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The Normative Impact of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on Latin-American National Prosecution of Mass Atrocities

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  23 September 2013

Ximena Medellín-Urquiaga*
Associate Professor of the Division of Juridical Studies of the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE) Mexico.
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Throughout its history, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has ruled in a significant number of cases on the state's obligations to investigate and prosecute grave human rights violations and international crimes. Regardless of the existence of this body of international jurisprudence, an important question remains unanswered: Can the Inter-American Court's decisions have any significant normative impact on national jurisdictions when it comes to the prosecution of international crimes? This article argues that such an impact is possible provided that the national courts have a specific judicial identity, better associated with the idea of neo-constitutionalism. In this context, international law and regional human rights jurisprudence becomes a relevant argumentative resource, which can be incorporated into judicial decisions in order to ensure the effective prosecution of gross human rights violations and international crimes.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press and The Faculty of Law, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem 2013 

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1 The conditions and role of the judiciary during the Latin-American dictatorships and conflicts have been described in academic studies, national and international judicial decisions and, more particularly, in the reports of inquiry commissions throughout the region.

2 For instance, Case of the Rochela Massacre v Colombia (2005) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 11 May 2007 (Ser C) No 163.

3 See, eg, Barahona, Alexandra, ‘Truth, Justice, Memory, and Democratization in the Southern Cone’, in De Brito, Alexandra Barahona, Gonzalez-Enriques, Carmen and Aguilar, Paloma (eds), The Politics of Memory: Transitional Justice in Democratizing Societies (Oxford University Press 2001)Google Scholar.

4 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru, Vol III (Peru 2003) Ch 2.6, 264Google Scholar (author's translation). Available only in Spanish,

5 ibid 249 and 279.

6 Although this article concentrates exclusively on the jurisprudence of the Inter-American Court, it is crucial to recognise the fundamental role that the Inter-American Commission has played, and will continue to play, in the protection and promotion of human rights in the Americas.

7 In order for the Inter-American Court to have jurisdiction over a contentious case, states must have accepted the optional clause on obligatory jurisdiction set out in art 62.1 of the American Convention on Human Rights (see n 9 below). Beside this general norm, some treaties expressly provide for the jurisdiction of the IACtHR in contentious cases. In other instances, the jurisdiction is based on an interpretation by the IACtHR. See, eg, Case of the ‘Street Children’ (Villagrán-Morales and Others) v Guatemala (1999) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 19 November 1999 (Ser C) No 63.

8 Probably one of the best-known decisions that can be used to exemplify this point is the judgment of the United States (US) Supreme Court in Miranda v Arizona 384 US 436 (1966). In light of such commonalities, it is not surprising that the more numerous references to Inter-American jurisprudence by national courts, at least on the subject under study, have been made in decisions dealing with constitutional questions. See Medellin, Ximena, Digest of Latin-American Jurisprudence on International Crimes (USIP-DPLF 2010)Google Scholar.

9 American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR) (entered into force July 18 1978) 1144 UNTS 123, arts 46 and 47. For a more comprehensive analysis on the principle of subsidiarity see, among others, Carozza, Paolo, ‘Subsidiarity as a Structural Principle of International Human Rights Law’ (2003) 97 American Journal of International Law 38CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Contesse, Jorge, ‘Constitucionalismo interamericano: algunas notas sobre las dinámicas de creación e internalización de los derechos humanos’ in Garavito, Cesar Rodríguez (coord), El derecho en América Latina: Un mapa para el pensamiento jurídico del siglo XXI (Siglo Veintiuno Editores 2011)Google Scholar.

10 ACHR, ibid arts 46–51. Also, In the matter of Viviana Gallardo et al (1984) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 15 July 1981 (Ser A) No 101.

11 Case of Baena-Ricardo and Others v Panama (2003) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 28 November 2003 (Ser C) No 104.

12 ibid [59], [68], [84]–[138].

13 Mykola Sorochynsky, ‘International Human Rights Law and Education: Rediscovering the Classical Tradition’, JSD thesis, University of Notre Dame, 2010.

14 Case of Radilla-Pacheco v Mexico (2009) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 23 November 2009, (Ser C) No 209 [339].

15 It is interesting to note the similarity between this concept, proposed by the Inter-American Court itself, and the term ‘control of constitutionality’, which is directly related to the principle of supremacy of the Constitution.

16 Radilla-Pacheco (n 14) [339].

17 Interestingly, despite mentioning the concept of crimes against humanity in several decisions, the IACtHR has not been as open to use other international crimes, including genocide or war crimes, as part of its reasoning: Case of Bámaca-Velásquez v Guatemala (2000) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 25 November 2000, (Ser C) No 70; Case of the Pueblo Bello Massacre v Colombia (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 31 January 2006, (Ser C) No 140.

