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From Mexico to Philippines – Human Rights Defenders under Pressure

Wolfgang Kaleck
Blog post

The more we hear about this story, the worse it gets. It now seems likely that all of the 43 disappeared students in the Mexican city of Iguala were massacred by uniformed and nonuniformed gangsters – police officers and members of drug gangs. And now the German government says it wants to start cooperating with the Mexican police? The same police force
that, according to Amnesty International, is involved in the systematic torture of citizens across the country. And despite German Foreign Minister Frank Walter’s comments earlier this year criticizing Mexico’s grave rule of law deficiencies and identifying the lack of investigations and inept prosecutions as the central factor in the escalation of violence. This apt appraisal of the situation must now be followed up by putting an end to the ongoing negotiations on a police treaty between Germany and Mexico and a ban on exports, including the export of small weapons.

Colleagues in the Philippines now view the extent of the human rights violations in their country over the past years as a crime against humanity. In Colombia hundreds of human rights defenders have been murdered in the last four years alone. Reports are also emerging from India of widespread intimidation, arrests and torture of human rights defenders. All of these countries claim to be democracies and are commonly considered to be ‘Western’ states.

And yet: despite such crimes there is still space in these countries for social movements and civil society players, even if they do face growing threats: human rights organizations, lawyers, trade union members as well as non-corrupt judges and prosecutors. Michel Forst,

UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, was in Berlin on Monday for a series of meetings, including with our Mexican colleague, a lawyer from India and the staff members from my organization that are working with them. My ECCHR colleague Carolijn Terwindt provides the Special Rapporteur with a copy of her book ‘NGOs under
Pressure in Partial Democracies’ in which she and her co-author detail a range of cases showing the conditions facing human rights activists in Honduras, Indonesia and the Philippines.

We were also visited in Berlin recently by our friend Harry Roque from CenterLaw before he returned to the Philippines, where he has been facing some very unusual legal proceedings. Roque, who works as a defense lawyer and takes appeals on behalf of victims of murder or torture, has now found himself sitting on the defendants’ bench. He has been representing the family of a murdered transgendered woman. It seems that a US Marine was involved in the murder. US Marines still enjoy certain privileges in the country and the Philippine Army – often on the opposing side of legal action brought by Roque’s organization – has intervened in the case on behalf of their US army comrade and attempted to have law professor Roque disbarred from legal practice. His alleged misdeed? He had accompanied the family of the murder victim to the US base, where the family staged a protest. If the military are successful in their moves against Roque it will be beyond scandalous. Indeed they have already done great damage to the integrity of the Philippine legal culture. Threats, defamation and legal proceedings facing human rights defenders make one thing clear: if professionals working on behalf of others cannot be protected or shielded from abuse, what hope is left for the nameless others detained in provincial police stations or military camps, far from the public glare?