Civil Society, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

US-MEXICO: Award Honours Rights Defenders in “War Against the Poor”

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Nov 20 2010 (IPS) - Ines Fernandez and Valentina Rosendo, two indigenous Me’phaa women from the Mexican state of Guerrero, were raped and tortured by members of the Mexican Army in 2002. Since then, they have been subject to a constant stream of threats to keep them from speaking about the incidents.

But an organisation began in a small hotel room in the town of Tlapa de Comonfort was created to allow them be able to do just that.

The Tlachinollan Center was founded in 1994 by Abel Barrera Hernandez to fight to give voice to Fernandez, Rosendo and other members of the many indigenous communities in Guerrero whose rights are often overlooked and abused.

One of its most recent successes was convincing the Inter- American Court of Human Rights to order Mexican authorities to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators in Fernandez and Rosendo’s case.

Their case is just part of the daily work of an organisation that has created an independent police-monitoring organisation, worked to establish the first state law on forced disappearance, secured the release of numerous illegally detained people, forced a mining company to pay a fairer rent, and helped stopped the construction of a dam local farmers said would displace tens of thousands of people.

Hernandez describes the plight of indigenous communities in Guerrero as a “barbaric world” in which “society finds itself defenceless in the face of violence, violence generated by both organised crime as well as the state.”

“It is said that actions taken are done so in the name of the law. But in our region, we know that the authories are the first to violate the law,” he said Friday in Washington, where he received annual Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award at a ceremony on Capitol Hill.

Since day one, the organisation’s work has been hampered – and made all the more significant – by the constant threat of retaliation for reporting abuses. In 2009, the Inter- American Court even went as far as issuing protection measures for every member of Tlachinollan’s staff as well as other human rights defenders in the country.

“Human rights defenders are threatened with death and subject to arbitrary arrest, disappearance and executions,” explained U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Michael Posner on Friday.

Also complicating their work is the very location in which it is performed. Indigenous people in Guerrero speak about 20 different languages, with only 20 percent of them speaking Spanish and high levels of illiteracy.

Hernandez says that they have been condemned to obscurity and that this obscurity has resulted in deaths both from the being overlooked – such as through inadequate medical care – and from actively being abused by police and others.

The award, which is given out by the Robert F. Kennedy Centre for Justice & Human Rights, might help lift some of this cloud of obscurity from the abuses endured by these communities.

The point of the award, explained the RFK Centre’s president, Kerry Kennedy, Friday, “is to honour the Martin Luther Kings of our day and work with them for a six year period to help them achieve their work.”

It will allow Tlachinollan to partner with the RFK Centre to address specific aspects of their work and will be able to benefit from the campaign and legal tools developed by the 26 other winners of the award.

“Because of [Hernandez] this often overlooked community has greater rights and greater hopes for a brighter future,” Kennedy said.

Hernandez has been most active in addressing rights abuses stemming from the increasingly violent war President Felipe Calderon has declared on drug cartels in Mexico.

This war and many of the government’s economic policies, which he says have deepened social inequality, “have merely translated into a full-blown war against the poor,” according to Hernandez.

The RFK Centre says that since 2007, when Calderon dramatically scaled up the war against the cartels, reported human rights abuses have jumped by almost 1,000 percent.

As part of his effort to end these abuses, Hernandez has called on the U.S. to stand in solidarity with victims and denounce these abuses.

Kennedy, likewise, said Friday that she hoped the U.S. and other states would tie foreign assistance to compliance with human rights standards.

And Posner said the administration of President Barack Obama has at least taken steps toward such actions, through such measures as joining the U.N. Human Rights Council last year so that it could help try to apply human rights standard to all countries, including itself.

The U.S. is trying to “lead by example,” he said, and cited its policy of “principled engagement” whereby the U.S. strives to makes human rights a priority in countries with which it has strategic relationships.

“The U.S. can and should provide a lifeline of protection when those who advocate for human rights need our help,” said Posner. “It should help amplify their voices.”

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