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MEXICO: Human Rights Defenders Under Attack, UN Warns

Emilio Godoy

MEXICO CITY, Oct 14 2009 (IPS) - Gustavo de la Rosa, head of the Ciudad Juárez office of the Chihuahua State Human Rights Commission in northern Mexico, was forced to flee to El Paso, across the border in the United States, and take refuge there for nearly a month, because of death threats related to his work.

De la Rosa’s case is an example of the perilous situation faced by human rights activists in this country, according to a report by the Mexico Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presented Tuesday in Mexico City.

The report, titled “Defender los derechos humanos: entre el compromiso y el riesgo” (Defending Human Rights: Caught Between Commitment and Risk) says the OHCHR found 128 cases of aggression against activists between January 2006 and August 2009, 10 of which resulted in murder, and received 54 complaints of attacks nationwide.

“Commitment and risk: this is the situation human rights defenders work in,” said Alberto Brunori, the head of the Mexico office of the OHCHR, at the Mexico City presentation of the 50-page report on the situation of human rights defenders.

Threats represent 27 percent of the cases, criminal prosecution of human rights promoters accounts for another 20 percent, harassment for 17 percent, and arbitrary injustice, such as information theft and office raids, accounts for 10 percent, according to the report.

The largest number of incidents occurred in Mexico City, Chihuahua state and the southern states of Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas.

In 52 percent of the cases, the identity of the perpetrators is unknown, while authorities, especially those involved in local law enforcement and administration of justice, were blamed for 17 percent. Organised crime, sometimes acting with the complicity or tolerance of the authorities, was responsible in other cases.

“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels,” according to the 1998 U.N. Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. Whoever does this may be regarded as a human rights defender.

Of the total number of cases documented in the OHCHR report, 36 of the victims were women. During the period covered, 10 people were killed and another three were kidnapped because of their work defending human rights.

The response of the Mexican state to this situation has been uneven, especially at the local level, Brunori said.

It is essential for the state to adopt the issue of human rights defenders as a priority, and to strengthen an integrated state policy on the issue, said Brunori, whose office was established in Mexico in 2000.

To compile the report, OHCHR staff visited 10 of Mexico’s 32 states and interviewed non-governmental organisations (NGOs), human rights defenders, victims of aggression, authorities and journalists, as well as sending questionnaires to all of these and to state institutions that deal with human rights issues.

Noemí Ramírez, head of the Mexican Academy for Human Rights, an NGO, said the situation of human rights defenders is “worrying.” “The government has vilified the work of rights defenders. There has been a serious deterioration in the situation under the present administration,” she told IPS.

Sandra Salcedo, a human rights researcher at the private Ibero-American University, shared Ramírez’s view. “NGOs complain about a lack of support for their work and the problems they face, which are exacerbated by an increase in the number of attacks by organised crime,” she said.

When Mexico underwent its Universal Periodic Review, a mechanism to verify U.N. member countries’ observance of their obligations in the field of human rights, the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva made several recommendations early this year to the Mexican state regarding the situation of activists.

This country is experiencing a severe public security crisis. Shortly after taking office in December 2006, conservative Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a campaign to combat drug trafficking in which he deployed thousands of soldiers and police.

So far this year, over 5,500 people have been murdered in drug-related killings by organised crime, more than were reported during the whole of 2008, according to tallies kept by journalists.

Furthermore, the Mexican army is accused by local and international NGOs of committing serious human rights violations in the course of its anti-drug operations.

The OHCHR signed an agreement with the Defence Ministry which includes support for the prevention of potential violations of basic rights, and the creation of a system of indicators to evaluate the ministry’s training programme on human rights for the armed forces.

One of the most notorious incidents involving violence against human rights defenders in Mexico is the case of Raúl Lucas and Manuel Ponce, leaders of the Organisation for the Future of the Mixteca Indigenous Peoples, who were tortured and executed and whose bodies were found Feb. 21 in the state of Guerrero. The crimes remain unpunished.

In February, the Tlachilollan Mountain Human Rights Centre, awarded a prize for its work by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) in September, closed one of its offices in the town of Ayutla de los Libres, in Guerrero, because of threats, intimidation and persecution of activists for indigenous peoples’ rights.

Impunity is one of the factors that concerns OHCHR representatives because “it sends out a message that is an encouragement to commit further crimes,” Brunori said.

The OHCHR recommended that the government establish a national mechanism for the protection of human rights defenders, consolidate a special programme for activists who are threatened, and carry out an educational campaign to raise awareness of the work they do.

The Mexican state is facing several lawsuits at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in San José, Costa Rica, which is part of the Organisation of American States justice system.

Among the cases are those of Rosendo Radilla, a community leader who was forcibly disappeared by soldiers in the state of Guerrero in 1974; the rape of two indigenous women by troops in the same state in 2002; and the murders of three women in Ciudad Juárez, where hundreds of women have been murdered over the past two decades.

“The fight against drug trafficking has aggravated the human rights situation. Rights violations are constantly being reported in the areas where soldiers are deployed. Society becomes vulnerable in the presence of the army,” Ramírez said.

“There is no reply to the complaints that are lodged. Besides, the powers-that-be are running campaigns to discredit the work of human rights organisations,” Salcedo said.

“There is a risk that attacks against human rights defenders may increase,” Brunori warned.

De la Rosa, who was appointed in April 2008, returned to Ciudad Juárez on Oct. 10, under the protection of the state government.

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