The Word On Women - Inter-American Commission On Human Rights Recognizes Unique Plight & Needs Of Women Human Rights Defenders
Masum Momaya and Analia Penchaszadeh from AWID write on the situation of Women Human Rights Defenders and the role of the IACHR in the Americas.
A few weeks ago, unknown persons broke into the offices of Consorcio Oaxaca in Mexico. Computers, audio recorders, telephones, USB drives and keys to the organization’s van were all stolen.
Nothing else was taken, leading the organization’s staff to believe that their information, and not their material possessions, was the burglars’ target.
Since its inception in 1998, Consorcio has fought for human rights and democracy throughout the Southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. During this time, it has ceaselessly raised visibility about the extreme violence against women plaguing the region. It has also denounced lack of accountability and justice for all who have been impacted.
The burglary and theft followed a series of anonymous threatening phone calls, surveillance of Consorcio’s activities and monitoring of the whereabouts of the van.
Consorcio Oaxaca is now demanding that the state government expeditiously investigate the events and ensure the safety of its members so they can continue their work.
Cases like this are rampant throughout Mexico and Central America (Mesoamerica), where women human rights defenders (WHRDs) are kept under constant surveillance, threatened, attacked, raped and killed. They receive few, if any, protections and generally no access to justice.
Last month, five women from the region traveled to Washington DC to give testimony to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) about gender-specific violence faced by women human rights defenders in the region.
Mesoamerica – and specifically El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico – is characterized by a serious security crisis. Organized crime networks infiltrate state institutions and control a large part of the territory. Militarization is pervasive, with armies and security forces repressing dissent and routinely violating human rights. Mechanisms of justice that are supposed to protect people instead thrust them further into danger.
Generally, most perpetrators of any kind of violence experience impunity. In Mexico alone, about 98.5% of crimes remain in impunity, according to Informador
Having exhausted all local mechanisms for justice, human rights defenders (HRDs) have turned to the IACHR to share their cases and ask for support with seeking protections and justice from their governments.
Established in 1959, the IACHR examines allegations of human rights violations and works alongside the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to promote and protect human rights throughout the Americas.
Recognizing the dire situation, the IACHR recently named a Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders. Assigning a Commissioner the task of looking after the situation of HRDs means more attention and investigation, and hopefully, more capacity for working with states to ensure protections.
Using moral and political pressure, the IACHR can ask governments to implement precautionary measures. States must then contact the beneficiaries – WHRDs, for example - and agree upon actions to put in place. These requests are not binding, but this additional oversight creates extra incentive for states to comply with human rights agreements that they have already ratified.
For WHRDs, being granted a recent hearing at the IACHR is recognition of the unique dangers they face, and the urgent need for protections and justice.
The testimony in Washington DC last month included a specific request for WHRDs to be consulted in the design of protection measures rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, some WHRDs want cell phones to call for help while others know that their phones are being used for surveillance. Some benefit from having a bodyguard while others seek money for gas so they don’t have to ride on unsafe buses.
These measures have symbolic as well as protective value. Government protections signal that WHRDs are in danger, and if they are harmed under state protection, there is a political cost.
Additionally, those testifying requested the IACHR to work more closely with the office of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and specifically the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya. Earlier this year in March, Sekaggya recognized and reported on the unique gender-based violence faced by WHRDs.
Currently, there are no formal mechanisms for information sharing between the bodies, nor do they act together to intervene in violations and advocate for rights.
Given the widespread chaos and insecurity in the region, the UNHRC and IACHR have taken big steps forward in ensuring protections, accountability and justice. Indeed, someone is watching, and WHRDs are not alone.