From the Reference Desk: Tips for Researching International Human Rights Case Law

By Jonathan Pratter

In the universe of international human rights documentation, case law has a special place. Human rights case law is human rights in action. It confronts general norms with concrete facts and requires a decision about whether or not the general norm has been violated. Human rights case law brings general norms to life. The point of this post is to offer tips for researching human rights case law in each of the systems of protection that are in operation in the world today.

In the United Nations system, eight treaty bodies are competent to receive and decide on individual communications alleging violations by states parties of obligations under the core human rights agreements. The clearinghouse of human rights information in the UN system is the website of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The High Commissioner’s website has a Jurisprudence Database. “Jurisprudence” is the term used for case law. This derives from the usage of the term in the civil-law system. In the Jurisprudence Database, the researcher has several options. There is a filter for selecting the convention/treaty body of interest. Filtering by issue and by convention article is also possible. Significantly, there is a keyword search box that enables full-text searches. Results are displayed in a table of cases in reverse chronological order with links to pdf versions of individual cases.

Screenshot of the website
Screenshot of the Jurisprudence Database at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

In the European system, readers of this blog need no introduction to the HUDOC database for the European Court of Human Rights. The HUDOC database contains over 64,000 judgments of the ECHR. Of these, there are about 5,000 Grand Chamber judgments. It is possible to search only Grand Chamber judgments. Just click the box for Grand Chamber and unclick the box for Chamber.

HUDOC is not just for the ECHR. For example, another part of the European system is the European Social Charter, which concerns social and economic rights. Under the Charter, the European Committee of Social Rights is authorized to hear collective complaints lodged by certain organizations and NGOs alleging violations of the Charter. These can be searched on HUDOC. In the left column click HUDOC-ESC.

Students are often surprised to learn that in the European system it is the Council of Europe and not the European Union that takes the leading role. However, in 2000 the EU adopted a Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Charter is justiciable in the courts of EU member states and in the European Court of Justice when EU law is in question. The website of the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has a Case Law Database. This collects abstracts and extracts from the case law of member state courts, from the ECHR, and from the European Court of Justice in cases that make a direct reference to the Charter. Where the full text of a judgment is available, there is a link. Filtering by article of the Charter is possible.

In the Inter-American system, two bodies are authorized to decide contested cases based on individual complaints. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights decides cases arising under the American Convention on Human Rights. The complete case law of the Court is available under tabs for Cases at the Merits Stage and Advisory Opinions at the Court’s website. Most recent judgments are in Spanish only, though the Court aims to have all judgments translated into English. The search function at the Court’s website does not work well. There is a link to the Jurisprudence Finder (Buscador Jurídico). However, this works only on Spanish search terms.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights acts under the OAS Charter, and considers cases under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and the American Convention on Human Rights for those OAS members who are parties to the Convention. The Commission’s decisions on individual communications are collected on the Commission’s website. Under Cases there are links for Admissibilities, Inadmissibilities, Friendly Settlements and Merits. There is no search function. Issue-based searching in the Commission’s jurisprudence is a challenge. Merits decisions are displayed in reverse chronological order by year. The only way to survey the Commission’s case law is to look at individual cases. Each Merits report, which is available in English in pdf for recent years, has a detailed table of contents on the first page, allowing the researcher to quickly determine what the case is about.

The African system also has two human rights bodies that act under the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and that are authorized to decide on individual communications in contested cases. The decisions of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on individual communications are collected on the Commission’s website. Click on Communications. Filtering by article of the African Charter is possible. The case law of the African Court of Human and Peoples’ Rights is collected at the Court’s website. Under Cases there are links for Contentious Matters and for Advisory Proceedings. Under Contentious Matters there is a link to Finalised Cases. Unfortunately, there is no way to filter searches.

The African Human Rights Case Law Analyser allows searches on the African Commission and the African Court, as well as on other bodies in Africa that have jurisdiction over human rights. Full-text searching is possible, as well as searching by keyword and by country. The site is not official and also is not comprehensive, but it offers the best option for issue-based searching in the African system.

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