Christof Heyns
 Director and Professor of Human Rights Law, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. Responsible for the framework, compiling the information and for the part on the African system. The assistance of Magnus Killander and Yonas Gebreselassie is gratefully acknowledged.

 David Padilla
 Former Assistant Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on human Rights and Fulbright Professor, Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria. Responsible for the information on the Inter-American System. The assistance of Lilly Ching is gratefully acknowledged.

 Leo Zwaak
 Senior researcher and senior lecturer at Utrecht University and the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM). Responsible for the information on the European system. The assistance of Desislava stoitchkova is gratefully acknowledged.

 Edition: AHRLJ Volume 5 No 2 2005
  Pages: 308 - 320
 Citation: (2005) 2 AHRLJ 308-320
 Download article in PDF


There are three regional systems for the protection of human rights; namely, the African, Inter-American and European systems. This contribution provides a comparative overview of their salient features and focuses on key procedural and institutional aspects of these systems.

Regional systems for the protection of human rights have become an important part of the international system for the protection of human rights, and a rich source of jurisprudence on human rights issues, also on the domestic level. This contribution, taking the form of a schematic exposition, attempts to make possible an easy comparison of the most salient features of the three systems in existence today in terms of the institutions involved and the procedures followed. [1] Except where otherwise indicated, it sets out the situation in respect of the African, Inter-American and European systems as it was at the end of 2005. The usual order in which these systems are presented is reversed, to emphasise that none of these systems necessarily sets the norm.

Where two dates are provided behind the name of a treaty, the first one indicates the date when the treaty was adopted, the second the date when it entered into force. 






Regional organisations of which the systems form part

Organisation of African Unity (OAU), replaced by the African Union (AU) in July 2002 (53 members)

Organisation of American States (OAS)

(35 members), established in 1948

Council of Europe (CoE) (46 members), established in 1949

General human rights treaties which form the legal base of the systems

African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights (1981/86) 53 ratifications

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Establishment of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights (1998/2004), 21 ratifications

The Protocol entered into force in January 2004 and the process is underway to establish the Court. The AU Summit has taken a decision in July 2004 to merge the African Human Rights Court with the African Court of Justice. The entries below are based on the 1998 Protocol.

Charter of the OAS (1948/51), 35 ratifications, read together with the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man (1948)

American Convention on Human Rights (1969/78), 24 ratifications (21 states accept the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court)

Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950/53), 45 ratifications, and 13 additional protocols, the Eleventh Protocol created a single court (1994/98)







Specialised additional protocols and other prominent instruments that are part of/supplement the systems

OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (1969/74), 45 ratifications

African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990/99), 37 ratifications

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (2003/2005) 13 ratifications (15 ratifications required)

Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture (1985/87), 16 ratifications

Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1988/99), 13 ratifications

Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty (1990/91), 8 ratifications

Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances of Persons (1994/96), 10 ratifications

Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women (1994/95), 31 ratifications

Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Persons with Disabilities (1999/2001), 15 ratifications

European Convention on Extradition (1957/60), 46 ratifications

European Convention on Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters (1959/62), 45 ratifications

European Social Charter (1961/65), 27 ratifications

European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987/89), 45 ratifications

Framework Convention on the Protection of National Minorities (1995/98), 36 ratifications

European Social Charter (revised) (1996/99), 19 ratifications

Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine (1997/99), 19 ratifications

European Convention on Nationality (1997/2000), 13 ratifications






Supervisory bodies in respect of general treaties

Court: yet to be established Commission: established in 1987

The Court was established in 1979.

The Commission was established in 1960 and its statute was revised in 1979.

A single Court was established in 1998, taking over from the earlier Commission and Court.

Supervisory bodies based

Court seat: to be determined (will be in the East Africa region)

Commission: Banjul, The Gambia, but often meets in other parts of Africa

Commission: San Josse, Costa Rica. In May 2005 the Court held its first extra-ordinary session (in Paraguay).

Commission: Washington DC, but also occasionally meets in other parts of the Americans

Stratbourg, France

Case load: Number of individual communications per year

An average of 10 cases per year have been decided by the Commission since 1988; 13 cases during 2000, four during 2001, three during 2002, 13 during 2003 and 11 during 2004.

Court: Until 2003 the Court decided on average 4-7 cases per year. In 2004 the Court issued 15 judgments. By October 2005 11 judgments had been notified. Also one advisory opinion on average per year.

Commission: 100 cases decided per year. Total number of cases pending at the moment: 1 000

The Court decides thousands of cases per year, with the case load rapidly increasing. In 2004 the Court delivered:

21 191 decisions (1 566 chamber decisions including two decisions of the Grand Chamber, one of which concerned the first ever request by the Committee of Ministers for an advisory opinion, and 19 625 committee decisions)

718 judgments (including 15 judgments of the Grand Chamber);

At the end of 2004, 78 000 applications were pending before the Court.

