This is part one of our Dejusticia Blog Series on “Politics, Challenges, & Opportunities of the Inter-American Human Rights System. We will be publishing a new blog in this series every day this week.
The topic is omnipresent. We exited the plane in Mexico City and the first thing we saw hanging from newspaper stands are magazines and newspapers talking about the recent report that the IACHR Group of Experts on Ayotzinapa released. Riding in the taxi was the same: radio shows discussing opinion polls that showed that 97 percent of the population knows about the case, and 80 percent do not believe the version of the National Attorney General (Procuraduría General de la República). They do not believe the official version that the 43 students were assassinated and their bodies burned. The population and the victims demand a greater investigation, and the report of the Group of Experts perfectly answers this demand.
Some of the aspects that surround this report, and the group that produced it, are uncommon for those of us who have followed international human rights monitoring.
- First, the intervention of the group and the report in real time. The disappearances occurred a year ago, and the group has closely followed the authorities’ response for months. This contrasts with the general response of human rights bodies, which tend to issue conclusions years, (sometimes decades), after the facts occurred.
- Second, related to the former, the report’s recommendations have a good chance of translating into areas of investigation, which facilitate the clarification of the facts. This is very different from an international decision that orders the reopening of closed cases years after the violations occurred, in which the possibility of finding evidence is practically non-existent.
- Third, it is an interdisciplinary, technical group, and not only a legal opinion. Reports from firefighters, researchers, and lawyers form part of the public discussion. It is not a mere opinion that Mexico violated an international norm; it is a rigorous, factual contradiction that puts the State’s ability to respond to the test, and forces the Attorney General to enter the debate in technical terms.
The high impact of the case and repercussions of the report also coincide with a Mexico City meeting of the plenary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, (the body that commissioned the group of experts), with its counterpart, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In similar situations, it is common for the government to publicly contradict the conclusions of the report and call for the rejection of international bodies in what they consider the sovereignty of national authorities.
But this hasn’t happened in this case. The report enjoys enormous legitimacy, based on the transparency and technical rigor of the group, in an adequate and timely political decision, and the fact that it is providing a quick response to a generalized need to know the truth about what happened. The political cost to the government of rejecting the report is high, especially while it is lacking in legitimacy.
In politically polarized contexts and those of institutional incapacity to respond to structural and massive questions, it is possible that this honeymoon may be quite short. This is indubitable. But even so, given the virtues that this rapid response mechanism appears to have, the IACHR should be applauded. The Commission has managed to reclaim strategic centrality of its proceedings, in particular at a time when its work is being questioned. This is also an interesting model that could lead to creative ways of addressing growing human rights problems in the region, as well as the limitations of international mechanisms to confront them.
Obviously, in addition to following the evolution of the situation, there are aspects that should be analyzed in greater detail to study this mechanism in context, and the possibility of replicating it in other cases and countries.
- It is expensive. The operation of this group has required a budget of close to one million USD, which is around 10 percent of the Commission’s entire operating budget, with respect to all the cases and countries of the region.
- It is entirely dependent on the States’ willingness. To undertake its work, the Group not only needed the State’s permission, but also a specific budget. Thus, in future cases, it may be difficult to obtain State support, especially after the impact that it has had in this case.
- The final result is still pending. The report has been a breath of fresh air for victims and society that are not satisfied with the Attorney General’s version, but it remains to be seen whether the investigation will change direction and provide an answer to what happened.
- It faces the challenge of consolidating into a general response. Forced disappearance in Mexico unfortunately transcends this case. The virtue of this mechanism is that it promotes a better State response to respond to the problem globally, and not only in this case.
The IACHR, its group of experts, and Mexican authorities face important challenges to consolidate this mechanism as a good practice. But for now, this case deserves to be analyzed positively, and requires the international community, activists, and academics to follow it closely, to support what could be an innovative and refreshing mechanism to respond to such serious problems as the 43 Iguala students, and the other victims of forced disappearance in Mexico and Latin America.
*Nelson Camilo Sánchez León is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia).