In the Hot Seat: Mexico Goes Before the U.N. Human Rights Council

– Despite several initiatives taken to improve human rights practices in Mexico, the United Nations deems the long-troubled U.S. neighbor in need of further reforms
– The country’s past human rights violations have thrived in a habitat that has witnessed rampant corruption, impunity, and torture
– The likely future of human rights observance under Calderón

On February 10, 2009 the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) evaluated the current state of human rights in Mexico, as well as provided guidance for improvement in the country’s historically far from distinguished record. The UPR, a process overseen by the U.N. Human Rights Council, was created in March 2006, with the purpose of reviewing once every four years, and attempting to improve the human rights situation in all 192 U.N. member nations. Sixteen other nations are currently under review including China, Cuba, Germany, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria.

Mexico’s minister, Fernando Gómez Mont represented his country in an attempt to highlight the latest initiatives taken by the government to improve its human rights practices. During the assessment, several achievements were emphasized by the country’s officials such as Mexico’s abolition of the death penalty, legislation to combat corruption and drug trafficking, improved health and education measures, and strenuous efforts it has taken to prevent and punish cases of disappearances, at a time when the war on drugs affects much of the country. While the UPR recorded Mexico’s progress, many of the stated measures have yet to be fully realized – rendering a country with widespread inconsistencies regarding its human rights status. Consequently, an Amnesty International statement raised some doubts on the Mexican UPR report, contending that it, “fails to acknowledge the frequent lack of implementation or impact of the Mexican government’s policies. It also fails to acknowledge the worsening human rights climate in many parts of the country.”

Reacting to mounting international pressure to address these crucial matters, Mexico has taken initiatives to mend these rights, often with limited success due to the government’s faulty approaches that fail to adequately confront the authentic causes of the conflict. Rather, apathetic politicians tend to dole out half-hearted answers to otherwise grave problems – a general characteristic of Mexico’s human rights shortcomings.

As Mexican drug cartels and President Felipe Calderón’s security forces violently clash, human rights violations, which are often interrelated to the conflict, are regrettably taking a backseat. Under the international scrutiny of the U.N., Mexico appears to be largely unwilling, or unable, to adequately address its internal human rights situation, which cannot afford to be overlooked any longer. In spite of a broad spectrum of recommendations posed by various U.N. delegations, the plight of human rights in Mexico persists as an overarching factor, which will require intensive treatment from the Calderón administration in the future. There must be substantial transformation in the country’s political and social spheres if there is to be lasting and meaningful change.

Violence Towards Women
According to Mexico’s National Survey on Family Relations, in 2006, 67 percent of women over the age of 15 reported some form of violence in the home, workplace, community or school. Furthermore, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) statistics show that 7 out of every 10 Mexican women have suffered some form of abusive treatment at some time in their lives. “We are frightened with the insecurity,” Ana María Romero, a store owner outside of Mexico City, told National Public Radio (NPR) in a 2007 interview. “I don’t even let my daughter go to the store alone. We are really scared.” Even the local director of public security in Naucalpan, a city outside of Mexico City, agrees that the issue of violence against women is a serious threat. One difficulty, he contends, is that there simply are not enough police officers to patrol the neighborhoods. Within his jurisdiction, there are 275 officers for 700,000 citizens – not even one-third the number recommended by the U.N.

The cultural phenomenon of male dominance, machismo, has persisted in the social hierarchy throughout Latin America. “Mexican women are often seen as objects to be used and discarded, to be thrown on the rubbish heap,” explains Eliana García of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD). “This has got to change, but visible improvement is not on the horizon.” The subordinate role of women is not only evident in the home, but also in the nation’s political mentality.

Without a doubt, the authority’s relative indifference to violence against women is fundamental to the matter, yet certain laws meant to protect women also seem to be meaningless. To wit, the 2009 Human Rights Watch World Report maintains that there are, “provisions of Mexican law that define sanctions for some sexual offense with reference to the ‘chastity’ of the victim, and penalize domestic violence only when the victim has been battered repeatedly.”

