Interpretation of Judgments: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)
Lucas Carlos Lima
Published under the direction of Hélène Ruiz Fabri, with the support of the Department of International Law and Dispute Resolution, under the auspices of the Max Planck Institute Luxembourg for Procedural Law.
1 When a judgment is rendered by an international court, it is expected that it shall be clear and understood by the parties with the purpose of fulfilling its role of settling disputes. International adjudicative bodies are under the general requirement to state the reasons of a judgment, the so-called devoir de motivation (Duty to Give Reasons). Yet, parties can still disagree in relation to the meaning and the scope of a judgment binding upon them. The legal remedy for these situations is the request for interpretation of the judgment by the same adjudicative body, which shall render a new decision clarifying the contended issues. Several international courts and tribunals’ statutes and rules provide for such a possibility (Judgments of International Courts and Tribunals, Interpretation of). The right to request an interpretation of a judgment is particularly important in human rights courts, where the presence of individuals as parties can unbalance the forces within the proceedings and might ultimately pose a threat to the judicial principle of the equality of the parties. This seems to be the rationale that led States to include in the American Convention on Human Rights (1969) (‘ACHR’ or ‘Convention’) the right to request an interpretation of a judgment in the treaty governing the Inter-American System of Human Rights (‘IASHR’).
2 Article 67 ACHR establishes that the judgments rendered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (‘IACtHR’ or ‘Court’) are final and without appeal (Judgment: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR); Finality of Judgments). It also prescribes that ‘[i]n case of disagreement as to the meaning or scope of the judgment, the Court shall interpret it at the request of any of the parties, provided the request is made within ninety days from the date of notification of the judgment’. Unlike inter-State tribunals, in which the recourse to the interpretation of a judgment is relatively rare, since its inception the IACtHR has rendered more than 80 judgments of interpretation. Generally, the Rules of the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACtHPR) are the same as the ones established for the European Court of Human Rights (‘ECtHR’). The period for requesting the interpretation is considerably longer, twelve months, compared to the IACtHR’s three months. Yet, if we only consider the classification offered by the websites of each court, both the ECtHR (Ringeisen v Austria, 1973; Allenet de Ribemont v France, 1996; and Hentrich v France, 1997) and the ACtHPR (Urban Mkandawire v Malawi, 2014; Mohamed Abubakari v Tanzania, 2017; and APDH v Côte d’Ivoire, 2017) have only three decisions on interpretation of judgments.
3 On the other hand, the two systems have a provision for revision of judgments in their rules, in the Article following the one on interpretation. In this sense, the European system has a greater number of cases listed as revisions, 159, while the African counterpart only enumerates seven. This could indicate that the great appeal of the Inter-American system for interpretation is related to the impossibility of review, despite further differences that might cause uncertainty for the parties, related to the execution of the rather creative reparation measures established by the IACtHR.
4 The reasons that can tentatively explain this high number of requests and judgments are twofold. First, litigant parties tend to use the request for interpretation as an instrument to revisit the judgment, either for requesting proper clarifications or for disguising an attempt to appeal. Second, the Court’s perception of the function of interpretation within its own judicial activity seems to favour a more flexible approach. In the very first judgment of interpretation, the IACtHR observed that ‘the interpretation of a judgment involves not only precisely defining the text of the judgment’s operative parts, but also specifying its scope, meaning and purpose, based on the considerations of the judgments' (Velásquez Rodríguez v Honduras, 1988, para 26). Therefore, the IACtHR had the opportunity to develop a significant case law concerning the procedural requirements for interpretation of a judgment, as well as the powers that the Court wields while interpreting its judgments.
5 The examination of this branch of the IACtHR’s case law allows one to elaborate on the different functions interpretation of a judgment can perform within that specific judicial system. Judgments of interpretation often tackle issues such as the modalities of reparation, loss of profits, moral damages, the exact amount awarded, the reparatory modality of reintegration, among others (Reparation Proceedings). Nonetheless, through interpretative proceedings, the Court has the opportunity to clarify—and develop—specific forms of reparation inherent to the Inter-American System.
