Peña-Nieto, take note: Mexicans are embracing human rights


Mexican society does not disregard human rights, and Peña Nieto cannot afford to either. A contribution from Mexico to the debate Human Rights: Mass or Elite Movement? Español

Jorge G. Castañeda
5 February 2015

In a smart and insightful piece recently published on openGlobalRights, Mexican academic Natalia Saltalamacchia writes, "after three decades socialization, Mexicans consider human rights as their own." She bases those conclusions on a joint survey conducted by the University of Minnesota’s Human Rights Organizations Project and Mexico’s Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE).

The government of Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto should take a detailed look at Saltalamacchia’s article and the survey, as both will help him understand why his verbal human rights commitments lack public credibility

The survey Saltalamacchia writes about shows that Mexican citizens are highly exposed to the concept of "human rights." About 90% of elites, and almost 40% of the general public, hear the term either "frequently" or "daily”. Trust in local and international human rights organizations is also high, with 70% of elites and almost 60% of ordinary citizens displaying high levels of confidence in these groups. Both elites and the general public, moreover, associate the terms "human rights" with positive statements, and have an appropriate understanding of the concept’s substantive meaning.

Most importantly, perhaps, the survey shows that Mexicans consider human rights to be rightfully "Mexican", rather than some kind of foreign imposition. The survey team asked respondents if they associate "human rights" with "promoting US interests" or with "foreign ideas and values," and the results show that neither elites, nor common citizens, are buying that argument. Only 7% of elites, and 25% of the general public, associated the notion of “human rights” with "promoting US interests", while only 11% and 28%, respectively, identified "human rights" as a foreign idea.

Today, both national and international human rights organizations have won the trust of Mexican society. Saltalamacchia rightly stresses how far the Mexican public has come on this front. Only a few years ago, the federal government, the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and the radical political left all claimed that external oversight of Mexican human rights conditions, including electoral supervision, was an unacceptable form of “foreign interference” in Mexico’s internal affairs. In Cuba and Venezuela, many leaders still say this is true, but things have changed in Mexico. Today, both national and international human rights organizations have won the trust of Mexican society.

Mexican president Peña Nieto must take note of these findings. His administration lacks credibility, in part because of two constraints on his approach to human rights, both of which are misguided.

First, the notion of separating respect for human rights within Mexico from respect of human rights internationally is hard to sustain, ethically and politically. It’s contradictory and unfeasible in the mid-term to invite—or accept with resignation—an external examination of human rights in Mexico by non-governmental organizations (such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the UN or OAS) while remaining indifferent to its activities or conclusions in other countries. This attitude from the current Mexican administration only weakens the regime’s position abroad, and also hasn’t granted it any favor with governments who proudly violate fundamental human rights.

Second, Peña Nieto is seriously harming his credibility at home by refusing to examine the past. He has decided there won’t be any investigations, indictments or trials of suspected human rights violations during the regime of his predecessor, Felipe Calderón of the National Action Party (PAN).

During Calderon’s six-year tenure (2006-12), over 20,000 Mexican citizens were disappeared, and anywhere from 60,000 to 80,000 were killed, often in circumstances that are not entirely clear. The president declared war on organized crime, but his government’s get-tough policies helped spark a wave of violence that is still spiraling out of control. According to Peña Nieto, however, none of those responsible will ever be objects of scrutiny or explanation.


Demotix/LUIS RAMON BARRON TINAJERO (All rights reserved)

Mexican citizens gather to call for an investigation into thousands of disappearances during the Calderón administration. Thus far, President Peña-Nieto has declined to seek justice for these victims or their families.

It is hard to know why Peña Nieto refuses to investigate possible misdeeds under the previous president. Regardless of whether this refusal is due to passivity or active concealment, official disregard for the past is a significant incentive for present and future impunity. When perpetrators realize that extrajudicial executions, torture and disappearances will not be punished, they become less fearful of using those methods now, and in the future.

As the joint Minnesota-Mexico survey has shown, Mexican society does not disregard human rights’ importance. Neither should the Mexican government: not domestically or abroad, not now, not before, and not in the future.

A shorter version of this article first appeared in Milenio, on January 5, 2015.


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