In a recent study of Latin American countries’ foreign policy commitments to democracy and human rights, we found three distinct patterns of behavior. There were the “liberals,” like Chile and Costa Rica, that, whether in international or regional forums, voted consistently to denounce human rights abuses in countries like Syria and North Korea and cooperated willingly with regional multilateral organizations on concerns over human rights in their own countries. Then there were what we termed the “rogues,” like Venezuela and Cuba, that voted with consistency against any criticism of human rights in any country including against Syria, North Korea or Ukraine and—along with the Dominican Republic—held their tongues in raising concerns in other countries. As you would expect, these governments were equally disdainful of international and regional instruments to protect freedom in their own countries. And last there were the “enablers,” those, like Brazil, which preferred to give precedence to non-intervention—often abstaining on key votes on Syria, North Korea and Ukraine.
But between these three categories we discovered a fourth: states that were all about human rights in international forums, but were thin-skinned and disruptive when it came to human rights in their own countries.
Those countries? Argentina (under the Kirchners) and Mexico. In the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) regional votes and in the Universal Periodic Review, Argentine representatives consistently condemned human rights violations in Syria and North Korea (though they abstained on Ukraine, quite possibly because of the government’s close ties to Vladimir Putin). In the UNHRC’s Universal Periodic Review, Argentina raised 27 different political and civil rights concerns in Belarus, China, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and in its Latin American/Caribbean neighbors. Those 27 complaints were the second highest in the region; only Uruguay raised more.
But when it was an altogether different matter when it came to reacting to human rights concerns within its own borders through the inter-American system of human rights. When a group of Argentine civil society organizations traveled to Washington, D.C., for the 156th session of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (Commission) in October 2015, the state champion of basic democratic norms like freedom from torture and disappearance internationally, refused to show up to a discussion on the independence on its judiciary. Worse, the then-foreign minister Hector Timmerman smeared the groups’ motives and even accused them of criminal activity by supposedly engaging in campaign activities too close to the national elections.
But that’s Argentina, and we all hope that will change under the administration of President Mauricio Macri. (Right?)
The real surprise was Mexico. Like Argentina, Mexico was a champion of human rights in the UNHRC. It condemned human rights abuses in Syria a total of 15 times, denounced human rights atrocities in North Korea, and, every time Ukraine came up, raised its voice too in support of life and liberty. Heck, Brazil didn’t even do that, and they have written the obligation to support human rights internationally into their national constitution.
Much of Mexico’s foreign posture in support of human rights came from the strategic leadership of Jorge Castañeda during his brief turn as foreign minister (2000-2003) in President Vicente Fox’s administration. The idea was to shift Mexico’s historic posture of non-intervention and silence on the international stage to a loud and active commitment to human rights. The reason was, first, to create a platform and voice for a country that he believed was ready to assert its leadership globally. But second, he also intended it to have a boomerang effect: that by supporting human rights beyond its borders Mexico would be forced to better protect human rights domestically after more than 70 years of a closed single-party system.
Unfortunately, as our study and recent events reveal, the boomerang hasn’t made it all the way back to Mexico. First, with the government’s war on narcotics trafficking (with the military leading the charge), human rights have deteriorated drastically in the past 10 years. That war has produced over 80,000 deaths and more than 22,000 disappearances, with regular reports of torture and point-blank killings at the hands of the armed forces and the police.
The level of brutality recently provoked the report Undeniable Atrocities: Confronting Crimes against Humanity in Mexico by the Open Society Initiative and five independent Mexican human rights organizations: the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, the Diocesan Center for Human Rights Fray Juan de Larios, I(dh)eas Human Rights Strategic Litigation, Foundation for Justice and Rule of Law, and Citizens for Human Rights. The charge is hyperbolic but worse, dangerous, and not just because the spray of violence in Mexico—as grisly and horrible as it is—pales in comparison to other cases of crimes against humanity. Labeling an entire situation a crime against humanity risks diluting a powerful, specific, juridical definition—much as one commentator did in calling what’s occurring in Venezuela genocide. Legal definitions and acts that qualify as crimes against humanity and genocide are real, but the actual acts are far more heinous, intentional and coordinated than what is occurring in Mexico, and certainly in Venezuela.
But that doesn’t excuse Mexico’s difficult, anti-internationalist position when it comes to the rights of outside institutions and groups to investigate and comment on the country’s egregious human rights situation. Within the regional human rights system, Mexico is a grudging participant. According to our study, Mexico had four cases come before the Commission in the October 2015 session, but was not fully cooperative, scoring a 2 out of 3 in terms of its participation in the body—lower than Panama (3), Peru (3), Colombia (2.75), the United States (2.67), and even Brazil (2.25), the enabler.
The most glaring example of Mexico’s difficult relations with human rights domestically has been the disappearance of 43 students in Ayotzinapa on September 26-27, 2014. When questions arose over the government’s investigation and the guilt of the suspects it arrested, the Mexican state and family members of the disappeared students requested the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to form and send an Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) to review the government’s findings and the evidence surrounding the mysterious event.
Staffed with a group of outstanding jurists, the delegation concluded that the government’s investigation and conclusions were deeply flawed. The delegation sharply criticized the handling of evidence—such as telephone records and DNA samples—cast serious doubts about the investigation’s claims that all of the bodies had been burned in a huge trash dump, and called for the arrest a number of high level security officials around the area.
Despite being invited by the government, Mexican officials lashed out at the group over the findings. Not only did government officials question the conclusions of the report, the Mexican Attorney General briefly impugned the motives of Executive Secretary of the Commission, Emilio Álvarez Icaza (also Mexican) for fraud. And while the OAS defended the Commission and its work, the Mexican Secretary of Government Relations, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, against the wishes of the victims’ families, informed the public that the GIEI’s work was done and that they would be shown the exit in April.
In short, in the safety of a UN body in Geneva and in other countries, the Mexican government has become a strong advocate for human rights. That in itself is no small feat, especially when compared with the utter refusal of countries like Venezuela or Cuba to cede one bit of national sovereignty in defense of protecting civilian lives and liberties or with Brazil’s lack of courage to apparently take any position even in some of the most egregious international cases of abuses (and a constitutional obligation to do so).
Unfortunately, though, the Mexican state’s diplomatic and moral commitment to popular sovereignty and the right of international organizations to defend human rights doesn’t extend to its own borders. And given the sad situation in the country, of pitched battles among narco-criminal groups and armed forces ill-prepared to do their new job, this is where Mexico most needs to turn its human rights attention. Being a “liberal” defender of human rights demands respecting the same international instruments and institutions in its own country that it asserts overseas.