B. Historical Development
6 The right to request the interpretation of judgments has been envisaged in the ACHR since its outset. However, debates during the drafting process of the Convention reveal only discussions related to the time for requesting an interpretation (Actas y Documentos de la Conferencia Especializada Interamericana en Derechos Humanos, 1969, 31). The period of six months initially provided in the first version of the Convention gave way to the 90 days timespan, following the suggestion of the Dominican Republic (Actas y Documentos, 1969, 85). The drafting process also reveals that the primary source of inspiration for this provision was Article 60 Statute of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (‘ICJ Statute’), from which the ACHR and the Rules of the Inter-American Court (‘Rules’) borrowed its language. Besides, at the time, the European system of human rights did not provide for the right to request interpretations (which was recognized through Protocol 11 to the European Convention on Human Rights) (Interpretation of Judgments: European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR)). In the IACtHR’s practice, especially in its outset, references to the ICJ interpretative practice were common (Interpretation of Judgments: International Court of Justice (ICJ)).
7 Throughout the years—and passing through six different versions of the Rules reformed by the Court—the changes in the Statute mainly covered minor issues refining the IACtHR’s powers, limiting and detailing the procedure for requesting an interpretation. For instance, in the 1996 version of the Rules, only judgments on the merits and reparation could be the object of a request for interpretation. The 2009 version incorporated the possibility of other judgments being the object of a request, such as ‘judgments on preliminary objections, on the merits, or on reparations and cost’. Similarly, the requirement of maintaining, if viable, the same composition of the Court for examining the request for interpretation, was included in the second version of the Rules (1991) and has remained there until nowadays.
8 If the normative texts governing the interpretation of the IACtHR’s judgments did not change substantially in history, a significant number of decisions were responsible for shaping the interpretative practice of the Court of San José. It is not surprising that, since there is no right to appeal in the Inter-American System, the request for interpretation of a judgment was procedurally used by parties with different goals of ‘working out the meaning of the decision when one of the parties maintains that the text of its operative paragraphs or its consideranda are unclear or imprecise’ (Loayza Tamayo v Peru, 1998, para 16).
C. Distinction from Other Procedural Categories of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
9 The IACtHR’s duty to state the reasons of the judgment is enshrined in Article 65 Rules of the Court which establishes ‘the legal arguments’ as one of the necessary elements of the judgment. In a continent particularly inclined to resist international and supranational decision-making processes (Huneeus, 2011; Contesse, 2018), the Rules clearly establish that ‘judgments and orders of the Court may not be contested in any way’ (Art 31 (3) of the Rules). This rule is often invoked in judgments of interpretation which, together with Article 67 ACHR, crystallizes the principle of Res judicata within the IACtHR’s procedural system. Since there is no right to appeal within the Inter-American judicial system (Marotti, 2020; International Courts and Tribunals, Appeals) and the IACtHR is not a supreme court, a supraconstitutional court, or a court of appeals, issues related to the revision of a judgment are usually comprised within different procedural categories of the IACtHR system (Revision of Judgment: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)). Requests for interpretation must, therefore, be examined diligently because ‘a request that solicits the modification or the reversal of the judgment is impermissible’ (Moiwana Community v Suriname, 2006, para 14). There are at least three procedural mechanisms that are worthy of examination given their similarity to the request for interpretation: (1) the request for judicial review; (2) the procedure for monitoring compliance with judgments; and (3) the request for amendment of errors.
1. Judicial Review
10 While the interpretation of judgments is expressly set forth by the rules governing the activity of the IACtHR, no provisions regarding the review of judgments can be found. If the drafters of the Convention seemed particularly inclined to incorporate the possibility of offering clarity in the implementation of a judgment, the same does not ring true as to ‘discovery of some fact of such a nature as to be a decisive factor … which fact was, when the judgment was given, unknown to the Court and to the party claiming revision’ (Art 61 ICJ Statute).
11 Nonetheless, in Genie Lacayo v Nicaragua, 1997, the Court established its powers to decide upon a judicial review requested by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (‘IACHR’). In that instance, the IACtHR clarified that only exceptional circumstances could lead to the review of a judgment, mainly connected with the discovery of ‘important facts or situations that were unknown at the time the judgment was delivered’ (at para 12). The Court’s reasoning heavily relied on the ICJ rules and practice regarding the review of judgments. Be that as it may, the practice regarding the review of judgments in the context of the IACtHR is sparse. This can be tentatively explained either because the nature of the problems brought before the Court do not require a process of review in the light of new facts (Burgorgue-Larsen and Torres, 2011, 154) or due to the absence of clearer rules which would allow parties to use such a procedural instrument. In a later instance, the Court reaffirmed that ‘an appeal for review is admissible in exceptional cases, when a fact that has come to light after the judgment has been delivered affects the contents of the decision or reveals a substantial defect in it’ (Juan Humberto Sánchez v Honduras, 2003, para 15).
