Trying Troops in Civilian Courts = Big Step for Human Rights in Mexico

Mexican soldiers © Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images

historic Mexican Supreme Court decision to ensure soldiers accused of human rights abuses against civilians be tried in civilian – not military – courts may bring Mexico closer to respecting human rights and fulfilling their Merida Initiative obligations.

In 2008, the Merida Initiative security assistance package was signed by then-US President George W. Bush. This unprecedented partnership between the United States and Mexico aims to fight organized crime and associated violence while respecting human rights.

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Calderón and Obama: A Lot More to Discuss Than Drugs

US President Barack Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderon in the Rose Garden last May. (TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Today President Obama and Mexican President Felipe Calderón will meet at the White House.

While there are many issues to discuss, including the latest round of WikiLeaks documents regarding Mexico, violence on the border, and the ICE agents just murdered, we hope human rights makes it to the top of the agenda because they are integral to all issues of concern to both countries.

Amnesty USA Executive Director Larry Cox wrote an open letter yesterday to President Obama highlighting Amnesty International’s concerns and recommendations for Mexico, including concerns about the ongoing impunity given to perpetrators of violence against women and President Calderón’s proposal to the Mexican Congress to reform the military code of justice.

Amnesty International is urging the US to work with Mexico to ensure that:

  • Effective measures are implemented to prevent and punish violence against women;
  • Comprehensive measures are passed to fully protect human rights defenders and irregular migrants; and
  • Legislation is passed in Mexico that would require military personnel implicated in human rights violations to be held accountable by civilian courts.

President Calderon’s recent attempt to reform the military code of justice are not sufficient.  These reforms are inconsistent with international human rights standards, are not in line with recent binding judgments made by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and are not consistent with the Merida Initiative requirements. We don’t want to speculate about why the Calderón administration seems to be making such a half-hearted effort at improving human rights, but it’s clear that more needs to be done.

Members of the US Congress are also interested in placing human rights in Mexico at the top of the Obama administration’s agenda, as is evident by a Dear Colleague sent yesterday by Congresswoman Lee, Congressman Grijalva and 22 other Members to Secretary of State Clinton.

We certainly hope that President Obama and President Calderon decide to put human rights issues at the top of their priority list and we look forward to working with both administrations to ensure that human rights are enjoyed by all on both sides of the US-Mexico border.

Congress Should Withhold Aid to Mexico Tied to Human Rights Performance

Mass killings of migrants. Covering up human rights violations by tampering with evidence. The increase in the number of complaints of human rights violations committed by the Mexican military. Does this sound like Mexico is meeting its human rights performance obligations to receive human rights conditioned funding from the US State Department?

On September 2, 2010, the State Department released a report to Congress indicating that Mexico was indeed fulfilling human rights criteria, and would in turn receive approximately $36 million conditioned Merida Initiative funds. Releasing these funds would send the wrong message to Mexico – that the United States condones the grave human rights violations committed in Mexico, including torture, rape, killings, and enforced disappearances.

Mexico has already received roughly $1.5 billion dollars in security assistance, with 15% of select funds tied to Mexico meeting four core human rights conditions:

  1. Ensuring that civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities are  investigating and prosecuting members of the federal police and military forces who have been credibly alleged to have violated human rights.
  2. Enforcing the prohibition on the use of testimony obtained through torture.
  3. Improving the transparency and accountability of federal police forces and work with state and municipal authorities to improve the transparency and accountability of state and municipal police forces.
  4. Conducting regular consultations with Mexican human rights organizations and civil society on recommendations for the implementation of the Merida Initiative.

While the State Department has withheld $26 million in Merida Initiative funding from the FY10 Supplemental pending the passage of two items in the Mexican Congress: legislation that would enhance the authority of the Mexican National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and Military Justice Code reforms.  Still, the core human rights criteria—mandated by the US Congress, have not been met, and therefore, the additional $36 million should also be withheld.

