What is the Organization of American States (OAS)?
The Organization of American States (OAS) is a regional inter-governmental body that aims to strengthen democracy and cooperation in the Americas. Its Member States work together to promote human rights, defend common interests, and discuss other major issues facing the region.
Member States set major policies and goals through the General Assembly, which is made up of the foreign affairs ministers from countries in the Americas, when they meet once a year. Ongoing actions are guided by the Permanent Council, made up of ambassadors appointed by Member States.
Who participates in the OAS?
The OAS has 35 Member States from North, Central and South America and the Caribbean. Cuba was excluded from participating in the OAS between 21 January 1962 and 3 June 2009, as a result of tensions of the Castro regime with the United States and some other countries who were persuaded to vote for Cuba's suspension. Read more on Cuban relations with the OAS.
The OAS also offers permanent observer status to States outside the Americas; 68 States and the EU currently have observer status.
What does the OAS do?
In terms of human rights, the OAS has two general mechanisms: the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Both deal with children’s rights. They report directly to the OAS Secretary General.
Although the Charter does not mention human rights a great deal, it establishes the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, under Article 53. This Article says that the main function of this Commission is to promote and protect human rights in the region (Article 106).
In the same conference that saw the OAS Charter open for signature in 1948, Member States also adopted the American Declaration on the Rights and Duties of Man. This spells out the human rights that those living in the Americas and the Caribbean are entitled to, but the Declaration has no binding legal force. All OAS Members have signed the American Declaration.
The job of the Commission was initially to monitor States’ compliance with the rights set out in the American Declaration.
In 1969 the American Convention on Human Rights opened for signature and entered into force in 1979. This sets out the rights that everyone in the States that ratify this Convention can claim, and these States can be held to account if they breach these rights. The Convention also expanded on the Commission’s functions. Read the Statute of the Inter-American Commission.
This Convention also created the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Governments who do not respect or protect the rights spelt out in the American Convention can be held to account by the Court, provided they have accepted the Court's authority to rule on such matters. The Court is a judicial body whose decisions have the force of a court of law.
To summarise, the Inter-American system has a layered system for protecting human rights.
- All Member States must comply with the rights set up in the American Declaration. Those who do not can be taken to the Inter-American Commission.
- States which have ratified the American Convention on Human Rights must comply with the rights set out in the Convention, but, if they have not accepted the authority of the Court to rule on such cases, they cannot be taken to the Court.
- States which have accepted (usually through a declaration) the authority of the Court to rule on cases – called the ‘contentious jurisdiction’ of the Court – may be held to account by the Court which can issue binding decisions against them. Find out which States have accepted the contentious jurisdiction.