12 On other occasions, the issue of judicial review was raised obliquely. In Cantoral Huamaní and García Santa Cruz v Peru, 2008, the parties asked about the possibility of using a procedure of judicial review if the ongoing domestic judicial proceedings reached a different conclusion and produced new factual evidence. The Court dismissed the question affirming that ‘the issue raised by the State relates to a potential event; that is, to a situation that the State supposes could occur in the future’ and thus, ‘[p]ositing abstract or hypothetical situations bears no relationship to the purpose of an application for interpretation of judgment’ (at para 16). Therefore, the Court did not rule out the possibility of judicial review in such a case but clarified that to make an abstract pronouncement on the issue within the process of interpretation would be inappropriate.
13 In spite of recognizing the possibility of judicial review, the Court has never incorporated this power in its Rules. Furthermore, the IACtHR has recently declared that the request for interpretation is not the appropriate procedural means for requesting judicial review. In Rosadio Villavicencio v Peru, 2020, the Court set forth that ‘alleged exceptional situations, new facts, and supervening evidence’ could not be examined since the ‘exclusive purpose of a request for interpretation is to determine the meaning of a judgment when one of the parties finds that the text of its operative paragraphs or its considerations are unclear or imprecise’ (at para 26).
2. Procedure for Monitoring Compliance with Judgments
14 An innovative feature of the IACtHR is its system for monitoring compliance with judgments and orders, governed by Article 69 Rules of the Court and its case law (Procedure for Monitoring Compliance with Judgments and Other Decisions: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)). When the IACtHR was designed, it worked essentially against an interstate background, highly influenced by the experience of the ECtHR (Huneeus and Madsen, 2018). Not by chance, the mechanisms for supervising and implementing the decisions of the Court relegated only to a political body the pressure for the execution and implementation of the orders. Nonetheless, the Court started to oversee whether States were fully complying with judgments rendered by the Court by asking for a report, either from the State or from the victims, to verify the compliance (Godínez Cruz v Honduras, Monitoring Compliance with Judgment, 1996). It is not rare, within this procedure, to rediscuss the scope and the exact amounts to be paid by the State to the victims (Case of Barrios Altos v Peru, Monitoring Compliance with Judgment, 2002).
15 In 2003, when deciding the case Baena Ricardo et al v Panama, the IACtHR was called upon to justify the power of monitoring compliance with judgments. The IACtHR based its power to supervise judgments on the kompetenz kompetenz principle stating ‘[t]he Court, like any body with judicial functions, has in its attributions the inherent powers to define the scope of its own jurisdiction’ (Baena Ricardo et al v Panama, 2003, para 128; inherent powers), also recognizing in this act the doctrine of inherent powers (Competence-Competence). According to the Court, due to the principle of pacta sunt servanda, for the provisions of the Convention to have a useful effect, it would be necessary for the Court itself to continue to monitor whether the sentence was effectively served, which aspects of the sentence were complied with, and to demand from the States placements and updates on each of the sentences. Other arguments were used by the Court, including that an opinio iuris communis on the supervisory role had already emerged.
16 Since there is a specific procedure to supervise compliance with judgments, on several occasions the Court clarified that the procedure for interpretation of judgments could not be used for that end. Thus:
the considerations related with the compliance of this reparation measure, its modality and how to reach the objective sought by the same, may be submitted to the Court’s consideration by the State in the process of supervision of compliance of the Judgment and be assessed by the Tribunal in said proceeding (Miguel Castro Castro Prison v Peru, 2008, para 52).
As the Court clarified, ‘proper implementation of the measures of reparation will be assessed during the stage of monitoring compliance with the Judgment; consequently, the Court will assess any information and observations that the parties may submit during that stage’ (Gudiel Álvarez et al (‘Diário Militar’) v Guatemala, 2013, para 11). In sum, since there is a specific procedure for assessing questions regarding reparation measures, the request for interpretation is not suitable to pursue this objective.
