In Regional Human Rights Bodies as Instruments of International Law: Contradiction and Fragmentation, panelists discussed fragmentation among the three major regional human rights courts: the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR), and the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR). Elena Abrusci provided insights from her research at the University of Essex’s Human Rights Centre. Silivia Serrano Guzmán and moderator Christina Cerna drew on their experiences working for the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Finally, Thomas Antkowiak drew on his work advocating before the IACtHR and ACtHPR as director of the International Human Rights Clinic at Seattle University School of Law. The panelists provided detailed, meticulously researched analysis of what fragmentation is; why and when it happens; and its impact.
- What is fragmentation?
Fragmentation occurs when international tribunals reach conflicting decisions on how to apply international law to similar scenarios.
- Why does fragmentation happen?
Abrusci identified two primary reasons:
- Different judges. Abrusci’s data suggested that judges on the IACtHR and the ACtHPR are worldlier than their counterparts on the ECtHR. 70-80% of ACtHPR judges and 50-60% of IACtHR judges had received their legal education on another continent, mostly in Europe. In contrast, less than 10% of ECtHR judges had received their legal education outside of Europe. Similarly, 10-20% of ACtHPR and IACtHR judges had worked for a UN human rights body but less than 4% of ECtHR judges had done so.
- Different deference standards. The ECtHR applies the margin of appreciation doctrine, which allows states some flexibility in applying the European Convention on Human Rights (European Convention) and takes into account the current consensus among European states. In contrast, the IACtHR applies the conventionality control doctrine, which requires all states to fully comply with the American Convention on Human Rights (American Convention).
- When does fragmentation happen?
Rarely. Panelists agreed that convergence is the norm and fragmentation is the exception. The IACtHR routinely looks to ECtHR jurisprudence and the ECtHR has looked to IACtHR jurisprudence in areas where it is more developed, as when the ECtHR adjudicated forced disappearances in Kosovo. However, panelists identified several notable examples of fragmentation:
- Same-sex marriage. The ECtHR observed that most European states do not allow same-sex marriage and, applying the margin of appreciation, declined to interpret the right to marriage to include the right to same-sex marriage. In contrast, the IACtHR explicitly rejected the ECtHR’s reliance on consensus and suggested that the right to marriage also applies to same-sex couples.
- The right to a criminal appeal. A protocol to the European Convention explicitly states that the right to a criminal appeal does not apply if the defendant is convicted by the country’s highest court or after an acquittal is overturned. In contrast, the IACtHR has held that the right to an appeal applies in both of these situations.
- Indigenous property rights. The ECtHR has repeatedly failed to acknowledge indigenous collective property rights, ignoring not only well-developed IACtHR jurisprudence, but also an ILO convention and UN resolution.
- Reparations to victims. The ECtHR provides only a limited set of primarily financial remedies, while the IACtHR employs holistic remedies such as ordering the state to build medical centers, provide victims with scholarships, and formally apologize. Generally, panelists preferred the IACtHR’s approach but acknowledged that the IACtHR had sometimes ordered reparations so broad that they were effectively impossible to implement, as when the IACtHR ordered Honduras to ensure that all of its hundreds of prisons complied with all international human rights laws.
There are also notable examples where the courts have fragmented and then re-converged:
- Access to information. The IACtHR interprets the right to freedom of expression to include a right to access to information. The ECtHR initially rejected this view but has gradually moved towards it, invoking the margin of appreciation and the growing consensus of European states in favor of access to information. Paradoxically, although the ECtHR’s margin of appreciation typically causes fragmentation, here it permitted the ECtHR to converge towards the IACtHR.
- The right to life. Under the IACtHR’s vida digna (dignified life) doctrine, the right to life incorporates social, economic, and cultural rights, such as the rights to food, shelter, and work. Although the UN Human Rights Committee has adopted the vida digna doctrine, the ECtHR has generally ignored it and the ACtHPR has explicitly rejected it. Advocates for social, economic, and cultural rights argue that treating them as a subset of the right to life subordinates them to civil and political rights and hinders their individual conceptual development. The IACtHR has begun to converge with the other two courts, applying the vida digna doctrine only to especially vulnerable groups, such as homeless children, and finding alternative strategies to incorporate social, economic, and cultural rights.
- Is fragmentation bad or good?
Like the panelists on the earlier Fragmentation in International Data Protection Law panel, panelists did not believe that fragmentation was inherently bad. In fact, panelists argued that some fragmentation among the regional human rights courts could help propel the development of new theories in international human rights law.
 Schalk and Kopf v. Austria, App. No. 30141/04, Eur. Ct. H.R. (2010), http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-99605; Chapin and Charpentier v. France, App. No. 40183/07, Eur. Ct. H.R. (2016), http://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng?i=001-163436.
 State Obligations Concerning Change of Name, Gender Identity, and Rights Derived from a Relationship Between Same-Sex Couples, Advisory Opinion OC-24/17, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. A) No. 24 (Nov. 24, 2017), http://www.corteidh.or.cr/cf/Jurisprudencia2/busqueda_opiniones_consultivas.cfm?lang=en.
 Article 2(2) of the Protocol No. 7 to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, ETS No.117, https://www.coe.int/en/web/conventions/full-list/-/conventions/treaty/117.
 Barreto Leiva v. Venezuela, Merits, Reparations and Costs, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. C) No. 206 (Nov. 31, 2009), http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_206_ing.pdf; Mohamed v. Argentina, Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. C) No. 255 (Nov. 23, 2012), http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_255_ing.pdf.
 Elena Abrusci, Judicial Fragmentation on Indigenous Property Rights: Causes, Consequences and Solutions, 21 The International Journal of Human Rights 550–564 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2017.1307830.
 Claude-Reyes et al. v. Chile, Merits, Reparations and Costs, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. C) No. 151 (Sept. 19, 2006), http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_151_ing.pdf.
 General Comment 36, para. 3 (2018), https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CCPR/Shared%20Documents/1_Global/CCPR_C_GC_36_8785_E.pdf.
 African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights v Kenya, App. No. 006/2012, Judgement, 26 May 2017, para. 154, http://www.african-court.org/en/images/Cases/Judgment/Application%20006-2012%20-%20African%20Commission%20on%20Human%20and%20Peoples%E2%80%99%20Rights%20v.%20the%20Republic%20of%20Kenya..pdf.
 Villagrin-Morales et al. v. Guatemala, Merits, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. C) No. 63 (Nov. 19, 1999), http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_63_ing.pdf.
 Lagos del Campo v. Peru, Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs, Judgment, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R. (ser. C) No. 340 (Aug. 31, 2017), http://www.corteidh.or.cr/docs/casos/articulos/seriec_340_esp.pdf.