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Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 2: Attacks on Human Rights Defenders

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Since 2006, the deterioration of Mexico’s security situation due to the Mexican government’s “war on organized crime” has made international headlines. The violence has affected tens of thousands of citizens and exacerbated long-standing issues of corruption and institutional weakness. During the administration of former President Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos, CNDH) saw a five-fold increase in complaints of human rights violations by Mexican soldiers and federal police, including torture, rape, extrajudicial execution, arbitrary detention, and enforced disappearance.  At the same time, human rights defenders have found it increasingly difficult to carry out their work due to threats to their safety. Recently elected president Enrique Peña Nieto has firmly expressed his commitment to making sure that “rights established on paper become reality,” but his government has yet to make concrete changes that would reflect this commitment.

During the “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico” event, co-hosted by the Latin America Working Group Education Fund, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and Just AssociatesDaniel Joloy, discussed the increased number of attacks against human rights defenders in Mexico and Mexico’s new Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. The following is a translation.

“Another big problem that we are facing in Mexico is the increased number of attacks against human rights defenders. In the growing context of violence and human rights violations throughout the country and the use of militarization to combat organized crime, risk has increased for those who work to defend human rights. According to information gathered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), between 2006 and 2011, at least 61 human rights defenders were killed and four more remain disappeared. The IACHR noted that environmentalists, indigenous leaders, and women’s rights defenders are particularly vulnerable. It is important to mention that many of the threats and attacks against human rights defenders are occurring in those states where armed forces deployed to fight organized crime are present.

The number of threats and attacks against defenders has regularly increased over the last several years. According to reports by the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos), from 2006 to 2012, there were 1,574 complaints made of attacks against defenders, registering over a one hundred percent increase.

Female human rights defenders face especially greater risk. According to the National Network of Female Human Rights Defenders (Red Nacional de Defensoras de Derechos Humanos), 109 female defenders were assaulted in just 2012 and 26 were killed between 2009 and 2012.

In Mexico, human rights defenders work in a stigmatized and criminalized environment. On numerous occasions, high-level authorities have accused human rights defenders of being linked to or helping organized crime. For example, in front of President Calderón in 2011, the Secretary of the Navy accused civil society organizations of working for organized crime in order to damage the reputation of state organizations and obstruct the government work combating organized crime.

In this context, impunity for this type of attack is practically absolute. According to reports from the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Mexico (Oficina del Alto Comisionado para los Derechos Humanos en Mexico), the impunity rate in cases of attacks against human rights defenders is greater than ninety-eight percent. This is primarily due to the inability or the reluctance of authorities to investigate. Those authorities often refuse to recognize the person as a human rights defender and prefer instead to emphasize aspects of their private lives as motives for the attacks. The lack of diligent investigation and punishment of the responsible parties perpetuate this climate of impunity and send the message that this type of attack is permitted.

This situation has brought Mexico into the international spotlight. Since 2006, Mexico has received twenty-seven recommendations from international human rights organizations related to the protection of human rights defenders. All of this has led civil society organizations in Mexico to seek a protection mechanism for human rights defenders through various paths. After almost two years of a slow and obstructed dialogue with the Ministry of the Interior, which did not offer a single solution for an administrative mechanism, civil society groups went to different congressional members of the three primary political parties in search of a legislative route to a protective mechanism. After several months of working groups with members of all three parties, they succeeded in passing the Law for theProtection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists (Ley de Protección para Personas Defensoras de Derechos Humanos y Periodistas) in 2012.

Without doubt, the law contains tools which, if properly implemented, would allow defenders to overcome numerous obstacles that authorities have used to keep from offering the necessary protection. First, the law clearly establishes that primary responsibility for offering protection and carrying out the law lies with the Ministry of the Interior. The law establishes time limits and deadlines for granting these protections and eliminates the constant attempt by authorities to shift responsibility from one to the other, forcing them to provide and pay for the protective measures. Second, the law facilitates the coordination between state and federal bodies to provide protection. The third positive aspect is the creation of a specific fund for carrying out the necessary measures, guaranteeing the necessary resources in the federal budget.