Laws that are well intentioned, on the other hand, which are introduced to ensure women’s safety, are often not enforced. For instance, the Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence, which was signed into law by President Calderón on February 1, 2007, has since had little impact on statistical movement on the subject. Only five of Mexico’s thirty states have established “implementation mechanisms” which are necessary if the law is to be effective. The BBC reported that reactions to the law “have been mixed, with some observers stating that it is a positive development and critics noting that it suffers from implementation challenges.” The presence of such unsympathetic authorities and insubstantial laws can trap women in a stolid culture of indifference and despair.

Abused women are therefore often reluctant to report mistreatment out of fear that such information will be apathetically received or neglected altogether. The mayor of Chimalhuacán, a city outside the nation’s capital, contests that the government is not fulfilling its responsibility. “If people go and complain and all they receive is indifference, then people won’t go. There is real impunity for those who commit crimes.”

As a result of widespread exemption from punishment, the number of rapists who are convicted, or even prosecuted, remains a fraction of the actual incidents. Until lawmakers properly address the problem’s extensive diffusion, it will remain a ubiquitous, if all but overlooked crime throughout Mexico.

For almost 70 years, abortion was a topic largely ignored by Mexican legislators. Then, in August 2008, in the face of the overwhelming opposition from the Catholic Church, the Mexican Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of a Mexico City law legalizing abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and requiring health care providers to provide abortions during that period. Although this order is a step in the right direction, abortion remains illegal in the rest of Mexico. Executive orders signed by U.S. President Obama, however, may help trigger more legislation for its southern neighbor. On January 23, 2009, Obama reversed the “Mexico City Policy,” a strategy introduced during the Reagan era that prohibited funding to international family planning groups that provided abortion services, information, and counseling. It is possible that the overturning may catalyze a series of progressive changes that aid Mexican women in an intolerable conundrum.

Indigenous Rights
Eduardo Galeano describes that, “today in the enormous bare plaza at the center of Mexico City the Catholic cathedral rises on the ruins of Tenochtitlán’s greatest temple…Tenochtitlán was razed.” Despite the extensive prosperity existing prior to the Spanish conquest of Mexico, aboriginal peoples, (comprising between 10 and 30 percent of the population) have experienced systematic discrimination and social marginalization—characteristically treated as second-class citizens. The indigenous of Mexico never fully recovered from the European onslaught.

The United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNFPII) claims that, “indigenous peoples are arguably among the most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups of people in the world today.” And the indigenous community in Mexico is in no different position. Access is often the most pressing factor that prevents indigenous peoples from obtaining healthcare, education, fertile land, and work—creating a vicious cycle of poverty in which their very existence is threatened. A recent U.N. report stated that 40 million of the 110 million people in Mexico are living below the poverty line; most of whom can be described as indigenous.

Even attempts by human rights organizations at achieving equal rights for indigenous groups repeatedly fail due to incessant acts of harassment and abuse at the hands of special interests. For example, the Me’phaa Indigenous People’s Organization (OPIM) is a group that promotes economic development projects in the state of Guerrero for the Me’phaa peoples. These have “one of the highest levels of marginalization and some of the lowest indicators of human development in the country,” according to Amnesty International. Members of OPIM have faced incessant harassment, and physical attacks as repercussions for their undertakings at self-representation. A leader of the group was abducted and found dead in February 2008. And until state authorities protect the rights of all their citizens, defenders of human rights will continue to suffer a similar fate.

Although the National Commission for the Development of Indigenous Peoples was established in May 2003, and has since implemented various programs aimed at combating social inequalities, the problem it seems to face is largely structural, often beyond the power of such well-meaning agencies and organizations to redress them.

Freedom of Expression
Harassment, intimidation, kidnapping, and the killing of journalists and political activists have been commonplace in Mexico, making it one of the most dangerous places in the world for a journalist to work. A forthright ethical journalist who condemns the local government for being in collusion with the drug cartels, or even one that reports on the violence, is likely to become prey for drug cartels and street gangs. Journalists reporting on violence, crime, and immigration issues along the U.S.-Mexican border face particular risk for their proximity to conflict along its length. As an example of scores of journalists who have fallen victim, Armando Rodriguez, a reporter in the northern city of Juarez, was shot to death outside his house last year. The details of the case remain unknown, but the cause of Rodriguez’s death is no doubt his reporting on the ongoing drug violence in the city. Similar stories of attacks against undaunted journalists are far from unusual.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, an organization dedicated to preserving press rights, affirms that seven Mexican reporters have been established as missing in the past three years alone; five of whom had been investigating the suspect relationship between the local government and organized crime. Moreover, there had been 24 murders of journalists in Mexico between 2000 and 2008. The result is a “climate of self-censorship” that afflicts those attempting to plumb questionable political and social initiatives.

