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Opinion Piece by Navi Pillay United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights: Defending Rights in Mexico

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16 July 2011

Last week, UN Human Rights launched an important campaign in Mexico entitled: “I Declare Myself.” It is devoted to all those brave women and men who fight for human rights. Many of them are well known activists, journalists and lawyers, many others are the unsung heroes of our time. Many are professional human rights workers. Others are conscientious citizens from all walks of life. All too often in this country, as elsewhere, their courage is repaid with intimidation, harassment, attacks and even death.

One of the problems defenders face worldwide is the lack of knowledge, understanding and appreciation of their vital work. This is why I welcome President Calderón’s decision to sign an agreement which recognizes the importance of human rights advocates and envisages the creation of a mechanism for their protection.

In the course of my visit to Mexico earlier this month, I met a number of defenders who incarnate the values of hard work, decency, and mutual respect held dear by the vast majority of Mexicans. Their stories are both touching and inspiring. These are tales of an indomitable will to help build a country where the rule of law and human rights prevail over abuses and violent crimes.

Women and their defenders are particularly at risk. Tragic—and notorious— examples of the grave threats they face continue to be found in the violence and insecurity that affect Ciudad Juárez and other parts of the country where femicide still goes largely unpunished.

Impunity is also all too often the norm, rather than the exception, for the perpetrators of attacks against journalists which not only aim at intimidating those who dare speak the truth, but also undermine freedom of expression for all Mexicans.??Vulnerability is a condition that affects both indigenous peoples and their advocates. Mexico is a signatory of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples which enshrines and advances indigenous peoples’ rights. These rights need to be fully implemented. It was inspiring to meet Eufrosina Cruz, the President of Oaxaca’s State Congress, who is a Zapotec indigenous woman. She told me that she had to fight discrimination and resistance to her running for office, even from within her own community. She ultimately prevailed, but her story is exceptional. Many other indigenous people are still excluded from decision-making, marginalized and victimized.

In my discussions with Mexican authorities, I conveyed the need to promote citizens’ participation, to spare no effort to ensure public security, and to provide justice when human rights are violated. Federal and local officials should also pay heed to the warning bells sounded by human rights defenders who are more likely to be attuned to the pulse, fears and aspirations of the communities they serve.

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Inclusion and wide public participation are indispensible to anchor public safety policies to the realities and entitlements of diverse communities. And there is a clear need to hold abusive officials accountable for violations of human rights.

The magnitude of the security and human rights challenges Mexico faces cannot be underestimated. Some of the root causes of these threats are to be found across Mexico’s northern border which is highly permeable to inflows of weapons and outflows of drugs.

In extraordinary circumstances difficult decisions have to be taken, such as the use of the military in police functions – while a State builds the capacity to protect its citizens according to the rule of law. But such exceptional measures must remain true to their nature: extraordinary, and limited in time. And they must be carried out under civilian control and within the boundaries set by human rights standards and principles.

Let’s not forget that law enforcement is only one aspect of providing citizen security. Equally important are prevention, investigation and punishment of crimes, as well as reparation for the victims.

Despite these daunting challenges, much progress has already been achieved. The constitutional reform on human rights paves the way for greater promotion and protection of internationally recognized standards in the country. But it now needs to be implemented and further developed at all levels of public administration.

In June 2006, Mexico held the first presidency of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the premier intergovernmental human rights institution, as a result of its outstanding advocacy of international human rights. This distinguished record now needs to permeate all aspects of Mexican life. And human rights defenders in this country and abroad are willing to help the government discharge its vital responsibility.

Information about the “I Declare myself” campaign can be found at