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Researcher: Dr Ezequiel Gonzalez-Ocantos

Until the 1980s and 1990s, judges in Latin America were inconsequential bureaucrats, playing a minor role in a legal system which left little room for interpretation. The arrival of a rights-centred legal worldview from Europe and the United States changed that. Courts in Latin America have become increasingly assertive, with their rulings effecting policy across a wide range of areas, including health care, immigration and the environment.

How and why did this shift take place? This project aims to investigate this, and in particular the role of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which over the previous two decades has become increasingly influential in setting standards of state behaviour, and in setting the tone for domestic courts.

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights is institutionally weak, and vulnerable to non-compliance and neglect. This makes the increasing influence and authority of the court in discussions about indigenous rights, due process or freedom of expression all the more surprising. This success against the odds can tell us a great deal about how the seemingly empty promises of international law can in fact be incredibly influential.

This project will investigate how the court has built this influence, and will go beyond the usual approach of treating institutions as a cohesive whole by interviewing the people who make up the courts – the judges, lawyers and clerks. By understanding the ambitions, outlooks and strategies of those in the Inter-American Court and in local courts, the project will develop an understanding of how international human rights law diffuses into national courts.

As Latin American governments face fiscal crises, and Europe withdraws funding, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights is likely to come under increasing pressure. This research will help to assess its importance, and provide empirical evidence for its successes.

 

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