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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

1999, Vol. 2 No. 2 .


The Inter-American System of Human Rights
Edited by David Harris & Stephen Livingstone

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998)
588pp. Index. Hb.: £65.00; ISBN 0-19-826552-2.



David Harris's and Stephen Livingstone's The Inter-American System of Human Rights is a work stemming from the Human Rights Law Centre at the University of Nottingham's 1995 conference on the inter-American system. The collection of essays is intended to provide European lawyers and scholars with a background into the inter-American human rights system, as Europeans are now forced to face rights violations in Turkey, Yugoslavia and elsewhere on the scale of those witnessed throughout the Americas in the 1970s and 80s.

The pieces assembled do well in their analysis of both the successes and the shortcomings of the 1948 Organization of American States (OAS) Charter and its application by the Inter-American Commission and Court of Human Rights. The work recognizes the Court's landmark stance on disappearances in the Velasquez Rodriguez case in Honduras, and its increased prominence thereafter, while in essays such as Hurst Hannum's "The Protection of Indigenous Rights in the Inter-American System" (pp. 323-43), the stance is more critical. Hannum notes the Commission lacked special authority or obligation to concern itself with the problems of the indigenous (p. 325), and has only recently begun to embrace the rights of the indigenous as a central concern.

The concluding essay, "Procedural Shortcomings in the Defense of Human Rights: An Inequality of Arms" (pp. 421-40) by Josť Miguel Vivanco (Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Americas) and Lisa L. Bhansali provides a balanced look into the future of the inter-American system. The authors emphasize that although most Latin democracies acknowledge human rights violations, they continue to employ a "double discourse" (421). "They recognize the importance of human rights principles, but when confronted with a case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, they question the necessity of the system and sometimes even work to undermine its effectiveness" (421). These and other such problems, such unpredictability and inconsistency in application of the Commission's rules and guidelines, continue to hinder the OAS Charter.

On the whole, The Inter-American System of Human Rights is narrowly focused collection of articles clearly intended for legal scholars and practitioners with an interest in the Americas. Its utility for European counterparts, or scholars with a more general interest in the human rights discourse seems rather minimal.


Eamon Joyce,
Vassar College




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