In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Human Rights in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Human Rights Organizations as Resources
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • The Inter-American System
  • Transitional Justice
  • Human Rights Organizations in Latin America

Latin American Studies Human Rights in Latin America
Rachel May
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0146


Human rights can be defined in many ways within an array of different intellectual paradigms. In the most general sense human rights are universal entitlements that apply equally to all human beings. Human rights are meant to represent and preserve the minimal requirements for human dignity. Although basic human rights (life, security, personal liberty, etc.) can be exercised and violated in any number of ways, the idea of “human rights” usually refers specifically to the relationships between individuals and states. That is, states have the responsibility to protect, promote, and enforce human rights, and states are in a unique position to violate human rights as well. The legal instruments that define international human rights law today have their origins in the Nuremberg Trials, the formation of the United Nations, and the realization that what had happened in the death camps of Nazi Germany should be positively prohibited in international law. Scholars and practitioners of human rights often differentiate between positive rights (things that states are required to provide, such as food, shelter, education, etc.) and negative rights (things that states are prohibited from doing, such as torture, unlawful imprisonment, discrimination, etc.). Latin America has an important and unique connection to the international human rights regime. Human rights norms were first defined and adopted in the context of the Cold War. Especially after the Cuban Revolution in 1959, Latin America was a central battlefield for the Cold War. Much of the region was overwhelmed by violent conflict between revolutionary guerrillas and the counterinsurgent forces of Latin American militaries. In many cases the Latin American militaries assumed dictatorial powers in order to carry out their counterinsurgency plans. And in every instance, Latin American states (governments) committed gross human rights violations against the citizens of those states. In many cases the atrocities committed by Latin American military regimes during this period were among the worst cases of human rights abuse in the post–World War II era. New models for response emerged in the region (e.g., grassroots human rights organizations) that were emulated in other parts of the world. Moreover, as the Cold War ended and these Latin American regimes began to transition to democracy, they developed the first modern tools of transitional justice (e.g., truth commissions and trials for the former rulers), and in many cases Latin American governments undertook serious constitutional reform, incorporating international human rights norms into their own constitutional law. Because of this, there is a highly developed human rights culture in most of Latin America. The international human rights regime functions in Latin America through the United Nations and the inter-American human rights system, including the American Convention on Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

General Overviews

There are a limited number of texts that provide an overview of human rights in the region. Donnelly and Whelan 2020 is the sixth edition of the most thorough introductory textbook on human rights available. Donnelly and Whelan write as political realists, and provide a thorough historical background as well as an excellent introduction to the relevant theoretical questions that define the paradigm. The text is updated frequently, and does reference Latin America. The edited volume Dunne and Wheeler 1999 provides a more sophisticated theoretical and contextual analysis of the human rights regime. Goodhart 2009 is a somewhat more comprehensive and up-to-date politics textbook that covers background, theory, and a thematic study of human rights. Political theorist Micheline Ishay puts the development of the idea of human rights into a long historical frame (Ishay 2007). She considers both the origins of the cosmopolitan idea and the relationship between human rights and the course of modern history, up to and including the 21st-century globalized world. The book also includes many primary documents. Cardenas 2010 is the best general textbook on human rights in Latin America. It includes a regional survey along with a good introductory discussion of how the human rights regime works in Latin America, including an overview of the human rights movement and transitional justice issues. Cleary 1997 provides an interesting account of the growth of the human rights movement in Latin America. Although many Latin American countries (e.g., Mexico, Peru, Brazil) are discussed, the book is heavily focused on Chile. Cleary 2007 provides an updated and more basic introductory text that explains the human rights movement through a series of identity categories (e.g., women, street children, indigenous people, the landless). It also includes chapters on more contemporary human rights issues of police brutality, torture, and corruption. Agosín 2006, an anthology of creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, explores major themes in human rights through the lens of the humanities. The collection includes some of Latin America’s most acclaimed writers.

  • Agosín, Marjorie, ed. Writing Toward Hope: The Literature of Human Rights in Latin America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

    An anthology of essays, fiction, and poetry about human rights in Latin America. This volume covers the entire region and includes selections from such luminaries as Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, Julio Cortázar, Rigoberta Menchú, Luisa Valenzuela, and Ariel Dorfman.

  • Cardenas, Sonia. Human Rights in Latin America: A Politics of Terror and Hope. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.9783/9780812201543

    A social science interdisciplinary textbook. Provides an excellent overview for students. Also includes extensive bibliographies, filmographies, and ideas for classroom assignments.

  • Cleary, Edward L. The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1997.

    An overview of the human rights movement in Latin America that seeks to give a historical account of human rights activism in the region from the overthrow of Pinochet in 1973 through the early 1990s. Heavily focused on Chile, but does include references to other Latin American countries.

  • Cleary, Edward L. Mobilizing for Human Rights in Latin America. Bloomfield, CT: Kumarian, 2007.

    A brief introductory text about the human rights movement in Latin America. This text is organized around various themes (women, street children, indigenous rights, the landless, policing, torture, and corruption) and does not provide a broad overview.

  • Donnelly, Jack, and Daniel J. Whelan. International Human Rights. 6th ed. New York: Routledge, 2020.

    DOI: 10.4324/9780429266072

    The best introductory textbook on international human rights. Informed by political theory and international relations. New and updated editions appear every few years.

  • Dunne, Tim, and Nicholas J. Wheeler, eds. Human Rights in Global Politics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139171298

    Edited volume by leading scholars of human rights law and political theory. Covers a broad range of theoretical and political topics.

  • Goodhart, Michael, ed. Human Rights: Politics and Practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    A very comprehensive interdisciplinary textbook that includes essays by many leading human rights scholars. The book includes chapters on all of the major theoretical issues surrounding human rights, as well as chapters that explore most major themes of human rights.

  • Ishay, Micheline R. The History of Human Rights: From Ancient Times to the Globalization Era. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007.

    A long historical overview that includes discussion of the origins of the idea of human rights, as well as selections from primary documents.

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