Reports by human rights organizations and the media suggest that the enforced disappearances of 43 university students in the Mexican town of Iguala are only the tip of the human rights violations iceberg. Indeed, there is good reason to fear that many of Mexico’s tens of thousands of disappearances over the past years were the result of state actions, including—as it occurred in Iguala—by police acting in collusion with criminals.
The international outcry over Iguala has been impressive, creating a virtual tsunami of diplomatic pressure—“shaming,” in international relations jargon—on Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto. My own review of leading Mexican newspapers during the ten weeks following the Iguala events unearthed over two dozen critical statements by international actors of all kinds.
The usual critical voices of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Washington Office for Latin America have been joined by the UN’s secretary general and high commissioner for human rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, legislative bodies in the US, Chile, and Europe, and senior officials in Uruguay, Bolivia and the US. All these actors have “shamed” the Mexican government, publicly noting a gap between behavior and accepted norms and urging Mexico to investigate, find the students and sanction those responsible. For example, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed “its profound concern” regarding the disappearance of students and urged “the Mexican State to locate the students that are still missing; to protect the life and personal integrity of the survivors, their families and representatives; to promptly, diligently, and impartially investigate these crimes.”
Demotix/LUIS RAMON BARRON TINAJERO (All rights reserved)
"The past three months have seen an unprecedented reaction by the Mexican public to the Iguala tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have repeatedly taken to the streets claiming “you took them alive, we want them back alive.”
I know of only a handful of similarly vigorous international protests against Mexican abuses in years past. One occurred during the Chiapas conflict in the mid-to-late 1990s, when Mexican forces attempted to suppress an indigenous uprising. The second occurred during the late 1990s and early 2000s, when a large number of young, poor women in Ciudad Juárez—living just across the border from El Paso, Texas—were systematically disappeared and killed, with specific perpetrators never identified.
In the Chiapas case, it was particularly the massacre of 45 persons in the indigenous village of Acteal, perpetrated by a paramilitary group with presumed links to the government in the winter of 1997 that generated the most significant wave of transnational pressure. Reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and by various UN special rapporteurs were joined by critical statements from the sub-commission for the protection of minorities and prevention of discrimination, European Union, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Several years later, an even broader international “shaming” effort occurred in relation to the Ciudad Juarez feminicides, which resulted in over 400 deaths. International NGOs, the UN, and the Organization of American States took the lead, but these were joined by unprecedented human rights resolutions from the Texas and US legislatures, European parliament and Council of Europe.
Measured by the number of “shaming actions,” such as the publication of reports or adoption of critical resolutions, and by the participation of inter-governmental and governmental actors, the Chiapas and Ciudad Juárez events generated an unprecedented level of pressure on the Mexican government.
How does the international pressure over the Iguala disappearances stack up?
So far, the Iguala case has not triggered special investigations and reports by international NGOs, UN special rapporteurs or other international human rights bodies. This is not surprising, however; the Iguala events occurred in on 26 September 2014, and it takes time for big NGOs and institutions to conduct official inquiries and write lengthy reports.
Still, the international response to Iguala has been impressive, and may ultimately top the Chiapas and Ciudad Juarez campaigns. Specific remarks about the situation by top US officials, including by president Obama, along with a highly critical European Parliament resolution, are particularly noteworthy. This international pressure is likely to grow over the coming months.
The Mexican government responded to the international outcry over Chiapas and Ciudad Juárez with all kinds of tactical concessions, including ratifying new international human rights treaties, engaging in important legal and constitutional reforms, and recognizing Mexican citizens’ right to bring complaints directly to international institutions.
In practice, however, the Mexican human rights situation changed very little. The government responded with a clear and consistent human rights message, but this did not result in significant behavioral change.
This lack of real human rights progress is not surprising, however. Elsewhere on openGlobalRights, leading human rights authorities have noted that international human rights law and protest, on its own, can do little to change entrenched patterns of abuse. Instead, what really matters is a combination of international law and pressure and energetic domestic protests and reform efforts by local NGOs, lawyers and social movements.
International pressure on Mexico must continue, as it reinforces international norms and expectations and gives Mexican actors legitimacy, credibility and a solid point of reference. International pressure on Mexico must continue, as it reinforces international norms and expectations and gives Mexican actors legitimacy, credibility and a solid point of reference. The bulk of the heavy political lifting, however, needs to be done by Mexicans; after all, we have the biggest stake in the outcome, and it is our mobilization that really matters. International protests can do only so much—the rest is up to us.
Indeed, the past three months have seen an equally unprecedented reaction by the Mexican public to the Iguala tragedy. Throughout the past three months, hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have repeatedly taken to the streets (and even endured the excessive use of force by police and arbitrary detentions during protests) claiming “you took them alive, we want them back alive” (vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos). Opposition political parties, journalist, academics, religious leaders and pundits from across the political and ideological spectrum have condemned the disappearance of the students, joining in the demands for truth and justice. As Natalia Saltalamacchia has highlighted, the human rights ideal has permeated Mexican society. Over a dozen years of transnational and domestic human rights activism have advanced a socialization process that facilitates human rights mobilization today. Demands by the relatives of the disappeared and human rights NGOs are being planted on fertile ground. This might explain why the domestic reaction has been particularly broad and intense.
Transnational and domestic pressures around the Iguala disappearances are substantive. Will this be enough to bring about significant change? The literature on the topic does not allow us to establish with precision how much pressure is necessary, and for how long it has to be exerted, in order to elicit real transformations. However, we can assume that the more and the longer the pressure, the better. In this sense, international and, most importantly, domestic actors have to keep the pressure up for some time. If the demands for truth and justice from home and above persist and accumulate, we might finally see some meaningful, real change in the human rights situation in Mexico.