On September 26, I delivered the final NGO statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 27th session, celebrating some of the key resolutions passed after weeks of diplomatic arm-wrestling. As in previous experiences advocating at the UN since swapping Mexico City for Geneva, I observed Mexico’s firm commitment to strengthening international human rights norms through its diplomats’ constructive initiatives.
Yet that very same night, I also learned that Mexican police forces were suspected of disappearing 43 student protesters from Ayotzinapa college, after murdering six others at the scene. A month later, those students remain missing, while the role of Mexican officials in human rights violations is becoming increasingly apparent.
These contrasts are a microcosm of Mexico’s perverse doble-cara, or two-facedness, which has exasperated its civil society for decades. They demonstrate the schizophrenia of a reputed international human rights promoter that is also proven to repress, torture, disappear and kill at home. How can Mexico lead the way internationally, when it cannot protect the basic rights of its own people?
This contradiction was underscored when Alejandra Ancheita, Director of the Mexican human rights group ProDESC, won the acclaimed Martin Ennals Award and denounced the risks facing Mexican human rights defenders. Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho then visited the UN to put her own case of arbitrary detention and torture to its Human Rights Committee. She highlighted Mexico’s exemplary efforts to strengthen its own legal framework, but lamented appalling implementation. She also emphasised the role of corruption, drugs and people traffickers—in exacerbating the context of abuses.
The schizophrenia’s causes therefore, are complex. However, the cases of Ayotzinapa, Alejandra and Lydia are not only emblematic of the Mexican human rights paradox, but also of two crucial factors which prevent its cure: blanket impunity and unbridled risks for human rights defenders.
Mexico: la doble-cara of human rights
None of this, of course, is new. In the 1960s and 70s, successive Mexican presidents opened the doors to political refugees fleeing persecution in Europe and Latin America, while simultaneously disappearing, torturing and massacring student activists, political opponents and guerrilla groups in the Dirty War.
Under former president Felipe Calderón, Mexico became a member of the UN’s Human Rights Council, where it led and lobbied for resolutions on women’s, migrant and indigenous rights. It consistently promoted the protection of human rights defenders, and voted for UN action worldwide. Yet this was all happening while the Mexican State was failing to prevent systemic femicide, migrants were denouncing abuses by public security forces colluding with organised crime, and indigenous activists were condemning attacks by the army.
Calderón promulgated some excellent human rights policies, including a Constitutional Reform guaranteeing the domestic legal transcendence of international treaties. On the ground, however, the abuses multiplied: 80,000 people were killed and over 27,000 disappeared in six years of the “War on Drugs”. In many cases, there is considerable evidence that Mexican State actors were involved, but the lack of sufficient investigation leaves most perpetrators free and unidentifiable.
Demotix/Hugo Ortuño (Some rights reserved)
A vigil for the 43 missing students from the Rural Normal School of Ayotzinapa. How will Mexico's human rights community fight for an improved human rights reality?
Under current President Peña Nieto, with his emphasis on structural economic reforms and on international investment, Mexico’s progressive reputation at the UN and the Organization of American States has consolidated. Time magazine’s controversial front page this February was emblematic of the international community’s willingness to overlook Mexico’s human rights abuses in return for business opportunities. However, the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa, along with the attempted cover-up of 22 civilians killed by Mexican soldiers in the town of Tlatlaya this June, mean that—like the mass graves in Guerrero State—Mexico’s human rights reality is being exposed.
Impunity: green light for human rights abusers
In December 2011, I participated in Peace Brigades International’s meetings with Guerrero Governor Angel Aguirre and federal authorities to demand accountability for the killing of two students from Ayotzinapa shot by police at a protest, with others arbitrarily detained and tortured. Aguirre promised justice, while Mexico’s Human Rights Commission deemed authorities at all levels guilty of abuses. Nevertheless, the local Attorney only imprisoned a handful of local policemen, who were soon released.
Exacerbating the large number of crimes in Mexico is the fact that 98% of them remain unsolved. The impunity of 2011 joined a longer list of unsolved violations and, echoing in a weak international response, sent a message that resonated with grave implications this September: in Mexico, you can murder and abuse activists without consequence.
The relevance of widespread impunity becomes even clearer when one realises that Aguirre last governed Guerrero when the 1998 El Charco Massacre saw the army open fire on indigenous community activists, killing 11. His predecessor had stood down following another massacre of activists, just as Aguirre did this October. Nobody was punished for either crime. Meanwhile Peña Nieto himself has been criticised for the excessive use of force, torture and sexual abuse by police officers against protesters in San Salvador Atenco, when he was governor of the state of Mexico. Impunity prevails.
Silencing those who dare to speak out
Alejandra Ancheita has faced defamation, threats and attacks for her work. Yet this is par for the course in Mexico, with at least 25 human rights defenders killed and 29 disappeared in the first 18 months of Peña Nieto’s government, which began—in December 2012—with the arbitrary detentions and excessive use of force by Mexico City police against those protesting alleged electoral fraud. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented that activists face threats, attacks, criminalisation, harassment and killings for their work, with aggressions carried out by a range of state, non-state and unidentified actors. Members of the ruling party have proposed a law to jail protesting teachers.
In 2012, Mexican activists successfully lobbied for the passage of the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, which reflects civil society input and international best practise. Yet the law’s implementation has been consistently undermined by administrative flaws, a lack of resources and—crucially, as identified by NGOs on the ground—an absence of political will at all levels. Government officials have not implemented the preventative organ promised by law, staff constantly rotate, and some activists complain that the same police forces attacking them are sent to protect them.
A shared schizophrenia
It is not only Mexico’s doublespeak that compromises global human rights protection. If the international public is appalled by abuses in Mexico, then it is time their political and diplomatic representatives began to condition aid, trade and political support on the evidence of real change on the ground. While the EU and the US have established human rights dialogues with their Mexican counterparts, activists complain that these serve only to legitimise, rather than impact, the free trade agreements with what the EU calls its “strategic partner”.
Meanwhile in Mexico, Peña Nieto must use Ayotzinapa as a catalyst to ensure his federal officials are clean, competent and accountable, and that they use their power to investigate and punish local level officials suspected of human rights violations. Ongoing abuses undermine not only the valuable efforts of Mexico’s diplomats, but the international system itself.
Resolutions and laws are not enough: those with leverage must demand implementation and otherwise attach a real political cost. By protecting human rights defenders and ensuring justice, Mexico can take steps towards safeguarding not only human rights on the ground, but the integrity of the entire human rights system.