Other Regional Human Rights Systems

The United Nations human rights system provides the main architecture of the international human rights promotion and protection regime. Regional human rights systems were established to complement the protection of human rights at the regional level.

The African, Inter-American, and European human rights systems each developed binding regional human rights treaties reflecting international standards contained in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and other international human rights treaties.

These systems are perceived to offer better enforcement potential than international mechanisms, despite the fear that regional systems give emphasis to regional particularities and could undermine the universality of human rights. The key feature of each system is a judicial or quasi-judicial body responsible for the protection of human rights by means of receiving complaints of alleged human rights violations.

African Human Rights System

The African human rights system is based on the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the African or Banjul Charter), which entered into force on 21 October 1986. As of September 2013 it enjoys wide support with 53 ratifications out of 54 African Union Member States. The African Charter is the first human rights instrument to provide recognition to individual and collective rights.

In 1987, one year following the entry into force of the African Charter, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights was established. This quasi-judicial body has a two-fold function, namely “to promote human and peoples’ rights and ensure their protection in Africa.” With regard to the latter mandate, the African Commission has the ability to receive communications from States (inter-state complaints) as well as “sources other than those of States Parties.” Although not explicitly defined in the African Charter, these “sources” have been interpreted to include “any person or group of persons or NGOs.” States Parties are obligated to submit reports every two years on steps taken to fulfill obligations under the Charter. These are reviewed and reported upon by the Commission. Subsidiary mechanisms such as special rapporteurs, committees, and working groups were created to assist the work of the African Commission.

In 1998, the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Establishment of the African Court was adopted, later coming into force in 2004 after having secured the required 15 ratifications. The African Court complements and reinforces the functions of the African Commission. As a judicial body, the African Court issues binding and enforceable decisions.

In July 2008, the Protocol on the Statute of the African Court of Justice and Human Rights was adopted. This aims to integrate the African Human Rights Court and the Court of Justice of the African Union into a single court. The African Court of Justice and Human Rights is not yet operational, as it needs 15 countries to ratify the Protocol before a merged court can be created.

Other protocols, charters, and conventions on specific human rights issues that have entered into force, include:

Inter-American Human Rights System

The Inter-American human rights system was born with the adoption of the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man in 1948. Eleven years later, in 1959, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) was formally established. The functions of the Inter-American Commission were subsequently codified and strengthened by the 1969 adoption of the American Convention on Human Rights and its entry into force in 1978. The Convention also created the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The American Convention on Human Rights guarantees the enjoyment of civil and political rights but not economic, social and cultural rights.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has human rights promotion and quasi-judicial functions. The Commission has the power to conduct on-site visits to Organization of American States (OAS) Member States, carry out investigations into human rights situations, receive and investigate individual petitions alleging human rights violations, as well as provide interpretation of human rights documents. The Inter-American Commission also established thematic rapporteurships to report on the promotion and protection of specific rights and monitor human rights situations in specific countries.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is an autonomous judicial institution that interprets the Convention and adjudicates disputes. The Court’s jurisdiction extends to those States that are parties to the American Convention on Human Rights and have recognized the competence of the Court. As of September 2013, only 20 States, out of 23 Member States who have ratified the Convention, have accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court. Only States and the Inter-American Commission have access to the Court. Individuals are not allowed to independently bring a case before the Court.

In addition to the basic documents establishing the Inter-American Commission and Court, there are other documents that have been adopted in regard to specific rights, including:

European Human Rights System


The European Convention on Human Rights (formally the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom) was drafted in 1950 by the Council of Europe and entered to force in 1953. The Convention established the European Court of Human Rights and the European Commission of Human Rights, which were merged into a single human rights system in 1998 under Protocol No. 11.

As with the American Convention on Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, with its 14 additional protocols, focuses only on civil and political rights. However, the European Social Charter, which was adopted in 1961 and further revised in 1996, complements the European Convention on Human Rights with its guarantees of economic, social and cultural rights.

In addition to being competent to receive and examine inter-state complaints, the European Court of Human Rights also decides on complaints lodged by “any person, non-governmental organization or group of individuals claiming to be the victim of a violation.” The Court may also, upon request, issue advisory opinions on the interpretation of the Convention.

Other protocols, charters, and conventions on specific human rights issues that have entered into force, include: