A Rough Guide to the Regional Human Rights Systems

Regional human rights systems, consisting of regional instruments and mechanisms, play an increasingly important role in the promotion and protection of human rights. Regional human rights instruments (e.g. treaties, conventions, declarations) help to localise international human rights norms and standards, reflecting the particular human rights concerns of the region. Regional human rights mechanisms (e.g. commissions, special rapporteurs, courts) then help to implement these instruments on the ground. Currently, the three most well-established regional human rights systems exist in Europe, the Americas and Africa.


The regional arrangements for protecting human rights in Europe are extensive, involving the Council of Europe, the European Union and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Each of these intergovernmental organisations has its own regional human rights mechanisms and instruments. Some of the most longstanding and developed of these exist in the Council of Europe, with instruments including the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), the European Social Charter and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and corresponding mechanisms such as the European Court of Human Rights, the European Committee of Social Rights and the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. The European system also has a Commission against Racism and Intolerance, and a Commissioner for Human Rights. The European Court of Human Rights, which is located in Strasbourg, has jurisdiction over Council of Europe member States that have opted to accept the Court’s optional jurisdiction. Once a state has done so, all Court decisions regarding it are binding. The Court accepts applications of instances of human rights violations from individuals as well as States.

The Americas

In the Americas, a regional human rights arrangement (the inter-American system for the protection of human rights) exists within the intergovernmental organisation known as the Organisation of American States (OAS). As with the United Nations (UN) human rights system, the inter-American system features a declaration of principles (the 1948 American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man adopted seven months before the Universal Declaration), a legally-binding treaty (the American Convention on Human Rights, which entered into force in 1978), as well as Charter-based and treaty-based implementation mechanisms (the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights respectively). The Charter-based system applies to all member states of the OAS, while the Convention system is legally binding only on the States parties to it. The two systems overlap and interact in a variety of ways. The Inter-American Commission (based in Washington DC) was established under the OAS Charter (Chapter XV) to promote and protect human rights in the American hemisphere. It is composed of seven independent members (Commissioners) who serve in a personal capacity. It receives individual petitions, monitors the human rights situation in member States and addresses priority thematic issues. The Inter-American Commission has created several Rapporteurships, one Special Rapporteurship and a Unit to monitor OAS States’ compliance with inter-American human rights treaties. This includes: a Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women, a Rapporteurship on the Rights of the Child, a Rapporteurship on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a Rapporteurship on the Rights of Persons Deprived of Liberty, a Rapporteurship on Migrant Workers and their Families, a Rapporteurship on the Rights of Afro-Descendants and against Racial Discrimination, a Rapporteurship on Human Rights Defenders, and a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression. This last position is the only Special Rapporteurship at the IACHR, meaning that the mandate-holder is dedicated full-time to the job (all other mandates are held by Commissioners). A Unit on the Rights of Lesbian, Gay, Trans, Bisexual, and Intersex Persons was created in 2011. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (based in San Jose, Costa Rica) has two main responsibilities. First, to hear cases submitted to it by the Commission or a State Party to the Convention and judge whether or not a violation has been committed. The sentence is binding and cannot be appealed, but the system does not provide for means of enforcement. Second, the Court gives advisory opinions interpreting the American Convention or other international agreements relevant to the protection of human rights in the Americas. All OAS member States, the Commission, and OAS organs to a limited extent, can ask the Court for an advisory opinion. The member States can also ask for an opinion on the compatibility of national law with international instruments.


The African regional human rights system has been established within the intergovernmental organisation known as the African Union. The main regional human rights instrument in Africa is the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and the main mechanisms are the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the recently-established African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The African Charter (which entered into force in 1986) incorporates universal human rights standards and principles, but also reflects the virtues and values of African traditions. Thus, the African Charter is characterised by the concept of a reciprocal relationship between the individual and the community, linking individual and collective rights. The African Charter established an African Commission for Human Rights, located in Banjul, Gambia. It is a quasi-judicial body made up of eleven independent experts and tasked with promoting and protecting human rights and collective (peoples’) rights throughout the African continent (by receiving periodic reports from States Parties on the implementation of the Charter’s provisions) as well as interpreting the African Charter and considering individual complaints of violations of the Charter. The African Commission has also established several Special Mechanisms including six Special Rapporteurs who monitor, investigate and report on allegations of violations in member states of the African Union, and eleven working groups, committees or study groups that monitor and investigate human rights issues under the purview of the Commission. The Special Rapporteur mandates cover: Extra-judicial, Summary or Arbitrary Execution; Freedom of Expression and Access to Information; Human Rights Defenders; Prisons and Conditions of Detention; Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Migrants and Internally Displaced Persons; and Rights of Women. The Working Groups cover specific issues related to the work of the African Commission; Indigenous Populations/Communities in Africa; Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; Rights of Older Persons and People with Disabilities; the Death Penalty; Extractive Industries, Environment and Human Rights Violations; Fair Trial; and Communications. And finally, there is a Committee for the Prevention of Torture in Africa; a Committee on the Protection of the Rights of People Living with HIV; and a Study Group on Freedom of Association. The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights was established in 2004 following the entry into force of a Protocol to the African Charter  on the Establishment of an African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights. The Court has jurisdiction over all cases and disputes submitted to it concerning the interpretation and application of the African Charter, the Protocol, and any other relevant human rights instrument ratified by the States concerned.