Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Mexico Narrows Scope of its Human Rights Obligations

In a 10 to 1 decision yesterday, the Mexican Supreme Court (SCJN) ruled to restrict the interpretation of a historic 2011 reform law which gave constitutional status to all human rights guaranteed in international treaties ratified by Mexico. The decision was the result of five sessions of debate, which centered around the constitutionality of an amendment to Article 1 of the country’s Constitution, which establishes that “all people enjoy the rights recognized by the Constitution and international treaties to which Mexico is a party state.”

When the reform was signed in June 2011, it was widely praised by local and international human rights groups. Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, applauded then President Felipe Calderon for enacting the law, calling it a “milestone” for human rights activism. However, the amendment left its interpretation unclear, and failed to conclusively address protocol for contradictions between the constitution and human rights treaties.

For many Mexican civil society organizations, the reform offered a means to challenge the validity of laws that violate international human rights norms. The Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH), for instance, used this opening to criticize the law enforcement mechanism known as “arraigo,” which allows security forces to detain individuals without formally charging them of a crime. In a 2012 report on the measure, the CMDPDH argued that it was “clearly a form of arbitrary detention” and a violation of Mexico’s human rights obligations.

Yesterday’s ruling now restricts the scope of the amendment. According to CNN Mexico, SCJN justices ruled that while international human rights treaties are still afforded constitutional status, provisions in the Constitution which contradict them will be given precedence. El Universal and Animal Politico, however, note that these exceptions will be determined by judges on a case-by-case basis. Nevertheless, this was an outcome many civil society groups feared. On Monday, CMDPDH and around 100 other human rights organizations and academics published an open letter to the court warning against “returning to a paradigm that would allow the violation of internationally recognized human rights.”

The AFP reports that the decision was immediately criticized by local human rights groups, including the Human Rights Committee of Mexico City, which called it “a major setback in the consolidation of a democratic society.”

This opinion was shared by Jose Ramon Cossio, the sole justice who voted against the new interpretation. In explaining his vote, Cossio said that the majority decision contradicted the spirit of the 2011 reform, and amounted to a “regression” from previous rulings made by the SCJN in the past.

News Briefs
  • Last night, the Brazilian lower house of Congress voted unanimously to end the practice of casting secret votes on bills. The vote occurred a week after lawmakers passed a resolution by secret vote which allowed Congressman Natan Donadon, sentenced to 13 years in jail for corruption, to keep his seat (see this WSJ piece on the vote). The vote sparked outrage in the country, and was annulled yesterday by the Brazilian Supreme Court, according to O Globo. Spain’s El Pais notes that the bill may face difficulties in the Senate, where the president of the upper chamber, Renan Calheiros, has said the secret ballot should be reserved for cases like Donadon’s, on votes over whether to strip a lawmaker of his seat.
  • Folha de Sao Paulo reports that a court in Rio de Janeiro has authorized police to detain and fingerprint individuals who wear masks in demonstrations. The measure is a direct response to the recent wave of protests in the country, and comes as state lawmakers are considering a bill which would ban the use of masks in protests.
  • It appears that officials in El Salvador have finally taken the first steps towards prosecuting those behind 1981 El Mozote massacre. El Faro reports that, in a complete reversal, the public prosecutors’ office and the Supreme Court have begun a process of exhuming the bodies of victims and investigating the massacre.  
  • The administration of President Juan Manuel Santos is increasing pressure on Congress to pass a law that would authorize a referendum on an eventual peace agreement with FARC rebels. El Tiempo reports that  Humberto de la Calle, the government’s lead negotiator in Havana, urged lawmakers to approve it, calling it a necessary component of the peace process. However, El Espectador notes that some fear that rebels could influence the outcome of a referendum, potentially intimidating rural residents into voting in favor of an agreement.
  • On Saturday, Bolivian President Evo Morales told reporters that the recent diplomatic crisis which broke out after an opposition lawmaker accused of corruption was smuggled into Brazil had been resolved. Morales said he had met with Brazilian President DIlma Rousseff and resolved their differences over the issue, adding “no one is going to divide us, no one can set us against each other.”
  • Yesterday, Venezuela was hit by a major blackout, which caused an estimated 70 percent of the country to lose power. The AP notes that Caracas, which has largely avoided blackouts in the past, was hit as well, though power was restored by nightfall. The government of President Nicolas Maduro blamed the blackout on “sabotage” by the “extreme right,” though the BBC reports opposition leader Henrique Capriles has accused him of fueling conspiracy theories to manipulate public opinion.
  • A controversial education reform bill in Mexico which will submit teachers to regular performance evaluations has passed, despite two weeks of major protests organized by dissident teachers union in the capital, reports Animal Politico. The Wall Street Journal notes that President Enrique Peña Nieto endorsed the bill in his recent state of the nation address, and the administration appears to be itself for continued clashes with teachers unions.
  • After the son of Surinamese President Desi Bouterse was arrested last week in Panama and quickly extradited to the U.S. on drug charges, Bourterese has distanced himself from him. In a public statement yesterday, the president stressed that his son no longer held a government position, though he would provide him legal defense.
  • The Washington Post highlights an unbelievable amount of U.S. government waste associated with its Cuba policy. According to the Post, the U.S. spends $2 million a year on a program meant to broadcast the signals of TV Marti, an anti-Castro television channel, even though less than 1 percent of the country has seen it and the Cuban government has effectively blocked its transmission. While the U.S. budget sequestration cut money for fuel and pilots, the government still spends thousands of dollars a month paying for TV Marti’s satellite plane to sit in a hangar unused.