3. Rectification of Errors in Judgments and Other Decisions
17 A third procedural mechanism that cannot be confused with the request for interpretation is the request to rectify errors in judgments. According to Article 76 of the Rules, the IACtHR ‘may, on its own motion or at the request of any of the parties to the case, within one month of the notice of the judgment or order, rectify obvious mistakes, clerical errors, or errors in calculation’. Nonetheless, as the Court observed, ‘it is not rare to find the rectification of errors within judgments of interpretation, especially in cases of collective reparations or where a number of victims are involved’ (National Association of Discharged and Retired Employees of the National Tax Administration Superintendence (ANCEJUB-SUNAT) v Peru, 2020, para 19).
18 Perhaps because the time limits for requesting an interpretation and the request for rectification overlap, the IACtHR often addresses such questions in their judgments on interpretation. The abundant practice, also recent, reveals different kinds of errors rectified by the Court. Errors already remedied by the Court range from the number of beneficiaries of a certain measure (National Association of Discharged and Retired Employees of the National Tax Administration Superintendence (ANCEJUB-SUNAT) v Peru, 2020, para 19), the correction of the time frame for implementing the judgment (Gudiel Álvarez et al (‘Diário Militar’) v Guatemala) or even textual inaccuracies regarding the administrative division of a State (Massacres of El Mozote and surrounding areas v El Salvador, 2013, para 56).
D. Legal Framework
20 The Statute of the Court (1979) is silent about requests for interpretation. Arguably, this is probably because the Statute covers major issues of composition of the IACtHR and the relationship between the Court and other organs of the system rather than focusing on procedure, which is mainly the function of the Rules of Procedure. The fact that the Court is the organ responsible for adopting and reforming its own Rules gives greater weight and control to the IACtHR in relation to potential changes in the rules of interpretation of judgments.
21 Along with the brief text of Article 67 ACHR, which lays down the right to request an interpretation and the time limit in the case of dispute between the parties in relation to the meaning and scope of the judgment, the legal regime of interpretation of judgments is provided by Article 68 Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (2009). The provision covers (a) what kind of decisions may require an interpretation; (b) the required elements of a request for interpretation; (c) the procedure for requesting an interpretation of a judgment; (d) the composition of the Court in the proceedings of interpretation; and (e) the IACtHR’s powers to determine the proceedings concerning the interpretation of a judgment.
22 An issue covered by the Rules of the Court concerns the composition of the IACtHR for interpretation of the judgement. Article 68 (3) determines that ‘the Court shall be composed, whenever possible, of the same Judges who delivered the judgment whose interpretation is being sought’. Given that the IACtHR’s judges are elected for a mandate of six years (Election of Judges: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)), which can be considered a relatively short term in comparison with other international judicial mandates, Article 68 (3) is regularly invoked with a view to maintaining, as much as possible, the original composition of the Court which rendered the judgment. However, the same rule clarifies that ‘in the event of death, resignation, impediment, recusal, or disqualification, the judge in question shall be replaced pursuant to Article 17 of these Rules’. On these occasions, the absent judge ‘shall be replaced by the Judge who was elected to take his or her place, if applicable, or by the Judge who has precedence among the new Judges elected upon the expiration of the term of the Judge to be replaced’ (Art 17 (1)).
23 There have been no significant issues in relation to the composition of the Court in its practice. Due to the period of 90 days for requesting an interpretation of a judgment, it is common to keep the same composition that rendered the decision. Additionally, the rule excluding from the proceedings judges and members of the Secretariat from the nationality of the respondent State (Art 19 (1) and Art 19 (2) IACtHR Rules) also applies (eg Martínez Esquivia v Colombia, 2021; Lhaka Honhat Association (Our Land) v Argentina, 2020). In Rosadio Villavicencio v Peru (2020), the then President of the Court, Judge Elizabeth Odio Benito, did not take part in the deliberation and signature of the judgment of interpretation ‘for reasons of force majeure that were accepted by the full Court’. No problems arose from her absence.
