The right to defend human rights in an unequal world: The case of Mexico

Veronica Rodriguez Jorge Climate Change, Gender

Defenders of human rights often put themselves at personal risk to carry out their work. This blog examines the vulnerabilities human rights and land rights activists face, especially female activists and defenders of land and women’s rights.

At the beginning of October we read about a company lawyer in El financiero (ES), a national Mexican newspaper, who was referring to people defending environmental, land and territorial rights as “environmental Talibans.” This is an example of a daily constant for people who head defence processes in their communities and who are criminalised for demanding respect for their culture and livelihood.

The publication shows what the economic elites think about those who defend rights and demand that international regulations and basic principles are respected. This type of statement fosters the risk of activists being threatened, harassed and even losing their lives because of their work.

The Defence of Land and Territory in Mexico: A Perilous Activity

The people part of The United Peoples of Valle de Ocotlán (Copuvo), are an example in Mexico that showcases the situation lived by defenders of land and territory, and the high risk they face. The communities of Rancho del Toro, Vergel, Los Ocotes and Magdalena Ocotlán, in Jutla de Crespo and Magdalena Ocotlán counties in the state of Oaxaca, are part of this activist group, which formed in 2009 to demand that Minera Cuzcatlán -a branch of Canadian company Fortuna Silver- be closed.

The communities commented during the Campaign in Defence of Mother Nature (ES), that the Minera Cuzcatlán project has affected the counties of San José del Progreso, Magdalena Ocotlán and Jutla de Crespo. It has destroyed hills, caused water scarcity and pollution, as well as air pollution because of the acid drainage is above ground, in the open. This has caused health problems for the population, as documented by the community. Because of the harassment and threats associated with the mining operation the social fabric of the area has been damaged.

The people were not consulted freely, previously and in an informed manner, as stipulated in the ILO Convention 169, and so permits were issued without their consent. Furthermore, the Environmental Impact statement was not presented.

So far, there have been evictions in the counties of San José del Progreso and Magdalena Ocotlán, as well as 23 arrests and the murder of Bernardo Méndez Vázquez (ES) and Bernardo Vázquez Sánchez. In the latest attack, activist Rosalinda Dionisio, a spokeswoman for Copuvo was shot in the shoulder and leg. She continues to defend her territory through numerous actions.

Women Activists at Risk in Latin America: Relevant Data

Activists make members of the political and economic elite uncomfortable because of their constant confrontation of elite interests. Activists legitimate actions therefore make them vulnerable and in need of protection, especially in Latin America.

People must be empowered in order to demand the enjoyment of their rights

According to Front Line Defenders, 45% of murdered activists in Latin America were linked to the defence of land and territory. In Mexico, the most common type of attack on women activists, according to a report (ES) issued by the Mesoamerican Initiative for Women Activists, is also seen in activists who defends the rights of women.

Women activists face specific risks and attacks because their action defies cultural, religious and social norms. This puts them in a more vulnerable position, and at higher risk of condemnation, hostility, repression and violence. This violence reinforces discriminating stereotypes that weaken the respect for defence work carried out by women.

Between 2012 and 2014, the report of attacks (ES, pg.30, table 1) suffered by women activists issued by the Mesoamerican Initiative for Women Defenders of Human Rights saw an increase in attacks from 118 in 2012 to 189 in 2013 and to 308 in 2014, adding up to a total of  616 attacks in Mexico alone. In addition, 14 murders of women activists were documented, by the report, during this period in Mexico.

Responsible States

Sociopolitical systems of the region do not guarantee an effective exercise of rights. People must be empowered in order to demand the enjoyment of their rights and to hold States accountable to ensure the transformation of institutionalism into a participative and democratic one. In this objective, human rights activists are at the forefront of the struggle to reduce the inequality gap between the promises regarding the exercise of rights made by numerous international instruments and the reality faced daily in their communities.

This situation is the cue for the State to take imminent measures in the prevention and protection of activists who work towards ending the structural trends of inequality, and particularly, as the most vulnerable group of activists, activists who defend land and territory.


Imke Greven