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Fox's Ambitious Rights Agenda Falls Short

Fox's Ambitious Rights Agenda Falls Short

Key Advances, but Fundamental Changes Still Needed

(Mexico City)—As Mexico’s President Vicente Fox enters the final months of his term, the ambitious human rights agenda that he brought with him to office remains largely unfulfilled, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The 150–page report, "Lost in Transition: Bold Ambitions, Limited Results for Human Rights Under Fox,” documents the successes and failures of Fox’s human rights policies. The report offers detailed recommendations for his successor —who will be chosen in the July presidential election —on how to build upon the Fox agenda, while avoiding its significant shortcomings.

"Fox began his presidency with a bold vision for human rights," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch. "He'll leave with some real accomplishments under his belt, but with the country’s chronic human rights problems largely unchanged."

Fox was elected in 2000 promising to transform a political system that, for decades, had been defined by its lack of accountability. The old regime had routinely violated the rights of its citizens, as well as its laws. It then covered up those violations by denying public access to basic government information, while rejecting scrutiny from abroad. After the 2000 election ended one-party rule, the critical challenge that Mexico still faced in its transition to democracy was how to end this pattern of violation and cover-up.

President Fox launched two major initiatives aimed at addressing this legacy of state lawlessness. One was the creation, in 2001, of a special office to investigate and prosecute the worst atrocities committed by the old regime, which included the massacres of student protestors in 1968 and 1971 and the forced disappearance of hundreds of people during the country’s "dirty war" in the 1970s and 1980s.

Yet the results of this historic initiative have been deeply disappointing, largely because the administration failed to provide the office with the material, technical, and political support it needed to overcome the major obstacles it confronted, which included stonewalling by the military and other institutions implicated in the abuses. The special prosecutor has managed to obtain the arrest and indictment of several former officials, but his efforts have yet to produce a single conviction, or to resolve the vast majority of cases before his office.

Another major Fox initiative sought to curb police brutality and other widespread abuses still committed in the name of public security. As part of broader justice reform package, the administration proposed measures that would address the root causes of two of the country's most recurrent rights problems: the use of torture by law enforcement agents and the misuse of pretrial detention that leads to innocent people being locked up with hardened criminals for months on end. Yet these much–needed measures have languished in Congress for more than two years, in large part because the Fox administration has failed to campaign actively to counter the common misperception that such human rights reforms undermine public security.

"This lack of progress on human rights is very frustrating because the conditions were there for a real transformation in Mexico," said Vivanco. "President Fox had a broad popular mandate for change and clear ideas for how to bring the change about. What he lacked was a willingness to go to bat for those ideas."

The Fox administration has made significant progress in ending the systematic cover–up of human rights abuses that characterized the old regime. In 2002, the president signed a "transparency law" that dealt a major blow to the longstanding culture of secrecy in government affairs. The potential impact of this law received a huge boost from the declassification in 2002 of millions of secret documents from government archives, including extensive documentation of past human rights violations that had been withheld from the public for decades.

The Fox administration also opened Mexico’s rights practices to international scrutiny by rejecting the old regime’s practice of viewing criticism from abroad as a threat to national sovereignty, and instead actively engaging with international monitors. The resulting international scrutiny has played a vital role in reinforcing efforts by local rights advocates to raise public awareness of the scope and nature of the country’s human rights problems.

The potential impact of this opening has been demonstrated by one of the most notorious human rights cases in recent years: the hundreds of women murdered and “disappeared” over the past decade in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. Thanks in large part to the intense international scrutiny of the situation in Ciudad Juárez, the state of Chihuahua is now close to passing precisely the sort of justice reform measures that the Fox administration has been unable to get passed at the federal level.

"Ciudad Juárez may be the most widely cited example of what’s wrong with the Mexican justice system," said Vivanco. "But it also offers an important model of how the system can be fixed."

A Human Rights Watch delegation led by Executive Director Kenneth Roth presented the report this week to the president, as well as to several of the candidates vying to replace Fox. The organization urged the candidates to take steps to reinforce the policies of openness and transparency pursued by Fox, and to salvage the initiatives aimed at addressing past governmental abuses and preventing future ones.

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