18 Case of Goiburú et al v Paraguay (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 22 September 2006, (Ser C) No 153, [128].

19 Case of Barrios Altos v Peru (2001) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 14 March 2001, (Ser C) No 75, [41]; Case of the Moiwana Community v Suriname (2005) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 15 June 2005, (Ser C) No 124.

20 Barrios Altos, ibid [41].

21 Goiburú (n 18); Case of Almonacid-Arellano and Others v Chile (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 26 September 2006, (Ser C) No 154; Case of La Cantuta v Peru (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 29 November 2006, (Ser C) No 162.

22 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (entered into force 1 July 2002) 2187 UNTS 90.

23 Case of Manuel Cepeda-Vargas v Colombia (2010) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 26 May 2012, (Ser C) No 213, [42] (emphasis added).

24 Case of the Ituango Massacres v Colombia (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 1 July 2006, (Ser C) No 148, [137].

25 As identified by the IACtHR, the constitutive elements of this crime are: ‘a) the deprivation of freedom; b) the direct intervention of state agents or their acquiescence, and c) the refusal to acknowledge the arrest and reveal the fate or whereabouts of the interested person’: Radilla-Pacheco (n 14) [139].

26 Case of Velásquez-Rodríguez v Honduras (1988) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 29 July 1988, (Ser C) No 4, [166] (emphasis added).

27 ibid [177]–[172]. Also, Goiburú (n 18) [88]; Case of Chitay-Nech and Others v Guatemala, Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 25 May 2010, (Ser C) No 212, [192].

28 La Cantuta (n 21) [110]; Goiburú (n 18) [128]; Chitay-Nech, ibid [193].

29 Goiburú (n 18) [90].

30 ibid [84].

31 La Cantuta (n 21) [160]; Goiburú (n 18) [131].

32 Goiburú, ibid [117].

33 La Cantuta (n 21) [110]; Ituango Massacres (n 24) [127]–[131]; Case of the Sawhoyamaxa Indigenous Community v Paraguay (2006) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 29 March 2006, (Ser C) No 146, [150]–[154]; Pueblo Bello Massacre (n 17) [143]–[146]; Goiburú (n 18) [88].

34 Case of the ‘White Van’ (Paniagua-Morales and Others) v Guatemala (1998) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 8 March 1998, (Ser C) No 37, [173]; Almonacid-Arellano (n 21) [111]; Case of Serrano-Cruz Sisters v El Salvador (2005) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 1 March 2005, (Ser C) No 120, [170].

35 Barrios Altos (n 19) Concurring Opinion of Judge AA Cançado Trindade, [4].

36 For a further discussion about Inter-American jurisprudence on impunity, see Donde, Javier, ‘El concepto de impunidad: leyes de amnistía y otras formas estudiadas por la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos’ in Elsner, Gisela (ed), Sistema interamericano de protección de los derechos humanos y derecho penal internacional (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung 2010)Google Scholar, and Cassel, Douglass, ‘Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ in Salazar, Katya and Antkowiak, Thomas (eds), Victims Unsilenced: The Inter-American Human Rights System and Transitional Justice in Latin America (Due Process of Law Foundation 2007) 151–66Google Scholar.

37 La Cantuta (n 21) [226]; Radilla-Pacheco (n 14) [212]; Chitay-Nech (n 27) [199].

38 For instance, the IACtHR has pointed out that in order to fulfil its obligations and ensure human rights, states must not only establish formal judicial mechanisms but must also guarantee their effectiveness. In particular, the court has stated that ‘for such a remedy to exist, it is not sufficient that it be provided for by the Constitution or by law or that it be formally recognized, but rather it must be truly effective in establishing whether there has been a violation of human rights and in providing redress. A remedy which proves illusory because of the general conditions prevailing in the country, or even in the particular circumstances of a given case, cannot be considered effective’: Judicial Guarantees in States of Emergency (Arts 27(2), 25 and 8 of the American Convention on Human Rights) (1987) Inter-Am Ct HR, Advisory Opinion OC-9/87 of 6 October 1987, (Ser A) No 9, [24]; Chitay-Nech (n 27) [202]. A general context of intimidation, as well as a specific act targeted toward individuals or extreme poverty, will be considered, among others, a de facto obstacle that will impair the right to access to justice provided by ACHR arts 8.1 and 25.

39 Barrios Altos (n 19) [41]. In the same decision, the IACtHR emphasised that the prohibition against ‘self-amnesties’ or other legal means which impair the investigation, prosecution and punishment of ‘serious human rights violations’ could not have effect in this or any other case before national courts. In this way, the IACtHR expanded the legal effect (and one might say the binding nature) of its decision from one specific set of facts presented in the case at stake, to all similar situations before national courts: Barrios Altos, ibid [43].

