Does the Inter-American Court of Human Rights affect the development of human rights norms in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala?

AuthorMelissa Martinez
Published date01 January 2023
Date01 January 2023
Subject MatterResearch Articles
International Studies
60(1) 91 –112, 2023
© 2023 Jawaharlal Nehru University
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/00208817231154385
Research Article
Does the Inter-American
Court of Human Rights
affect the development
of human rights norms
in El Salvador, Honduras
and Guatemala?
Melissa Martinez1
Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have struggled to adopt measures of
accountability and support for human rights norms since the end of the civil
conflicts in the region. Many victims and activists have taken their cases to the
Inter-American Court of Human Rights to gain reparations and accountability.
How effective is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights at advancing
human rights norms related to the cases it examines? I examine this question by
developing the ‘domestic norm cycle’ theory, which extends Keck and Sikkink’s
(1998) norm cycle theory. This theory captures how the ‘internalization’ of a
norm takes place by examining political institutions. I argue that we can observe
various stages of the ‘domestic norms cycle’ to examine how close or far the
state is to fully adopting the norm. Although this article examines the levels
of compliance with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on El Salvador,
Honduras and Guatemala, this theory can be applied to examine how external
factors influence the development of human rights norms. This study has
significant implications for how we observe support for human rights practices.
Central America, Inter-American Court of Human Rights, judicial compliance,
More than a couple of decades have passed since El Salvador, Guatemala and
Honduras have transitioned to democracy. Compared to El Salvador and Honduras,
Guatemala has made large strides in its efforts to pursue accountability. After
extensive pressure from local NGOs in Guatemala, the government ultimately
1University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, Virginia, USA
Corresponding author:
Melissa Martinez, University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, VA 22401, USA.
92 International Studies 60(1)
decided to accept the development of the International Commission Against
Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). While the Commission did open some human
rights-related cases, its main objective was to focus on cases of corruption.
Nevertheless, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) strictly
focuses on human rights. The IACtHR offers states a potential avenue for
reparations and accountability measures. However, these are not enforced by the
IACtHR; instead the state is in charge of enforcing these orders. Although the
Court has no direct ability to enforce, it does have regional legitimacy and support.
Latin American states, in most cases1, expect other neighbouring states in the
region to support the jurisdictions of the IACtHR. However, is this regional
legitimacy carried by the Court sufficient for states to support a shift in human
rights norms?
While scholars have examined the influence that civil society and local human
rights organizations have on shifting human rights practices (Murdie & Davis,
2012; Etuvoata, 2020; Tocci et al., 2011), this article proposes a new theory to
examine how external factors affect norm compliance within institutions. I begin
by examining Finnemore and Sikkink’s (1998) norm cycle and develop a theory
that expands on the norm cycle by examining human rights norm development
within state institutions. Although the international and domestic platforms share
stages in the norm cycle, the major actors and actions at each stage vary. Much of
the literature has connected the two platforms by examining the networks created
by domestic and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their
framework to pressure states to support a norm. Keck and Sikkink (1998) argued
that the boomerang effect, led by domestic and international networks of support,
would work to pressure a state to support human rights. Yet, there are other major
actors in the international sphere that have not been included in this analysis. Thus
far, literature has not examined how regional courts can affect the process of
human rights norm cycles.
Given the political costs often attributed to supporting human rights, often in
places with a history of repression, violence and conflict, states are expected to be
unwilling to support the norm cycle at any stage unless the requests are viewed as
legitimate. The IACtHR may serve this purpose. Although the IACtHR is an
integral platform to support victims and pressure states to support domestic cases
against perpetrators, it is less clear what role this institution has in influencing the
support for human rights norms in the state receiving Court orders. I argue that the
IACtHR is a tool that has been used to open or expand norm cycles relating to
physical integrity rights. This article examines the effect that the IACtHR has on
a state’s support for physical integrity rights by examining three countries that
have continued to struggle with physical integrity norms: Guatemala, El Salvador
and Honduras. Has the IACtHR affected these governments’ support for norms on
physical integrity rights? If so, how? Using a process-tracing approach, I examine
the influence that the IACtHR has on the emergence of norms on physical integrity
rights in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The remainder of this article will begin by reviewing norm emergence. I will
then follow by proposing the domestic norm cycle and providing context to the
limitations of the emergence of human rights support in Central America. Next, I

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