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BRIEF: Latin America’s National Human Rights Institutions: Fostering Democratic Transitions and Guaranteeing Human Rights

BRIEF: Latin America’s National Human Rights Institutions: Fostering Democratic Transitions and Guaranteeing Human Rights

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Published by ELLA Programme
National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Latin America – also known as Public Defenders, Ombudsman Offices, Human Rights Commissions or Human Rights Attorneys – take on a variety of roles. Overall, they aim to bring civil society demands before public authorities, mediate social conflicts of public interest and provide an array of inclusive mechanisms for social involvement. They also influence public policies to incorporate a human rights approach, address cases of serious human rights violations, promote victims’ rights and issue recommendations to authorities in order to reinstitute their rights. Overall, these institutions also serve as a means of balancing power asymmetries between the State and the citizenry and promoting accountability amongst government agencies. This Brief analyses innovative practices implemented by Latin America’s NHRIs, as well as the contextual elements which have made their development and efficient enforcement possible.
National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Latin America – also known as Public Defenders, Ombudsman Offices, Human Rights Commissions or Human Rights Attorneys – take on a variety of roles. Overall, they aim to bring civil society demands before public authorities, mediate social conflicts of public interest and provide an array of inclusive mechanisms for social involvement. They also influence public policies to incorporate a human rights approach, address cases of serious human rights violations, promote victims’ rights and issue recommendations to authorities in order to reinstitute their rights. Overall, these institutions also serve as a means of balancing power asymmetries between the State and the citizenry and promoting accountability amongst government agencies. This Brief analyses innovative practices implemented by Latin America’s NHRIs, as well as the contextual elements which have made their development and efficient enforcement possible.

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Published by: ELLA Programme on Apr 15, 2013
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ELLA AREA: GOVERNANCE|ELLA THEME: PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS
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ELLA Area: GovernanceELLA Theme: Promoting Human Rights
National Human Rights Institutions(NHRIs) in Latin America – alsoknown as Public Deenders, Ombudsman Oices, Human RightsCommissions or Human Rights Attorneys – take on a variety oroles. Overall, they aim to bring civil society demands beore publicauthorities, mediate social conicts o public interest and providean array o inclusive mechanisms or social involvement. They alsoinluence public policies to incorporate a human rights approach,address cases o serious human rights violations, promotevictims’ rights and issue recommendations to authorities in orderto reinstitute their rights. Overall, these institutions also serve as ameans o balancing power asymmetries between the State andthe citizenry and promoting accountability amongst governmentagencies. This Brie analyses innovative practices implemented byLatin America’s NHRIs, as well as the contextual elements whichhave made their development and ecient enorcement possible.
SUMMARYTHE COMMON CHALLENGE OF PROTECTING HUMAN RIGHTS
The 1980s witnessed important democratic transitions throughout Latin America. The newly elected governments replacedauthoritarian regimes responsible or severe human rights violations: torture, arbitrary detentions, orced disappearancesand extrajudicial executions. A key actor characterising the new political structures in the region was the need to establisha mechanism to control human rights abuses perpetrated by government authorities and advance institutional processesto strengthen the enorcement and validity o human rights in these nascent democracies. In Latin America, the mechanismcreated was establishing national human rights institutions whose mandate and activities would be orientated towardsprotecting, deending and enorcing human rights.
Policy Brief
National Human Rights Institutions have playeda key role in Latin America’s recent historyand democratic transition. They have takena distinct form in the region comparedto the rest of the world, one which
reects the specifc context and
historical moment of LatinAmerica.
LATIN AMERICA’S NATIONALHUMAN RIGHTS INSTITUTIONS:FOSTERING DEMOCRATICTRANSITIONS ANDGUARANTEEING HUMAN RIGHTS
 
