The adoption of the final report of Mexico’s Universal Periodic Review reflected the increasing concern of the international community regarding the situation of human rights defenders. As was the case in 2009 during Mexico’s first evaluation, Mexico received several recommendations, from all regions of the world, urging it to create a safe environment for all defenders.
Although some positive steps have been taken during recent years, the Mexican Government has done too little to put an end to increasing violence against human rights defenders. In April 2012, the Mexican Congress approved a Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists, but two years later, its implementation leaves much to be desired.
The enactment of the Law was an important step forward, achieved mainly by the active engagement of civil society organisations that worked for several years together with Congress to draft a Law that reflected their experiences and challenges on the ground. The Law has the potential to become an effective mechanism to enable a safe environment for human rights defenders, but there still remain many challenges if its provisions are to grant effective protection for those at risk.
One positive aspect of the Mexican Law was the inclusion of civil society not only throughout the drafting process, but also as part of the governance structure. By creating an Advisory Council as one of the main bodies of the mechanism, the intention is that civil society should be represented and their participation ensured at all times. This Council allows the mechanism to enrich all decisions with the practical and technical experience of those who have been at risk on the ground and have lived the actual consequences of it.
Another important step achieved through the Protection Law is the explicit recognition of the State’s legal obligation to prevent further attacks against human rights defenders. The Law contains a specific chapter outlining particular actions to be taken in order to decrease the levels of risk, for example mandating high-ranking authorities to make statements on the relevance of the work undertaken by human rights defenders in order to raise awareness and legitimise their work. It also provides new capacities to the mechanism to recommend law reforms or certain public policies as relevant prevention measures.
Nevertheless, no law by itself will bring substantial changes on the ground. Today, two years after its approval, human rights defenders continue to face increasing risks and are constantly targeted both by organised crime and State authorities from different levels of government. Human rights defenders in Mexico have witnessed the impacts that the militarisation of public security has had on the escalation of threats and attacks against them, while human rights violations continue to rise. Only during the last year, at least 15 human rights defenders have been killed, and 4 more remain disappeared.
Yet, impunity levels for all these attacks remain practically absolute, with more than 96% of these cases unpunished, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). Only in 3% of the cases documented by OHCHR have the authorities detained the suspects, but no conviction has been made so far. Mexican authorities have been unable or unwilling to fully investigate and punish those responsible for attacking and harassing human rights defenders, sending a message that these attacks are permitted. Despite the Law being approved, government officials are still reticent to acknowledge the magnitude of the problem and frequently declare that these crimes are solely committed by organised crime, denying any involvement from the State. On several occasions, even before investigations are carried out, authorities already hold organised crime as responsible. But contrary to such statements, attacks against human rights defenders in Mexico are not perpetrated by isolated individuals. Rather they occur in a context of stigmatisation and criminalisation by high-ranking officials.
In many of the attacks against human rights defenders, the complicity or endorsement of a great range of public servants of the different levels of government has been documented. Particularly in provinces where the army has been deployed, authorities have not only failed to stop aggressions committed against human rights defenders, but in many cases even requested criminal gangs to do the “dirty work”.
The second round of Mexico’s UPR evidenced many of the challenges for the Mexican government in order to effectively protect human rights defenders. Although several delegations welcomed the approval of the Law and the installment of the protection mechanism, this was also one of the most recurrent topics during the recommendations Mexico received. Undoubtedly, the Protection Law and the creation of the mechanism were important steps, but there is much more to be done.
It is yet to be seen if these UPR recommendations will have an impact. It is of utmost importance that those delegations that recommended that Mexico strengthen the Protection Mechanism now engage with Mexican civil society and government authorities to ensure effective implementation of the Protection Law. If not, the UPR recommendations will be left as empty words and the Law will remain only as good intentions.