Following the disappearance and probable murder of 43 Mexican students, the world has joined Mexicans in demanding to know, what does “human rights” really mean in this troubled country? Mexico is a vocal advocate of human rights globally, yet continues to fail its own citizens, triggering well-founded accusations of hypocrisy and doublespeak.
Human rights norms are critical for shaping and limiting state power. In societies where the public has deeply internalized those principles, torture of suspected criminals is widely perceived of as illegitimate, it is less likely to occur systematically. In previous eras, by contrast, the torture of certain groups, such as “suspected witches” or other alleged religious deviants, was widely perceived as legitimate and necessary. Norms of acceptable behavior change over time, with real-world effects.
But how can we know whether a society is internalizing human rights norms? The behavior of public authorities is not always the best indicator; norms may be publicly prevalent, but still not integrated into policy.
Until now, there have been few systematic studies of how Mexicans perceive the term “human rights,” and how those perceptions have evolved. For this reason, a new survey by the Human Rights Organizations Project, jointly conducted by Mexican and US-based researchers, makes an important contribution.
Eduardo Mejia/Demotix (All rights reserved)
Parents of the 43 students missing from Guerrero led a march in downtown Mexico City to demand the government clarify the students' whereabouts.
The Mexican-US study first asks how often ordinary Mexicans are exposed to the term “human rights,” or “derechos humanos,” in Spanish. This question is crucial; if not heard, human rights will not exist as a stand-alone concept on the public’s cognitive map. Here, the news seems good: some 90% of Mexico’s elites, and almost 40% of the general public, hear the term either “frequently,” or “every day”.
Next, the survey asks how much Mexicans trust local and international human rights organizations (among many other institutions) and finds that they rank comparatively high: the level of trust among elites was 70% and almost 60% among ordinary citizens.
This finding is important. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the words “human rights” were virtually unknown to the general Mexican public, and international human rights institutions and treaties provoked a great deal of mistrust among the political elite. This was true within the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), but also true for other left-wing political opposition parties, including the nationalist Partido Mexicano de los Trabajadores (PMT) and the Marxist Partido Comunista Mexicano (PCM). Some conceived the human rights discourse and its universalist pretensions as a form of cultural imperialism. Others were concerned with global power politics and the possibility that stronger countries were using human rights as mere pretext for intervening in the domestic affairs of weaker or less developed nations. Of course, all these critics had in mind Mexico’s powerful neighbor, the United States.
Mexico’s first explicit “human rights” NGOs were created in the mid 1980s, including the secular Mexican Academy of Human Rights and the Catholic organization Friar Francisco de Vitoria Center for Human Rights, both based in Mexico City. The human rights discourse was also developed by jurists in the Institute for Legal Research at Mexico’s Autonomous National University (UNAM).
These early groups spent a lot of time educating the public and Mexican authorities, holding workshops, teaching courses and organizing conferences. In 1990, the government created a National Commission on Human Rights, lending substantial legitimacy to the term “human rights” and helping to further diffuse the rights language.
If Mexico’s elite and public are now familiar with the term, this is a direct result of three decades of socialization spurred by NGOs, the national and local ombudsmen and, eventually, state agencies.
The study also shows that Mexican leaders and the general public not only associate “human rights” with positive things, but that they have an appropriate understanding of the term’s substantive content. Nearly 80% of the public strongly associate the term “human rights,” with protecting people from torture and murder (i.e., civil rights); 71% with the promotion of economic and social justice (i.e., economic and social rights); and 65% with the promotion of free and fair elections (i.e., political rights). This reflects a comprehensive outlook that includes rights equally connected to the liberal, democratic and socialist traditions. Arguably, this is a distinctive Mexican trait. In the United States, for example, publics tend to reject the idea of “economic rights” as fundamental.
Finally, the study helps us understand the extent to which the public views human rights as a concept that is legitimately “Mexican,” as opposed to some kind of foreign imposition. The survey asked respondents if they associated the words “human rights” with “promoting US interests” or with “foreign values and ideas,” and the results show that neither Mexican elites nor ordinary citizens accept this argument. Only 7% of the elite, and 25% of the public, connected “human rights” with American interests, whereas 11% and 28%, respectively, conceived of “human rights” as an alien idea.
This change is indeed dramatic. Although we have no survey evidence from the 1970s or early 1980s, historical records suggest that many influential voices viewed human rights as a foreign-imposed agenda. In 1986, for example, the right-wing National Action Party (PAN) filed the first petition ever before the Inter American Human Rights Commission accusing the government of committing electoral fraud. Not surprisingly, the ruling PRI denied the legitimacy of resorting to the international human rights system. Perhaps more surprisingly, so did the leftist opposition.
At the time, Herberto Castillo, the founder of three leftist political parties, said: “If the PAN succeeds in having the Inter American Human Rights Commission intervene in Mexico to moderate…the elections, tomorrow the powerful countries will be trying to put in place or remove rulers in every weak country.” Similarly, Arnoldo Martínez Verdugo, a leader of the Mexican Communist party, asked: “Do we want to open the door to the intervention of alien forces that have always wanted to interfere…in the political affairs of our country? Mexicans have taken ownership over the human rights idea and view it as a legitimate part of the domestic political discourse.
Today, by contrast, Mexicans have taken ownership over the human rights idea and view it as a legitimate part of the domestic political discourse. This trend coincides with Mexico’s intensive use of the Inter-American Human Rights System. According to my own research, the Mexican government has a positive attitude towards that system, and Mexican society has one of the highest rates of petition submissions to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Unfortunately, all of this has not prevented massive human rights abuses in Mexico. Illegitimate state violence continues, as the Ayotzinapa massacre attests. So, has anything changed?
What is certainly different now is that an important part of Mexican society is willing to hold the government accountable for such deeds, and does so using human rights language. When Mexican demonstrators today chant, “It was the state,” in massive demonstrations - and use that phrase as a hashtag in social networks - they are saying that this is not just another crime perpetrated by drug dealers. Instead, it is something much worse, as it belongs to the realm of human rights violations. Even conservative sectors in Mexico seem to understand Ayotzinapa as a failure of the state’s responsibility to respect and protect citizens’ rights.
In the midst of our contemporary Mexican tragedy, this general consensus on the importance of a human rights approach to the violence is no small thing.