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ELLA AREA: GOVERNANCE|ELLA THEME: PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS
1960197019801990
INTERNAL CONFLICTS:
Guatemala (1966-1996)El Salvador (1979-1992)Nicaragua (1979-1990)
DICTATORSHIPS AND MILITARY REGIMES
Brazil (1964-1985)Bolivia (1964-1982)Peru (1968-1980)Chile (1973-1990)Paraguay (1954-1989)Uruguay (1973-1985)Argentina (1976-1983)DIRTY WAR:Mexico (1960s-1970s)
Between the period 1966-1986, 90,000 cases oorced disappearanceswere reported in Argentina,Bolivia, Chile, Guatemala,Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
1
For more inormation, see the websiteo the International Coordinating Committee or National Human Rights Institutions (ICC).
2
Revista IIDH 
37: 219-248.
3
See, or example: International Council on Human Rights Policy. 2005.
. International Council on Human Rights Policy, Versoix.
Source: Own elaboration.Source: Latin American Federation o Associations or Relatives o theDetained-Disappeared (FEDEFAM).
The situation aced by most countries in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Arica is not too dierent rom the Latin Americanone. These regions have reported the ongoing occurrence osevere human rights violations such as abuse by police orces,extrajudicial executions, torture, impunity, inadequate justicesystems, threats to reedom o speech and gender-basedviolence. In this light, South Asian and Sub-Saharan Aricanreaders could fnd it useul to learn about practices that LatinAmerican NHRIs have implemented to promote, deend,protect and enorce human rights.
LATIN AMERICA’S NHRI MODEL
By deinition, NHRIs are government bodies with aconstitutional or legislative mandate to protect and promotehuman rights. Though they are unded by the State andare part o the State apparatus, they operate and unctionindependently rom government. While their specifc mandatemay vary across countries, generally their role is to addressdiscrimination, promote and protect civil, political, economic,social and cultural rights, and address human rightsviolations. To ulfl their mandate NHRIs perorm unctionslike handling complaints, educating about human rights andmaking recommendations on legal reorms, among others.
1
At the international level, NHRIs originated mainly to perormunctions related to oversight o public management. It wasonly later on that the model would incorporate the deenceand promotion o human rights. This model, the mostwidely recognised one today, emerged in Sweden and wasinstitutionalized there in1809.
2
The
are the main source o regulatorystandards or today’s NHRIs and were adopted by theNHRIs during an international workshop held in Paris in1991. The signing marked the beginning o cooperationand standardisation amongst NHRIs worldwide. They weresubsequently ratifed by both the Human Rights Commissionand the General Assembly o the United Nations. The ParisPrinciples outline the essential and ideal characteristicswhich NHRIs should adopt rom the moment o their creationall the way through to when they are operational.
3
Latin American NHRIs are based mainly on the Spanish andSwedish model. However, they are also clearly related to theScandinavian model, in that they are independently controlledbodies which do not require parliament to appoint its seniorocials and that their actions are not binding.The clearest dierence between the Latin American modeland their European parallels is that the ormer sets outexplicit unctions that prioritise deending human rights;this is in addition to the non-jurisdictional oversight o
Figure 1: Latin American Political Context, 1960s tomid-1990s
 
Figure 2: Forced Disappearances in Latin America
 
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ELLA AREA: GOVERNANCE|ELLA THEME: PROMOTING HUMAN RIGHTS
public administration that is a eature common to NHRIsthroughout the world. This explicit human rights unction iscomplemented by the NHRIs’ ability to transer fles to thepublic prosecutor when a criminal investigation is requiredto initiate or enhance the judicial process, regardlesso the human rights-related process being carried outby the NHRI. The Latin American model also includesthe obligation to undertake human rights promotion andeducation activities.In Latin America, NHRIs adapted specifcally to their domesticcontexts, clearly acknowledging the international models,yet ocusing mainly on the need to protect, promote andenorce human rights. The repression and armed conictsthat most Latin American countries experienced during the1970s and 1980s played a key role in shaping the creationo the region’s NHRIs. Institutions were thus inuenced bythe social, historical and political context o the region, andwere deeply linked to both the constitutional developmentso the democratic transitions and the end o the authoritarianregimes. Since their creation, NHRIs embraced the needs otheir particular countries in their
raison d’être 
, embeddingthem into a model aimed at improving the recognition andprotection o human rights. For example, in El Salvador, acountry that suered a prolonged civil war, the human rightsocus o the NHRI was inuenced by the goal o stoppingarmed conict and promoting coexistence among dierentsocial groups. In Bolivia, the NHRI has been entrusted withensuring that the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural makeup othe country is respected.Just a ew decades ater their birth, these institutionshave established themselves as potentially idealplatorms or tackling grave human rights violations inthe region and ostering citizens’ ability to deend andenorce their rights. As a result, one o the main issueson civil society’s agenda regarding these institutions isthe reinorcement and improvement o their mandate.Overall, it is crucial to highlight the participation o civilsociety and social movements that, in dierent degreeso involvement, have played an important role. Theyhave demanded proessionalism, transparency and realand eicient ulilment o NHRIs’ mandate, which itselhas also had an impact in strengthening Latin America’snewly born democracies.
LATIN AMERICAN NHRIs: DESIGN FEATURESAND GOOD PRACTICES
What are the main design eatures o Latin American NHRIs?This section identifes some o the key characteristics oNHRI design, to later illustrate examples o good practicerom the region that stem rom these institutional set-ups.The key design eatures o Latin America’s NHRIs include:
•
Jurisdiction:
well-defned attributions, unctions andlimits; coordination with other public entities
•
Constitutional or legal creation:
legal status grantingpermanency and autonomy
•
Selection and profile of the institution’s head:
clear,transparent and inclusive procedures
•
Political, budgetary and managerial independence:
 linked with legitimacy beore civil society and other stateagencies and includes having the inancial resourcesneeded to operate independentlyNHRIs’ institutional design can vary rom country tocountry, as does their implementation. In broad terms,one o the main purposes o NHRIs is to oversee thework carried out by the public administration. Hence,it is important that NHRIs are empowered to processand submit complaints when the actions or omissionso public authorities are considered to be potentialhuman rights violations. This is directly related with the jurisdiction o the NHRI; these oversight actions can becarried out eiciently only i NHRIs have a certain levelo independence rom the state, and i the governmentacknowledges NHRIs’ existence and mandate.So ar we have seen that the design eatures o NHRIs arerelated to each other. The nature o NHRIs is ounded inand orientated towards an institutional design that seeksto generate and strengthen public authorities. In addition,Latiwn American NHRIs seek to be institutions that areproessional, eicient, transparent and close to citizens,and whose guiding principle is promoting human rights.Good practice rom the region is linked with institutionaldesign. The diagram below demonstrates speciic designeatures and the good practices they have ostered.

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