24 Article 68 (1) of the Rules establishes different categories of decisions that can be submitted for the Court’s interpretation in case of disagreement between the parties concerning its scope and meaning: ‘judgments on preliminary objections, on the merits, or on reparations and costs’. As pointed out by one scholar (Faúndez Ledesma, 2004) there has been some debate in relation to which judgments could be object of a request for interpretation. The latest version of Article 68 (1) of the Rules suggests an expansion regarding the previous practice of the Court. This provision excludes advisory opinions, provisional measures, decisions concerning the supervision of judgments, and procedural orders (Advisory Proceedings: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR); Advisory Opinion: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR); Provisional Measures: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)). This seems to confirm the rationale that the request for interpretation is an instrument at the disposal of the parties which aims to guarantee the contentious function of the IACtHR. Nevertheless, one might wonder whether, given the current expansion in the Court’s advisory function (Contesse, 2021; Lima and Felippe, 2021), it would not be better to allow States—and the InterAmerican Commission—to request for interpretation of advisory opinions. Despite that, this possibility would constitute a procedural instrument permitting States to understand the most appropriate means to harmonize their legal systems with the rights and obligations clarified in the opinion.
25 Another prescription of Article 68 (1) of the Rules is that the request for interpretation ‘shall state with precision questions relating to the meaning or scope of the judgment of which interpretation is requested’. The practice of the Court reveals that the parties requesting interpretation often indicate a specific resolutive point from the operative part of the judgment. As the Court observed, the judgment of interpretation’s purpose is ‘to clarify the meaning of a ruling when one of the parties maintains that the text in its operative parts or in its considerations lacks clarity or precision, provided that such considerations have a bearing on the operative parts’ (Girls Yean and Bosico v Dominican Republic, 2006, para 14).
26 As to the procedure following the request for interpretation of a judgment, in consonance with the due process requirements, the Rules establish that the Secretary of the Court ‘shall transmit the request for interpretation to all those participating in the case and shall invite them to submit any written comments they deem relevant within the time limit established by the Presidency’ (Art 68 (2)). At the same time, the Rules are clear in reinforcing the Court’s primary position to determine the proceedings, since ‘the Court shall determine the procedure to be followed and shall render its decision in the form of a judgment’ (Art 68 (5)). The language employed in the Rules is evident in relation to the bindingness of the decision concerning the interpretation: it is a judgment and, therefore, it clarifies the meaning and scope of the first judgment. Therefore, parties cannot read judgments without taking into consideration the judgment of interpretation.
27 This fact raises the question of whether a judgment of interpretation would amount to res interpretata and would be covered by the doctrine of conventionality control (Conventionality Control: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)) which, in practical terms, would require States Parties to the convention to take into consideration the ACHR as interpreted by the IACtHR in its judgments and advisory opinions. According to the argument previously mentioned and the general approach of the Court regarding the doctrine of conventionality control, the affirmative answer seems to be defensible. A renowned example appears to confirm this reasoning. In the interpretation of the judgment of Barrios Altos v Peru (2001, at para 18) the IACtHR declared that amnesty laws are ‘per se a violation of the Convention for which the State incurs international responsibility’ (Barrios Altos Case). The passage became an important point of reference in the Court’s case law, being quoted in almost every case in which amnesty laws issues arose (Binder, 2011, 1203).
28 The last issue covered by the Rules of the Court relates to the effects of the main judgment after the request of interpretation is presented. Originally an issue raised by the parties, the Court had occasion to clarify that ‘the application for interpretation submitted by the Peruvian State on October 13, 1999 does not suspend the effect of the judgment of September 29, 1999 rendered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ (Cesti-Hurtado v Peru, 1999, 1 dispositif). Ultimately, this ruling was incorporated by the Rules in Article 68 (4) which prescribes that ‘a request for interpretation shall not suspend the effect of the judgment’.
29 Different reasons explain why there are a substantial number of judgments of interpretation in the IACtHR’s case law. A significant number of issues brought before the Court are usually dismissed under jurisdictional or admissibility grounds when the request is not filed with a view to clarification of a specific passage of the judgment. While there is a growing consistency in the Court’s case law regarding jurisdictional and admissibility issues, it is also noteworthy that a recurrent number of requests for interpretation continue to be dismissed on admissibility grounds (see sec E.1. below). Apart from these decisions, most requests for interpretation considered to be admissible concern the modes of reparation, particularly settling uncertainty regarding the implementation of the judgments (see sec E.2. below).
