International Law

March 2010

A Modern Pangaea: Legal Connections Across Africa and the Americas


At first it seemed unlikely: that lawyers in Africa and Latin America might have experiences to share in the practice of human rights law.  Cultures, political contexts, and geography vary so greatly.

But thanks to a unique series of projects and conferences organized over the past few years by the City Bar's Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, and the Vance Center's publication "A Partnership Between Africa and Latin America to Promote Access to Justice," human rights practitioners from Argentina, Chile, Tanzania, Namibia, and other countries in Africa and Latin America have learned that there are striking similarities in the challenges they face and substantial reasons for them to collaborate on human rights initiatives.  The two continents, it seems, are not that far apart after all.

In fact, Africa and Latin America share considerably more connections than their pre-historical origins in Pangaea, including in the area of human rights. In the past few decades, the regional human rights situations of Africa and Latin America have increasingly begun to resemble each other.  The regions also share a history of colonialism, dictatorships, and state-centered abuses of human rights.   Each has established a region-wide human rights commission and a human rights court.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was the first of those bodies to be established, in 1960, by the Organization of American States.  In the 1970s and 80s, the Commission was a strong voice speaking out against the abusive dictatorships of the region.  But as much as it is a pointer of fingers, it also serves a role in promoting and protecting human rights by conducting investigations, issuing reports, and proposing solutions to human rights problems. The Inter-American Court on Human Rights was established in 1980 to try accusations of human rights violations against states.

Across the ocean, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights was created in 1986, by the Organisation of African Unity, now the African Union.  The Commission was disparaged for years as lacking the mandate to create change. Its purpose was limited to “promotional” and “protective” activities.  In 1995, African states began pushing for the creation of a court that would add teeth to the commission’s mandate.  The court was ratified by the required 15 nations in December of 2004. Judges are elected from member states. The court has recently issued its first decision..  

This month, the Vance Center will hold programs in New York and Washington, DC, for U.S. lawyers who want to get involved in matters before the African and Inter-American human rights systems.  The program will be open to the general public and speakers will include representatives from the Asociacion por los Derechos Civiles (Argentina), Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), the Council for Transparency in Chile, Institute for Human Rights and Development (Gambia), and the International Commission of Jurists (Kenya), as well as professors from Columbia Law School, Harvard Law School, and Washington College of Law.

To learn more or RSVP for the Vance Center training, email Wendy Fu at wendyfu@nycbar.org