Mexico: Strengthen mechanism to protect women human rights defenders


As women defenders come to Geneva to discuss the specific risks they face in the context of Mexico's drugs war, ISHR calls upon the government there to redouble efforts to strengthen the Mechanism for the Protetion of Human Rights Defenders.

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(Geneva) - Mexico should strengthen its Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders to better respond to the situation and protection of women human rights defenders facing worsening violence in the country, ISHR said today. 

The call came following an ISHR co-sponsored Human Rights Council side-event in Geneva on the context of violence in Mexico and its impact on women human rights defenders.

The event was addressed by Michel Forst, UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, and three women human rights defenders from Mexico: Norma Messino and Yésica Sánchez, as well as Olga Guzmán from the Mexican Comission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (CMDPDH). The audience heard how the context of a deteriorating human rights situation - alongside the ongoing ‘War on Drugs’ and combined with lack of accountability and impunity for the killings of activists - have conspired to exacerbate the risks for women defenders in the country.

The human rights impact of ‘the war on drugs’

Ms Guzmán shared that since 2006 and the launch of an open confrontation strategy against organised crime, human rights defenders (HRDs) have become some of the most vulnerable to crimes committed by multiple State and non-State actors in the context of ‘the war on drugs’. Since then, Mexico has accumulated alarming numbers of dead, forcibly disappeared and displaced persons as a result of the widespread violence, pervasive corruption and impunity.

‘The Ayotzinapa case, which is one of the worst tragedies that has been seen in the country, unfortunately is not an isolated incident. In contrast, it reflects a broader pattern of gross and systematic human rights abuses committed with impunity,’ Ms Guzmán said.

Civil society representatives in the audience commented that they had noticed that during the Council’s High Level Segment and after the recent reviews of Mexico by the UN Committee on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearance and the UN Committee against Torture, the Mexican State refrained from using the term ‘widespread violence’ to describe the country’s ongoing situation and has been appealing to the term ‘isolated events’ which might be solved by the creation of more institutions like the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists.

Women defenders: additional and particular risks

The panel discussed how women human rights defenders are often mothers, sisters, wives and daughters of victims of enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention and torture; women who defend their lands against the imposition of transnational corporations; women who raise their voice to be freed from violence, who fight for the recognition of sexual and reproductive rights, or who call for justice and accountability.

Clips were shown from the campaign 'Make them visible', profiling the brave women who defend human rights in Mexico and face several challenges and risks when doing their work. The films demonstrated how many women defenders there work in rural or marginalised communities, which makes it harder for them to be seen and heard.

Yésica Sánchez from Oaxaca stressed the lack of response from the authorities to the killings of women defenders, and the impunity which allows for aggressions by State actors to occur on a daily basis.

‘We do not have support from the Protection Mechanism at all, whilst a catalogue of military police, municipal police and state police have been identified as the perpetrators of the aggressions. A State that lets this happen cannot be called a democratic state,’ said Ms Sánchez.

Norma Mesino from Guerrero pointed out that the crisis in Mexico is structural and has impact in all levels of society. 'To be a social activist in Mexico represents a huge risk; the government leaves us defenceless,’ said Ms Mesino.

She spoke of how her request for protection from the Mechanism was futile and, with no effective response at the national level, felt forced to request help at the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, which has now dictated precautionary measures for both her and ten members of her family.

The support of the UN Special Rapporteur

During his intervention, the UN Special Rapporteur, Michel Forst, highlighted that a specific section in his next report will be dedicated to women defenders because of the specific risks they face as a reprisal for their work; their families are targeted, exposing women activists to even greater pressure than men often face. He stressed that his mandate aims to ensure a gender perspective in its work and that last year he sent at least five communications to the Mexican government regarding women human rights defenders. He welcomed the government’s invitation for an in situ visit in 2016 and expressed that one of its main focuses will be to look more deeply at the situation of women human rights defenders. 

ISHR calls for Protection Law to be fully implemented by capable and committed staff

The visit to Geneva of the Mexican defenders came as their government remained without both a permanent Under-Secretary for Human Rights and an Executive Coordinator for the Mechanism for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists. Their recent resignations mark the latest in a long line of staff instability in key posts related to the protection of defenders, with many authorities being accused of lacking the assets required to lead such key posts and others themselves denouncing the lack of resources and political support required to operate.

Last week Edgar Cortez, civil society representative oo the Mechanism’s governing body published a salient article in which he noted that the advances made in the Mechanism’s implementation in 2014 have been undermined by ongoing problems with risk analysis methodology, the adequacy of the measures authorised, an insensitive attention to defenders, poor and poorly treated staff, and a lack of political will to allow the Mechanism to deal with the root causes of threats to defenders. Women human rights defenders and collectives often suffered disproportionately, he noted.

‘The Mexican government has yet to demonstrate that it is truly committed to overcoming these ongoing obstacles to implementation of the Law for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and Journalists,’ said ISHR’s Advocacy and Communications Manager, Ben Leather. ‘We call upon President Peña Nieto to ensure that the posts of Under-Secretary and National Coordinator are filled with people with proven human rights experience, who must then be given the political backing necessary to finally prioritise the Mechanism’s implementation and fulfil Mexico’s obligation to protect human rights defenders’.

Peace Brigades International and the Washington Office on Latin America recently published a dossier documenting failings in the Mechanism’s implementation. ISHR, meanwhile, asked the Special Rapporteur in the Human Rights Council this week what he would do to ensure that States with human rights defender laws and policies - such as Mexico - do more to ensure their effective implementation.

This event was co-sponsored by the CMDPDH, ISHR, The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, Peace Brigades International, Protection International, Frontline Defender, JASS Just Associates, Amnesty Internationalism, the Mexican National Women Human Rights Defenders Network, The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, The World Organisation against Torture (OMCT), Consorcio Oaxaca, CONEXX and the German Coordination for Human Rights in Mexico.

For more information, contact the CMDPDH’s Olga Guzmán on, or ISHR’s Ben Leather at


  • Latin America and Caribbean
  • Human rights defenders
  • Women's rights and WHRD
  • UN Special Rapporteur on HRDs
  • UN Human Rights Council
  • Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
  • Mexico