1. Jurisdiction and Admissibility
30 The IACtHR has drawn limits in relation to its jurisdictional and admissibility powers (Admissibility: Inter-American Commission of Human Rights, Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR); Review of Admissibility Decisions: Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)). In relation to jurisdiction, the Court constantly reaffirms its powers under Article 67 ACHR and stresses the fact that the composition of the Court corresponds as much as possible to that of the judges that rendered the judgment. As to the admissibility, the requirements of Article 68 of the Rules are a guideline, provided that the purpose of said request is exclusively to determine the meaning of a ruling when one of the parties maintains that the text of its operative paragraphs or its considerations lacks clarity or precision, as long as those considerations affect said operative paragraphs (Caso Casa Nina v Perú, 2021, para 10; similarly, Case of Roche Azaña et al v Nicaragua, 2020, para 11).
31 The Court has a certain discretion to determine the requests that deserve clarification from the Court and matters that are not admissible. A frequent ground of inadmissibility is any attempt to use the procedure for interpretation of judgements as an appeal or to discuss the compliance of reparations. The Court often stresses that the ‘considerations related with the compliance of this reparation measure, its modality and how to reach the objective sought by the same, may be submitted to the Court’s consideration by the State in the process of supervision of compliance of the Judgment and be assessed by the Tribunal in said proceeding’ (Miguel Castro Castro Prison v Peru, 2008, para 52).
32 However, this position is not absolute. In some instances, the Court deems necessary to clarify a specific aspect of the judgment, even if it was already sufficiently comprehensible in the judgment itself. An earlier dictum in this regard can be found in Blake v Guatemala (1999) in which the Court pointed out that:
even when the scope and meaning of the provisions of the judgment on reparations are clear, it is useful to explain the points raised by the State in order to eliminate any doubts regarding the payment of expenses of an extrajudicial nature and the reimbursement of the expenses incurred in processing the case before the inter-American system for the protection of human rights (at para 22).
This position of the IACtHR has the consequence of granting a certain discretion to the Court in determining when it is ‘useful to explain the points raised’ with a view to eliminating doubts.
33 Other admissibility grounds were developed in the Court’s case law. For instance, the Court has stated that ‘the right to file, at the appropriate procedural moment, written arguments on the requests for interpretation of the above-referred Judgment, does not entail the right of those who filed requests for interpretation to file additional requests’ (Acevedo Jaramillo et al v Peru, 2006, para 25) and that the Court ‘need not make pronouncements on each and every question raised by the State … as their intent is not to dispel doubts as to the judgment’s interpretation’ (Loayza Tamayo v Peru, 1999, para 26).
34 On the other hand, on certain occasions, the Court seems to concede a certain margin of appreciation regarding compliance with some reparation measures. As the IACtHR observed, ‘the manner in which the State will make the foregoing reparation is to be decided by the State itself, as long as the spirit of the reparation meant to redress the victim’s name be observed’ (Case of Escué Zapata v Colombia, 2008, para 21). In other circumstances, the Court’s decision on interpretation reaffirms that the reparation measure is to be determined by the victim. By illustration, in López Soto et al v Venezuela, the Court clarified that ‘according to the purpose with which the reparation measure was ordered, Linda Loaiza López Soto must be the one who will choose the university in which she will complete her professional training’ (2019, at para 17). The two passages abovementioned reveal an element of the Court’s reasoning: the purpose of the reparation.
35 While the Court has never elaborated more profoundly on it, the apparent emerging text seems consistent with the general framework of activity of the Court which puts emphasis on the effectiveness of the reparation, stressing a functionalist approach also in relation to the interpretative function.
2. Interpretative Practice of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
36 The Court has made pronouncements clarifying issues on different topics of its case law. Only a few general rules specifying criteria for interpretation were laid down in this process. A frequent dictum in the judgments of interpretation recalls ‘that it is necessary for the parties to carry out a comprehensive reading of the Judgment and not consider each paragraph of the judgment as if it were independent from the rest’ (Case of Alvarado Espinoza et al v Mexico, 2019, para 18). The great majority of cases deal with questions of reparation, and a case-by-case approach seems to have been developed by the Court in specifying methods of restitution and satisfaction or detailing compensation issues.
37 It is possible to recognize two general approaches followed by the Court when clarifying parts of the judgments requested by the parties. On the one hand, it is possible to verify questions that give the Court the occasion to specify and detail the level of precision demanded by the context of the judgment and the uncertainty from the parties. On these occasions, the Court seems to abstain from assuming an intrusive approach and lays down general criteria to be followed. On the other hand, there are situations which need precise definitions from the Court and then, the Court leaves little space for action.