Communications lodged: 44 100






Case load: Number of inter-state complaints heard since inception

Commission: One case admitted

Court: 0

Commission: 0

Court: 13

Contentious/advisory jurisdiction of Courts

Contentious and broad advisory

Contentious and broad advisory

Contentious and limited advisory

Who able to seize the supervisory bodies in the case of individual complaints

Court: After the Commission has given an opinion, only states and the Commission will be able to approach the Court. NGOs and individuals will have a right of 'direct' access to the Court where the state has made a special declaration.

Commission: Not defined in Charter, has been interpreted widely to include any person or group of persons or NGOs

Court: After the Commission has issued a report only states and the Commission can approach the Court. As from 2001, the Commission sends cases to the Court as a matter of standard practice.

Commission: Any person or group of persons, or NGO

Any individual, group of individuals or NGO claiming to be a victim of a violation

Number of members of the supervisory bodies

Court: will have 11 members

Commission: 11

Court: 7

Commission: 7

Equal to the number of state parties to the Convention (45)

Appointment of members of the supervisory bodies

Judges and Commissioners are elected by the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government.

Judges and Commissioners are elected by the General Assembly of the OAS.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE elects judges from three candidates proposed by each government. There is no restriction on the number of judges of the same nationality.






Meetings of the supervisory bodies

Court: Regularity of sessions to be determined

Commission: two regular two-week meetings per year. Three extraordinary sessions have been held.


Court: four regular meetings of two to three weeks per year (one extraordinary session in 2005)

Commission: two regular three-week meetings per year and one or two short special sessions

The Court is a permanent body.

Terms of appointment of members of the supervisory bodies

Judges will be appointed for six years, renewable only once, only the President full-time.

Commissioners are appointed for six years, renewable, part time.

Judges are elected for six-year terms, renewable only once, part time.

Commissioners are elected for four-year terms, renewable only once, part time.

Judges are elected for six-year terms, renewable, full-time.

Responsibility for election of chairpersons or presidents

The President is to be elected by the Court (two-year term).

The Commission elects its own Chairperson (two-year term).

Court: The President is elected by the Court (two-year term).

Commission: The Chairperson is elected by the Commission (one-year term).

The President is elected by the Plenary Court (three-year term).

Form in which findings on merits are made in contentious cases; remedies

Court: Will render judgments on whether violation occurred, orders to remedy or compensate violation.

Commission: Issues reports which contain findings on whether violations have occurred and sometimes makes recommendations.

Court: Renders judgments on whether violation occurred, can order compensation for damages or other reparations.

Commission: Issues reports which contain findings on whether violations occurred and makes recommendations.

Declaratory judgments are given on whether a violation has occurred; can order 'just satisfaction.'






Permission required from supervisory bodies to publish their decisions

Court: No

Commission: Requires permission of the Assembly. In practice permission has been granted by the Assembly as a matter of course. However, in 2004 the publication of the Activity Report was suspended due to the inclusion of a report on a fact-finding mission to Zimbabwe to which the government claimed it had not been given the opportunity to respond. Permission to publish the report was given in January 2005.

Court: No

Commission: No

No, decisions and judgments are public.

Power of supervisory bodies to issue interim/provisional/ precautionary measures

Court: Will have the power

Commission: Yes

Court: Yes

Commission: Yes


Primary political responsibility for monitoring compliance with decisions

Executive Council and Assembly of the AU

General Assembly and Permanent Council of the OAS

CoE Committee of Ministers

Country visits by Commissions

A small number of fact-finding missions and a larger number of promotional country visits

95 on-site fact-finding missions conducted so far







Commissions have own initiative to adopt reports on state parties

Yes, occasionally following fact-finding missions

Yes, 56 country reports and six special reports adopted so far


State parties required to submit regular reports to the Commissions

Yes, every two years



Appointment of special rapporteurs by the Commissions

Thematic rapporteurs: Extra-judicial killings; prisons; and women, freedom of expression, human rights defenders, refugees and displaced persons

Follow-up committee on torture (Robben Island Guidelines)

Working groups: economic, social and cultural rights; indigenous people or communities

Country rapporteurs: None

Thematic rapporteurs: Freedom of expression; prison conditions; women; children; displaced persons; indigenous peoples; migrant workers; human rights defenders; Afro descendants and racial discrimination

Country rapporteurs: Each OAS member state has a country rapporteur drawn from the Commission members.


Clusters of rights protected in the general treaties

Civil and political rights as well as some economic, social and cultural rights, and some ''third generation'' rights

Civil and political; socio-economic rights in the Protocol

Civil and political, also education






Recognition of duties

Yes, extensively

In the American Declaration but not in the American Convention

No, except in relation to the exercise of freedom of expression

Recognition of peoples' rights

Yes, extensively



Other bodies which form part of the regional systems

Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child monitors compliance with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child


CoE Commissioner for Human Rights (established in 1999): Monitors and promotes human rights in member states; may undertake country visits; assists member states (only with their agreement) to overcome human rights-related shortcomings.