40 Cassel (n 36).

41 Case of Bulacio v Argentina (2003) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 18 September 2003, (Ser C) No 100, [116].

42 Case of Albán Cornejo and Others v Ecuador (2007) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 22 November 2007, (Ser C) No 171, [111] (emphasis added).

43 La Cantuta (n 21) [153]; Almonacid-Arellano (n 21) [154]; Case of Gutiérrez-Soler v Colombia (2005) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 12 September 2005, (Ser C) No 132, [98].

44 Case of Loayza-Tamayo v Peru (1997) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 17 September 1997 (Merits), (Ser C) No 33, [66]–[77]. It is important to mention that the Spanish version of the ACHR, which is widely used by the Inter-American Court, refers to the impossibility of prosecuting someone for the ‘same facts’ and not cause: ‘El inculpado absuelto por una sentencia firme no podrá ser sometido a nuevo juicio por los mismos hechos’.

45 Almonacid-Arellano (n 21) [154]; La Cantuta (n 21) [153].

46 Almonacid-Arellano, ibid [131]; La Cantuta, ibid [142]; Pueblo Bello Massacre (n 17) [189]; Radilla-Pacheco (n 14) [272].

47 La Cantuta, ibid [142]; Radilla-Pacheco, ibid [273].

48 La Cantuta, ibid [142]; Radilla-Pacheco, ibid [273]; Case of the 19 Tradesmen v Colombia (2004) Inter-Am Ct HR, Judgment of 5 July 2004 (Merits, Reparations and Costs), (Ser C) No 109, [167].

49 Interview with Juan Méndez, Visiting Professor of Law at the American University Washington College of Law, Washington DC, and UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, Lima, 19 May 2010.

50 Cassel (n 36).

51 Ezequiel Malarino, ‘Activismo Judicial, Punitivización y Nacionalización: Las Tendencias Antidemocráticas y Antiliberales de la CIDH’ in Elsner (n 36) 25–63.

52 ibid 61 (author's translation).

53 Miguel Angel Espósito was one of those accused of the extrajudicial killing of Walter Bulacio.

54 Supreme Court of Justice of Argentina, Espósito, Miguel Angel s/ incidente de prescripción de la acción penal, E.224.XXXIX, 23 December 2004, [10]–[17].

55 Ariel Dulitzky, ‘The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ in Salazar and Antkowiak (n 36) 129.

56 ibid.

57 Zagrebelsky, Gustavo, El derecho dúctil: ley, derechos y justicia (Trotta 1995)Google Scholar.

58 ibid 23 (author's translation).

59 ibid 24 (author's translation).

60 Couso, Javier, ‘The Transformation of Constitutional Discourse and the Judicialization of Politics in Latin America’ in Couso, Javier, Huneeus, Alexandra and Sieder, Rachel (eds), Cultures of Legality: Judicialization and Political Activism in Latin America (Cambridge University Press 2010) 150CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

61 Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru (n 4).

62 Barahona (n 3) 119–60.

63 Couso (n 60) 154.

64 Rodríguez, Roger, ‘Relaciones de coordinación interpretativa entre la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos, el Tribunal Constitucional y la Corte Suprema, con especial incidencia en los procesos penales’ in Quinteros, Victor Manuel (coord), Judicialización de violaciones de derechos humanos: aportes sustantivos y procesales (IDEHPUC 2010) 43Google Scholar (author's translation).

65 Roger Pereira, ‘El derecho penal constitucional: interpretación y aplicación’ in Quinteros, ibid 64 (author's translation).

66 Ahumada, Marian, La jurisdicción constitucional en Europa. Bases teóricas y políticas (Universidad de Navarra-Civitas 2005)Google Scholar.

67 Couso (n 60).

68 See Sieder, Rachel, Schjolden, Line and Angell, Alan (eds), The Judicialization of Politics in Latin America (Palgrave MacMillan 2005) 320CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 See Ambos, Kai and Malarino, Ezequiel (eds), Jurisprudencia latinoamericana sobre Derecho Penal (Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung 2008)Google Scholar.

70 It is important to say that the analysis provided in this section is not based on empirical research and does not attempt to be exhaustive. It only proposes a theoretically possible connection between some relevant characteristics of the legal systems and courts in those three countries, and some landmark decisions directly related to the incorporation of Inter-American jurisprudence and national prosecutions for mass atrocities. There is no doubt that in order to reach more solid conclusions as to the proposed correlation, further studies must be carried out.

71 Argentinean Constitution, art 75(22), according to which: ‘The American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man; the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; the American Convention on Human Rights; the International Pact on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the International Pact on Civil and Political Rights and its empowering Protocol; the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide; the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; in the full force of their provisions, they have constitutional hierarchy, do not repeal any section of the First Part of this Constitution and are to be understood as complementing the rights and guarantees recognized herein. They shall only be denounced, in such event, by the National Executive Power after the approval of two-thirds of all the members of each House.’ An authoritative translation in English of the Argentinean Constitution can be found at

72 See Alba Rubial, ‘Self-restraint in Search of Legitimacy: The Reform of the Argentine Supreme Court’ (2009) 51 Latin American Politics and Society 59–86.

