, six are located in Latin America. While democratization has strengthened the protection of citizens’ rights, countries in the region still need in-depth institutional reforms to consolidate the rule of law, end impunity, and fulfill human rights.

The Inter-American Human Rights System could play a role in addressing these challenges. Over the past 50 years, both the Inter-American Commission and  Court of Human Rights have turned the emancipatory promises of human rights law into concrete social change. They have destabilized dictatorial regimes, commanded an end to impunity during democratic transitions, and contributed to the protection of vulnerable groups. However, in order to overcome today’s challenges, the system can learn from its past: Which cases were the most successful in transforming national realities? Which ones were not? What can we do to foster the implementation, effectiveness, and impact of its decisions?

Inter-American institutions have taken steps in this direction, seeking to improve case monitoring and producing knowledge about implementation. In 2017, the Commission signed a cooperation agreement with Paraguay to develop a regional system that systematizes its recommendations and monitors their implementation. That same year, the Commission created the Special Program to Monitor IACHR Recommendations with the aim to develop roadmaps for compliance. Among other proposals, the Commission is looking into adopting indicators to monitor the implementation process, as well as scaling up the strategy of in loco missions.

As a complement to these initiatives, the system should start measuring the impact of its decisions over the region. It could approach this issue from different angles – for example, one could count the number of public ceremonies in which states publicly recognized their responsibility for human rights violations, or calculate the total value that states have paid as compensation to victims of abuse. Among these possibilities, our suggestion focuses on a form of measurement that captures the unique role played by the Inter-American System in advancing structural human rights reforms. This form of measurement will demonstrate that the system not only saves individual lives, but also fosters long-lasting changes.

In response to the abovementioned challenges and needs, we champion the creation of an Observatory of Structural Impact fostered by the Inter-American Human Rights System. The Commission has unanimously approved the idea and will launch the observatory later this year. It will be a participatory and dynamic platform, dedicated to identifying structural transformations triggered by the system. The observatory will encompass both normative changes and the adoption of human-rights-based public policies. This type of impact is measurable – and once the observatory starts analyzing it, we may be able to identify drivers of structural transformation. The system can then use this information to maximize the positive impact of its decisions, strengthening democracy, the rule of law, and the protection of human rights in the region.

In the 50th anniversary of the American Convention on Human Rights, we believe there is no better tribute to its founding ideals.

Flávia Piovesan, member of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Professor of Law at the Catholic University of São Paulo

Julia Cortez da Cunha Cruz, human rights lawyer at the NGO Conectas