Mexico’s crisis is a rare opportunity for domestic rights groups


Mexico is in crisis, but local rights groups can use this as an opportunity to boost public engagement and support. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate, Human Rights: Mass or Elite Movement?  Español

Karina Ansolabehere
12 February 2015

Mexico has been experiencing an acute human rights crisis for several years, but the recent disappearance of 43 students in the town of Iguala is a significant turning point. The public is outraged, and is expressing intense anger through demonstrations, cultural productions, and all manner of public statements. As Ben Leather recently argued on openGlobalRights, the current situation illustrates the “doble cara,” or two-facedeness, of Mexico’s human rights policies: good human rights citizenship abroad, and objectionable behavior at home.

Mexico is now at a critical juncture. In the public and political mind, the Iguala events have been linked to the country’s systematic rights violations; its ongoing crisis of political legitimacy; the state's inability to address all manner of structural problems; and finally, the legitimacy deficit of a government committed to using 1990s-style economic reforms to address all the country’s ills.

Members of the public are demanding information about—and action on—the missing students, the president’s resignation, and a new constitutional assembly in 2017. There is generalized and widespread mistrust in political institutions, and a wide variety of social sectors are mobilizing for, and demanding, real change.

This confluence of events has created an opportunity for the country’s human rights organizations. According to a Human Rights Organizations Project report authored by the University of Minnesota and CIDE, a Mexican research institute, local human rights groups enjoy more public support than they think. The resonance of human rights ideas is high among the general public, and even more so among social, political and economic elites.

Mexican rights groups should take advantages of this support, at this moment of crisis. They should develop a broad, society-wide coalition for human rights-based reforms, leveraging the public’s trust for serious reform.

Above all, Mexican rights groups must improve their visibility among, and ties to, the general population. A vigorous policy of “social marketing” with allies in the mass and social media would broaden their influence, visibility and support, and help reframe the official human rights discourse. This is especially crucial now that the government is attempting to undermine NGOs’ legitimacy by accusing them of manipulating victims of human rights violations.


Demotix/Débora Poo Soto (All rights reserved)

The year 2014 has been a sad one for Mexico, but the crisis has created a human rights opportunity.

Human rights violations in Mexico originate in multiple injustices committed by multiple actors, including the state, organized criminals, vigilantes and corporations. Mexican civil society, understandably, is responding in diverse ways. Although important, this diversity is also fragmenting. Women, peasant and environmental organizations, among others, are all developing their own strategies. And yet, the state is an unavoidable presence in all these struggles, and is therefore a point of convergence for all.

With the state as the common denominator, human rights groups can rally all manner of different social actors around a common flag. Human rights groups can help coordinate these diverse efforts without compromising their specificity. As I have argued previously on openGlobalRights, they can do this by mediating between different actors and levels, vertically and horizontally, creating new and progressive political synergies. With the state as the common denominator, human rights groups can rally all manner of different social actors around a common flag.

Rights activists must also get creative. Why not reach out in new ways to potential allies, including progressive business leaders, artists and academics? For example, what about creating a series of public dialogues with sympathetic federal judges? Or, what about reaching out to the artists who produced the video, What is Happening in Mexico?, and inviting them to join in a collective campaign?

Human rights groups must also find new ways of helping to implement important public policies. Consider the 2011 Constitutional Human Rights Reform, which recognized international human rights treaties as integral to the Mexican constitution, and worthy of full domestic implementation. Rights groups could develop new partnerships with Mexican universities to monitor implementation of this vital reform.

The year 2014 has been a sad one for Mexico, but the crisis has created a human rights opportunity. Seizing the day may not yield immediate results, as it will take time to use this juncture creatively.

Still, the good news is that human rights organizations are no longer fighting alone, and that the Mexican public respects and trusts their work. Mexican rights groups must respond by offering new energy, ideas and strategies.


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