73 Espósito (n 54) [6] and [10].

74 Simón and Others v Office of the Public Prosecutor, Appeal judgment, S.1767.XXXVIII, ILDC 579 (AR 2005).

75 ibid (footnote omitted).

76 It is important to note that in 1992 the Inter-American Commission issued a recommendation on the incompatibility of the Argentinean amnesty laws with the ACHR. See IACHR, Consuelo et al v Argentina, Case 10.147 and others, Report No 28/92, 2 October 1992. Nonetheless, as the Supreme Court underlined, the Barrios Altos decision provided the criteria needed to determine the scope of the prohibition of the amnesty laws.

77 Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales, Adelanto del Informe 2010 sobre la situación de los derechos humanos en Argentina (CELS 2010).

78 Federal Criminal Tribunal (Córdoba, Argentina), Videla Jorge Rafael y otros, Imposición de tormentos agravados, Homicidio calificado, Imposición de tormentos seguidos de muerte, Encubrimiento (Expte N° 172/09), and Menéndez, Luciano Benjamín y otros Privación ilegítima de la libertad agravada, Imposición de tormentos agravados (Expte N° 13/09), 22 December 2010.

79 Rol No 517-2004 Miguel Angel Sandoval Case, Action to annul ILDC 394 (CL 2004).

80 Almonacid-Arellano (n 21) operative para 6.

81 Alexandra Huneeus, ‘Rejecting the Inter-American Court: Judicialization, National Courts, and Regional Human Rights’ in Couso, Huneeus and Sieder (n 60) 123.

82 Supreme Court of Chile (Criminal Chamber), Case against Claudio Abdón Lecaros Carrasto for the crime of kidnapping (Caso de Claudio Abdón Lecaros Carrasco seguido por el delito de secuestro calificado), Rol No 47.205, 18 May 2010.

83 ibid.

84 Huneeus (n 81) 123.

85 According to the Mexican Constitution, art 133: ‘This Constitution, the laws of the Congress of the Union that emanate therefrom, and all treaties that have been made and shall be made in accordance therewith by the President of the Republic, with the approval of the Senate, shall be the supreme law of the whole Union.’ For decades, the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice upheld the idea that there could be no conflict between domestic and international law, since each body of law has a different scope of application. Since 1999, the Mexican Supreme Court has changed its own interpretation in order to affirm that, from a hierarchical point of view, in the event of conflict between different norms, constitutional provision must prevail, followed by international treaties and, lastly, general laws issued by the Federal Congress. See, eg, the academic commentaries to the decision of the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice in Amparo en revision 1475/98, published in the Mexican legal journal, (2000) 2 Cuestiones Constitucionales, available only in Spanish,

86 Héctor Fix-Fierro, ‘La reforma judicial en México: ¿De dónde viene? ¿Hacia dónde va?’, Working Paper, Instituto de Investigaciones Jurídicas, UNAM, 2002.

87 Karina Ansolabehere, ‘More Powers, More Rights? The Supreme Court and Society in Mexico’ in Couso, Huneeus and Sieder (n 60); Ana Laura Magaloni, ‘¿Por qué la Suprema Corte no ha sido un instrumento de defensa de los derechos fundamentales?’, Working Paper, CIDE, 2007.

88 The term ‘dirty war’ is being used to refer to a particular period of the 75-year rule of the Party of the Institutional Revolution in Mexico. According to the Informe Historico a la Sociedad Mexicana (the result of the work of a government-established group of historians which constituted the closest Mexico had to an inquiry commission), during this period mass atrocities were perpetrated in Mexico. This report has even characterised some of those crimes as international crimes. In November 2001, Mexican President Vicente Fox created the Special Prosecutor for Crimes of the Past. The Corpus Cristi was one of the most notorious cases investigated by the Special Prosecutor, who attempted to indict former President Luis Echeverria as being responsible for the massacre of students perpetrated in 1971.

89 Appeal No 1/2004-PS, Appeal No 8/2004-PS FEMOSPP and the Federal Prosecutor v Echeverría and Others, Appeal Decision, ILDC 76 (MX 2005).

90 Radilla-Pacheco (n 14) [340].

91 Official records of the public hearings of the Mexican Supreme Court (31 August; 2, 6 and 7 September 2010), available only in Spanish,

92 Official records of the public hearing of the Mexican Supreme Court (31 August 2010) 57–59, available only in Spanish,

93 Expediente varios 912/2010, Supreme Court of Justice of Mexico (14 July 2011).

94 ibid.