38 In a judgment, the IACtHR was asked to clarify the types of violence suffered by a victim, so that the State could carry out the proper investigation in relation to those facts. The Court replied that it was up to the State to carry out all types of investigations into the victim's allegations, specifying that they were, without excluding others, sexual violations (J v Peru, 2014, para 21). In another case, in which the Court determined the need to guarantee judicial review to one of the victims, the State questioned exactly which remedy would comply with the Court’s determination. The Court responded by offering the criteria that should be taken into account for this type of procedure, without establishing the strict procedure to be followed (Case of Wong Ho Wing v Peru, 2016, para 17; see similarly Indigenous Communities of the Lhaka Honhat Association (Our Land) v Argentina, 2020, dipositif 2). Likewise, in a case in which the Court ascertained a violation to the right of property of an indigenous community, the Court in the judgment on the merits decided that the State should carry out the demarcation of indigenous lands as well as establish a fund for the acquisition of private lands which should be returned to the indigenous people (Yakye Axa Indigenous Community v Paraguay, 2005, para 218). The request for interpretation clarified the implementation of these obligations and, in the face of doubt, the Court specified which would be the necessary steps to be respected, also guaranteeing a certain degree of discretion to the State.
39 Other decisions have the scope of specifying the terms of the Court on the method of payment (see eg, Case of Atala Riffo and daughters v Chile, 2012, para 21; Gudiel Álvarez et al (‘Diário Militar’) v Guatemala, para 52). For instance, in Gutiérrez Hernández et al v Guatemala (2018, para 27), the Court, after being questioned to whom the compensation for disappeared victims should be paid, established that it ‘must be delivered directly to her heirs in accordance with the applicable domestic law’. Other examples regard the determination of who are the recipients of each reparation measure determined by the Court (Carvajal Carvajal et al v Colombia, 2018, paras 14–18). In the same vein, in some decisions the Court is called on to determine the calculation of the quantum owed by the State.
40 The selected practice reveals that both approaches are useful to parties. Conversely, it is also convenient for the Court to lay down general standards that shall be applied in subsequent decisions, while keeping some discretion to determine how far the interpretation could go regarding the exactness of the conduct to be adopted by the State to comply with the judgment.
F. Evaluation: The Functions of Interpretation of a Judgment in the Case Law of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
41 An examination of the practice regarding the interpretation of judgments of the IACtHR reveals that the instrument has different functions within the procedure. First and foremost, the Inter-American Court seeks to fulfil its judicial function and precisely offer the arguments and standards to be observed at the time of the implementation of the judgment. Consequently, it adds to the compliance of judgments, in a practically positive way. Relatedly, there is also an increase in the transparency of the judicial process in the Inter-American Court. As the Court observed in El Amparo v Venezuela, ‘the transparency of this Tribunal’s proceedings is enhanced by clarification, when it so deems appropriate, of the content and scope of its Judgments, thereby dissipating any doubts about them, and that they may not be challenged by merely formal considerations’ (1997, at para 1).
42 On the other hand, the high number of attempts to re-discuss issues of merit within the scope of the interpretation procedure might be indicative of a need of the parties in the system. Be that as it may, the consistent case law on jurisdiction and admissibility has ruled out the possibility of using the procedure for interpreting judgments as a review proceeding.
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Cited Documents and Instruments
Actas y Documentos de la Conferencia Interamericana sobre Derechos Humanos (7–22 November 1969) OAS/Ser.K/XVI/1.2.
American Convention on Human Rights (adopted 22 November 1969, entered into force 18 July 1978) 1144 UNTS 123.
Rules of Procedure of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (approved 28 November 2009)
Statute of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (31October 1979) OAS Res 448 (IX-0/79).
Statute of the International Court of Justice (adopted 26 June 1945, entered into force 24 October 1945) 145 BSP.
Acevedo Jaramillo et al v Peru, Interpretation of the Judgment of Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs, 24 November 2006, IACtHR Series C No 157.
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Allenet de Ribemont v France, Judgment (Interpretation), ECtHR, 7 August 1996, ECHR Rep 1996-III.
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