At the UPR, Minister Gómez Mont has asserted that, “freedom of expression was an indispensable condition of democracy.” In a measure that would incorporate this idea, a bill was recently introduced in the Mexican Congress that would prosecute attacks against journalists as federal crimes and hold federal authorities responsible for the effectiveness of investigations of such attacks. Additionally, a 2007 constitutional reform, “increased avenues for public scrutiny of the Mexican government,” according to a Human Rights Watch report. Yet, governmental branches at the local level have not come close to mirroring this federal initiative. If anything, attempts at a municipal level to resolve the state of affairs have produced meager results, as only 14 percent of the murders of journalists have ended in conviction. Lamentably so, crimes committed against journalists and political activists have continued to go unannounced and inadequately investigated.

Arturo Chacón, a reporter for the newspaper El Norte de Ciudad Juarez explains, “there is very little confidence that the authorities can investigate these crimes because you have such entrenched corruption at every level.” Because of the extremely high level of impunity involving Mexican officials (nearly 100 percent), there has been minimal development by authorities to investigate journalist homicides. Chacón argues that if he does receive a threat, there is nobody he can talk to. He explains: “we are not feeling safe. Anything can happen.”

Torture
Acts of torture involved in the Mexican legal system also continue to be a flagrant problem in the country. In the rare instance that cases receive a legal opinion, or final adjudication, judicial and prosecutorial authorities conduct largely futile investigations while federal authorities often claim that they do not have the proper jurisdiction to pursue the case. The methods used by the authorities vary widely yet often increase in intensity but not in terms of success. Amnesty International recounts one particular case in which the victims were beaten in various parts of their bodies while their faces were covered. They then experienced the “teléfono” torture application, during which they were beaten on both ears at the same time. Lastly, electric shocks were applied to their ribs. In spite of the fact that there are countless varieties of torture, each technique shares a common goal of persuading a subject to release information by unlawful means.

A 2003 study conducted by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), and the University of Michigan Health System illustrates the omnipresent nature of torture in Mexico’s criminal justice system. Federal forensic physicians examining detainees reported between 1,658 and 4,850 alleged incidents of torture. The study represents a significant first step by the Mexican government to establish scope of the problem. It was the Mexican Attorney General that contacted PHR to conduct the study as a means of fulfilling the recommendations set forth by the Istanbul Protocol, a series of international guidelines for documenting torture. Further policy modifications, however, must be made in order to bring on meaningful change to the situation on the ground.

While the matter is receiving increased attention due to the effort of various international human rights organizations, clandestine incidents of torture persist, many of which grossly affect journalists. As a Human Rights Watch statement explains, “torture is often extremely difficult to document. There are usually no witnesses to the crime, and it often leaves no physical scars on the victim. Consequently, the only evidence of torture is likely to be the word of the victim, which is often insufficient to prove that the crime took place.” Moreover, those incidents of torture involving the military, which is all too common, are even further shrouded by ambiguity. This results from the fact that the military court itself is responsible for pursuing an investigation and trial, making a fair lawsuit unlikely due to the bias that would undoubtedly exist in such a situation. Torture will continue to be Mexico’s “open, shameful secret” until the crimes against humanity afflicted by the criminal justice system have been accurately exposed and terminated.

The Outlook for Human Rights in Mexico
A lengthy list of recommendations was given to Mexico at the UPS review. It seems unlikely, given Mexico’s lackluster history of human rights observance, that the current administration will resolve the abysmal situation. Several proposals have been put forth in recent years albeit having only rather negligible impact in actuality. Ultimately, the Mexican government must increase at least several pegs higher its attention to human rights violations in the country. If not confronted during this administration, Mexicans will have to wait until 2012, when President Calderón will be without the possibility of being reelected. Will the existing Mexican government heed the recommendations of international bodies and aggressively work to improve the lives of its people, or will the status quo suffice?