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JudicialMechanismThe Inter-American Court of Human Rights (the ‘Court’) is the judicial organ of the Inter-American system for the protection of human rights. Based in San José, Costa Rica, it was established by the American Convention on Human Rights in 1978. The Court is composed of seven jurists who are elected by the General Assembly and serve 6-year terms, once renewable. The Court meets five times per year, with one of these meetings taking place outside of Costa Rica in order to increase awareness of its work.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights serves two primary functions (Chapter VIII, American Convention on Human Rights):

  • Adjudicatory function: the Court may issue judgments on cases referred to it by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • Advisory function: the Court may issue advisory opinions on the application of human rights treaties at the request of member states or bodies within the OAS.

Unlike the European Court of Human Rights, individual may not access the Court directly. All individual complaints must first go through the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which may then decide to refer the case to the Court.

How does it help tackle violence against women?

Although the Court does not have the power to receive individual complaints (‘petitions’) directly, it has been instrumental in creating case law on the Belém do Pará Convention to substantively define state obligations to eliminate violence against women.

CourtCaseCase Study: Gonzalez et al. (“Cotton Field”) v. Mexico (2009)

Claudia Ivette Gonzalez (age 20), Esmeralda Herrera Monreal (age 15) and Laura Berenice Ramos Monarrez (age 17) were living in Ciudad Juarez (Mexico) when they disappeared after leaving work. Laura and Esmeralda had finished their shifts but went missing on their way home. Claudia was not seen again after being turned away from her workplace for arriving two minutes late. Afraid for their safety, the young women’s families repeatedly contacted the police for help – to no avail. Law enforcement officials dismissed the families’ concerns, saying that they were “probably with their boyfriends.” Without any serious or effective investigation into the disappearances, their families were left without help from law enforcement officials.

Gonzalez, Monreal and Monarrez v. Mexico is also referred to as the “Cotton Field” or “Campo Algodonero” case. This is because on 6 November 2001, Claudia, Esmeralda and Laura’s bodies were discovered in the cotton fields of Ciudad Juarez. Five other women were also found murdered in the same field. Each of the young women’s bodies displayed evidence of intense physical and psychological torture, mutilation and sexual abuse. It was apparent that they had been abducted and imprisoned for days by their captors before they were finally killed.

Through its analysis, the Court ultimately decided that Mexico was to be held responsible for violating the women’s human rights, specifically:

  • American Convention on Human Rights
    • Article 4: Right to life
    • Article 5: Right to Humane Treatment
    • Article 7: Right to Personal Liberty
    • Article 8: Right to a Fair Trial
    • Article 19: Rights of the Child
    • Article 25: Right to Judicial Protection

The reasoning behind the Court’s decision has set a precedent for states’ obligations to eliminate VAW under the American Convention on Human Rights and the Belém do Pará Convention. This is because the Court’s ruling recognised:

  1. Mexico had failed to protect the women’s fundamental human rights and guarantee them access to justice: By inadequately investigating the systematic killings in Ciudad Juarez and failing to establish legislation that proportionately punishes perpetrators, Mexico had contributed to “an environment of impunity that facilitates and promotes the repetition of acts of violence in general and sends a message that violence against women is tolerated and accepted as part of daily life”.
  2. VAW constitutes a form of discrimination: “The subordination of women can be associated with practices based on persistent socially-dominant gender stereotypes, a situation that is exacerbated when the stereotypes are reflected, implicitly or explicitly, in policies and practices and, particularly, in the reasoning and language of the judicial police authorities, as in this case. The creation and use of stereotypes becomes one of the causes and consequences of gender-based violence against women.”
  3. Mexico needed to “harmonize the protocols, manuals, judicial investigation criteria, expert services and delivery of justice to investigate all crimes concerning the disappearance, sexual abuse and murder of women with the Istanbul Protocol, the United National Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extralegal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, and the international standards for searching for disappeared people, based on a gender perspective.”
  4. Transformative reparations are required to eliminate structural causes of violence against women.

iconLockWant more? Read more about the Cotton Fields Case and the Court’s recommendations on our ‘Landmark Cases’ page 


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