Approximate number of staff

Court: To be determined

Commission: 22 permanent staff members (Secretary to the Commission, seven legal officers, financial/administrative manager, support staff (finance, administration, public relations, documentation officer, librarian)). At the end of 2005 the Commission also had five legal interns.

Court: 15 lawyers, 3 administrative employees, 1 librarian, 1 driver and 1 security guard. Total 26 persons

Commission: 24 budgeted posts (2 non-lawyer professionals, 15 lawyers, 8 administrative employees) plus 6 contract lawyers, 8 administrative contract employees, 1 contract part-time librarian, 6 fellows lawyers. Total 45 persons

As of 30 June 2005, total registry staff approximately 348 of which 187 permanent (including 76 lawyers) and 161 on temporary contracts (including 78 lawyers)






Physical facilities

Court: To be determined

Commission: Two floors used as offices

Court: Own building

Commission: Offices in General Secretariat facilities. 16 individual offices, 1 library, 1 conference room, filing room, 43 computers in total for the Court and Commission

Five storey building with two wings (16 500 m2), two hearing rooms, five deliberation rooms, library, approximately 600 computers

Annual budget

Court: To be determined

The budget for a session of the Commission is roughly US$ 200 000.

Court: US$ 1.39 million

Commission: US$ 2.78 million and US$ 1.28 million in external contributions

The Court and Commission's combined budget of US$ 4.1 million is 5.4% of the total budget of the OAS of US$ 76.2 million

41 million Euros

The Court's budget is approximately 20% of the CoE core budget.

Other regional human rights fora whose work draws upon/overlaps with the systems

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) of the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD) reviews human rights practices as part of political governance.


European Union (EU): Membership of the CoE and adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights are prerequisites for membership of the EU. The Convention constitutes general principles of European Union law.









European institutions with roles that affect human rights, and which draw upon the Convention, include: The European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Court of Justice and the European Ombudsman.

Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE): Although its standards do not impose enforceable international legal obligations as they are mostly of a political nature, it draws heavily upon the principles of the European Convention. It does provide for a multilateral mechanism for the supervision of the human rights dimension of its work.

Official websites 

Other useful websites humanrts/regional.htm






Sources (other than websites) where decisions are published

Annual Activity Reports

African Human Rights Law Reports published by the Centre for Human Rights, University of Pretoria and the Institute for Human Rights and Development in Africa, Banjul, The Gambia

Court: Annual report, decisions series, precautionary measures volume, yearbook (with Commission)

Commission: Annual report, country reports, rapporteur reports, yearbook (with Court), CD-Rom

Since 1996, the official European Convention law reports are the Reports of Judgments and Decisions, published in English and French.

Prior to 1996 the official law reports were the Series A Reports. The Series B Reports include the pleadings and other documents.

From 1974, selected European Commission decisions were reproduced in the Decisions and Reports Series.

The European Human Rights Reports series includes selected judgments of the Court, plus some Commission decisions.

Decisions and judgments are also available on-line on the Court's official website through the HUDOC database at The contents of HUDOC are also accessible via CD-ROM and DVD.






Commonly cited secondary sources on system

M Evans & R Murray (eds) The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights Cambridge UP, 2002

C Heyns (ed) Human Rights Law in Africa Marthinus Nijhoff, 2004

F Ouguergouz The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights : A comprehensive agenda for human rights Kluwer Law International, 2003

T Buergenthal & D Shelton Protecting Human Rights in the Americas NP Engel Publishers, 1995

F Martin et al (eds) International Human Rights Law and Practice Kluwer, 1997

P van Dijk & GJH van Hoof Theory and Practice of the European Convention on Human Rights Kluwer, 1998

C Ovey & RCA White Jacobs and White, the European Convention on Human Rights Oxford UP, 2002

M Boyle, DJ Harris & C Warbrick Law of the European Convention on Human Rights Butterworths, 1995

Yearbook of the European Convention on Human Rights Kluwer

Some relevant academic journals

African Human Rights Law Journal

East African Journal of Peace and Human Rights

Revista del Instituto Interamericano de Derechos Humanos (articles in English and Spanish)

European Human Rights Law Review

Human Rights Law Journal

Netherlands Quarterly of Human Rights

Revue universelle des Droits de l'Homme


[1] This is an updated version of C Heyns, W Strasser & D Padilla 'A schematic comparison of regional human rights systems' (2003) 3 African Human Rights Law Journal 76. We would like to pay tribute to Wolfgang Strasser who recently passed away.