I find two points that differentiate the Mexican law from others like it in the region and in other parts of the world. First, the Mexican law is the first to obligate authorities to prevent major attacks and to establish a particular body in charge of creating and recommending protective measures. Second, the law is a great example of civil society’s inclusion in the legislative process.  Civil society participated in every part of the process, from designing the law in Congress to facilitating working groups with the Ministry of the Interior. Under this law, civil society forms part of the main decision-making bodies, including the Advisory Council, which is only comprised of civil society members, as well as the Governing Board, which is the uppermost decision-making body. Undoubtedly, the passing of the law is a great achievement for civil society, made possible by the coordination between different civil society organizations and various political actors. However, the publication of the law is not a goal in itself and will not solve the risks faced by human rights defenders until it is properly implemented. 

There are still various pending challenges to the law’s guaranteed implementation. Some of them pertain directly to the mechanism and the authorities responsible for its operation, while others have their own mandate and will take longer to attend to. It is of particular importance that the authorities in charge of the mechanism have the right background with ample knowledge and understanding of the risks faced by human rights defenders. Those who work to implement the mechanism should be trained in attending victims and providing integral protection, overcoming the common view that protection need only be provided by the police. Additionally, if the law is intended to facilitate cooperation with local authorities, this cooperation must be made more quickly, effective, and meaningful than signing an agreement. With the goal of completing the timetables established by the law, information-sharing, accountability, and local cooperation mechanisms must all be improved. The Ministry of the Interior should ensure that the seven pending states which still have not signed the cooperation agreements, do so immediately.

The mechanism must capture the provisions in the law relating to prevention. As mentioned, one of the greatest assets of the law is the inclusion of prevention. However, the authorities in charge of the mechanism have ignored this entire section. And even five months after the mechanism was formally installed, the third unit on Prevention, Analysis, and Follow-up has yet to be installed. Prevention should be understood as one of the most effective measures of protection. It allows change in the structural situations that place human rights defenders at risk. The installation of this third unit cannot be postponed any longer.

There are other pending challenges that go beyond the operation of the mechanism. First, the president and congress must secure adequate resources each year for the effective operation of the mechanism. If the law creates a special fund for the protection of human rights defenders, the federal budget should appropriate annual funds for these measures. Government authorities as well as civil society organizations should publicize the mechanism so those who most need it can benefit from its protection. The mechanism will not be very useful if those at risk are unaware of the mechanism’s existence. However, it is also important to do this outreach with a realistic expectation of the mechanism’s scope.

The final, but perhaps most important, challenge is to fight impunity. The law does not include measures ensuring a diligent investigation and punishment of those responsible for attacking, harassing, or threatening human rights defenders. The mechanism is only a patch attempting to halt the current emergency situation of violence. The Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists facilitates the coordination among different organizations in charge of providing protection. However, justice and accountability should be parallel obligations of the state. If the perpetrators are not appropriately punished, it sends a message of permissibility that will encourage said perpetrators to continue eliminating problematic voices.

The militarization of public safety and the failed strategy of combating organized crime have a direct impact on human rights, and especially on the risk to human rights defenders. The law provides certain tools for authorities to provide protection for those at risk. Adequately implementing this mechanism requires great political will. The stage is set for the construction of a new reality for human rights defenders, which in the end will strengthen the rule of law. However, the authorities of the new administration have not demonstrated sufficient political will for its implementation. In the end, we should understand the mechanism as something temporary but necessary to attend to the current situation of extreme vulnerability. Ideally the mechanism should work toward its own disappearance, which would mean that the state is fulfilling its obligation to protect human rights defenders and that the structural elements that have created this risk are overcome.”

Click here to read “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 1: The Use of Torture”

Click here to read “Human Rights Challenges in Mexico, Part 3: Military Jurisdiction”