Initial concerns that regional human rights systems may undermine the universality of rights have largely given way to a more positive appreciation of their role. Regional human rights systems provide a crucial layer of protection. They are closely connected with regional political developments and integration which potentially gives them more traction than the United Nations (UN) system. Moreover, increasing references to their jurisprudence and practice evince how they contribute to, and enrich, international human rights law.
An examination of regional human rights systems suggests the following typical process. States agree on the need for closer regional cooperation if not integration. Human rights are accepted as one element of, and a yardstick for, the regional political order. A foundational human rights instrument is adopted. Further, a human rights body with a mandate to promote human rights and monitor states parties’ compliance with their treaty obligations is (eventually) set up. Over time, responding to demands and with a view to strengthening the effectiveness and credibility of the system, substantive rights are broadened and the role of victims (and others, particularly non-governmental organisations (NGOs)) in raising the issue of, or complaining about, human rights violations is enhanced. As the system matures this momentum eventually results in the establishment of a judicial body. Parallel efforts to foster regional political integration reinforce the importance of human rights at all levels as a marker of the system's ability to provide a stable order based on the rule of law and the protection of fundamental rights.
The European, Inter-American and African human rights systems share a number of these idealised features, which indicates that there is a pull to develop a stronger normative framework and monitoring mechanisms. However, a look at their development demonstrates that these goals are not always shared across a region (see, for example, the ambiguous role of the United States of America (USA) in the Inter-American system). Regional political support for human rights systems can vary considerably, which may in turn affect the latter's effectiveness.