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Environmental human rights defenders in Mexico: The issue of structural violence

The cause of systematic violations lies in the imbalance of power between the State and local communities.

Demetrio Romeo
Demetrio Romeo
10 September 2020
Citizens protest the murder of environmental defender Samir Flores, 36, in Mexico in February 2020
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Eyepix/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

In 2019, 39 environmental human rights defenders were victims of attacks in Mexico. Of these, 15 were killed.

According to the most recent report by the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, between 2012 and 2019, there were 499 attacks on land and environment activists that took place across the vast majority of states. This indicates permanent and diffuse standards and practices that culminate in the systematic and widespread violation of this vulnerable group's right to life, integrity and personal security, judicial protection and procedural guarantees. The violence suffered by environmental human rights defenders, their organizations and communities, in addition to being direct, is structural in nature.

United Nations Special Rapporteur Michel Forst contended in his report on the situation of environmental human rights defenders in the world that the cause of systematic violations of environmental human rights defenders lies in the imbalance of power between the State and local communities. This is due to the exclusion of access to information and public participation in decision-making processes regarding the exploitation of natural resources and the equitable sharing of the resulting economic benefits.

The imbalance of power affects those individuals and human groups who live in rural areas and lack access to justice. They are often indigenous leaders who defend ancestral territories from the environmental damage caused by large-scale development projects. Language and geographical barriers that prevent them from effectively benefiting from protection measures, obstacles to accessing basic social services and the imposition of models that discourage free, prior and informed consent deepen the vulnerability of indigenous environmental human rights defenders.

Among the most criminalized are those who protect and promote environmental rights, in particular indigenous leaders whose activism is related to extractive and energy projects

The violations, which involve both state and non-state actors, are related to opposition to "mega-projects", particularly in the energy and mining sector. It is worth noting that a large part of Mexico's natural resources is under the community ownership of indigenous peoples. Homicide poses the main risk factor for those who defend the environment and the land, following other types of aggression, such as threats.

Mexico has a federal law that provides national protection and prevention mechanisms to protect the right to "life, integrity, freedom and security of people who are at risk as a result of defending or promoting human rights". However, the State does not fulfill its obligation to promote a safe and favorable environment for the defense of human rights – in its individual and collective aspects – because the numerous aggressions respond to a pattern that stigmatizes and criminalizes environmental human rights defenders.

As the Inter-American Court detailed in the Case of Human Rights Defender et al. v. Guatemala, "it is the State’s obligation not only to create the legal and formal conditions, but also to ensure the real conditions in which human rights defenders can freely carry out their work". In this regard, the Court ruled that States must provide the necessary means to create the right conditions for the eradication of violations committed by state and non-state actors; refrain from obstructing the defenders' work; and investigating, prosecuting and punishing violations against them, curbing impunity. Likewise, according to the UN declaration on human defenders, states have a duty to take the necessary measures to create the social, economic, political conditions and the legal guarantees necessary so that everyone under its jurisdiction – individually and in association with others – can effectively enjoy and exercise their human rights, including the right to promote and fight for the protection of human rights.

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur in his report on the situation of human rights defenders in Mexico, among the most criminalized are those who protect and promote environmental rights, in particular indigenous leaders whose activism is related to extractive and energy projects. According to the same report, the work to defend environmental human rights has been criminalized through the inappropriate and intentional use of the criminal justice system to prosecute defenders and interrupt their activities.

Excessive delay in judicial proceedings becomes a tool to intimidate and silence defenders

Conduct that suppresses the right of association and assembly and false or unfounded accusations of alleged crimes against public safety presented by the authorities against environmental activists lead to victimizing acts, such as offenses against honor, judicial harassment, denial of due process, double jeopardy, arbitrary detention, forced disappearance, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Excessive delay in judicial proceedings becomes a tool to intimidate and silence defenders, to demobilize civil society organizations and to impose obstacles to the legitimate exercise of the right to promote and protect human rights. These systematic and widespread violations, which point to the presence of a political strategy of victimization, are perpetrated in a diffuse context of stigmatization and delegitimization of the work of the human rights defender. These originate in smear campaigns against land and environmental defenders and their organizations, which are labeled as anti-development.

These are actions or omissions that favor a hostile scenario and create a situation of vulnerability, despite the international obligation of the State to create substantive conditions for an environment free of violence against human rights defenders, to provide effective measures of protection and prevention in favor of those at risk for carrying out their work, to diligently investigate human rights violations, to judge and sentence the material and intellectual authors of the attacks and to provide comprehensive reparation to the victims.

Otherwise, as stated by the Special Rapporteur, impunity will continue to fuel the criminalization of legitimate activities in the field of human rights, resulting in attacks against human rights defenders that terrorize organized civil society as a whole. Discouraging environmental human rights defenders from filing complaints sends the message that they cannot rely on the judicial system to seek redress for violations of their rights, which, in turn, weakens the rule of law in Mexico and leads to further violations.

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