Human rights violations committed by Mexican security forces are not only deplorable in their own right, but also significantly undermine the effectiveness of Mexico’s public security efforts. When allocating funds, Congress, in consultation with the State Department, should not forget about human rights and should withhold human rights pegged funds from Mexico.  It’s a “shared responsibility” therefore the US and Mexico should work together, to ensure that human rights requirements are met, not just half-heartedly to release money before it expires, but to really ensure that the human rights situation in Mexico is truly better….for the Mexican people.

Aaron Barnard-Luce contributed to this post.

Do you think the Mexican military commits human rights violations?

Amnesty International does. It looks like Human Rights Watch does too. So do countless family members of those who have been “disappeared”, arbitrarily detained, tortured, or well, all of the above. Take Action On This IssueThe new report just released from AI includes some emblematic cases of human rights violations committed by the Mexican military….just in the past year. Keep in mind this report is in by no means exhaustive either. Many other NGOs have been documenting these types of cases for years, and it doesn’t look like things are getting better.

The Calderon Administration does have a tough job to do. Between combating the organized crime and drug cartels that have left some cities in a state of almost lawlessness, to working through the economic hardships that any current administration has felt, to dealing with high profile US/Mexico border issues… it’s a difficult task. Human rights have no borders though, so why has it been such a struggle to put human rights at the core of any and all governmental initiatives?

The National Human Rights Commission (of Mexico) received nearly 2,000 complaints of abuse by the military between January 2008 and June 2009. By comparison, there were 367 complaints in 2007 and 182 in 2006. An improvement? You tell me.

Kerrie Howard, Deputy Director of the AI Americas Program in London stated: “The cases that we have been able to investigate are truly shocking, but what is more shocking is that we know that this is only the tip of the iceberg.”

So if you want to do something about this, take action here.

Mexico: Merida Funds Must be Withheld Until Human Rights Conditions Are Met

Amnesty International today urged the US Congress to honor its commitment to withhold 15% of funding of the Merida Initiative until the Mexican government fulfils its human rights obligations. The Mexican government has failed to make sufficient progress in the investigation and prosecution of human rights abuses by security forces. According to the Washington Post, Senator Leahy, Chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, is well aware of the grave human rights situation in Mexico, and does not intend to allow the transfer to go forward if things do not improve.

The Merida Initiative is security co-operation and assistance program through which the USA provides Mexico and Central America with equipment, training and technical assistance to support law enforcement operations. In June 2008, the US Congress stipulated that 15% of the funds to be provided by the US to Mexico in the context of the Merida Initiative must be subject to key human rights conditions, including:

  • Human rights violations perpetrated by military and police personnel to be investigated, prosecuted and tried by civilian prosecutors and judges;
  • Confessions obtained under torture or ill treatment not to be used in the justice system;
  • Civil society to be regularly consulted to make recommendations regarding the fulfilment of the Merida Initiative;
  • Improvement of transparency and accountability of the police force, and establishment of an independent mechanism to denounce abuses.

In addition to a State Department report on the broader human rights situation in Mexico, the US Congress also requested information on the investigation of the killing of US videojournalist Brad Will, whose case Amnesty has worked on for some time. The investigation of Mexico’s Federal Attorney General’s Office (PGR) led to the arrest of man in October 2008. However, the evidence on which the prosecution is based has been disproved by extensive forensic studies carried out by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) and Physicians for Human Rights. As the time for the approval of Merida Initiative funding approached, the PGR commissioned a team of Canadian experts to carry out a new forensic report. The report, which has no legal standing in the criminal case, was leaked in July 2009 to the press and confirmed, in an almost word-by-word fashion the conclusions of the PGR. Both the CNDH and Physicians for Human Rights have stated that the report has no scientific validity, and Brad Will’s family has issued a statement denouncing the biased PGR investigation.

Given the situation of Brad Will’s case, the continued impunity of those responsible for other serious human rights violations, and the alarming escalation of reports of new abuses, additional US aid would only make things worse. Let’s hope Mexico takes notice and makes some big changes.