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Use and contradictions of human rights observers in Chiapas

Ana´s Franquesa
Observer in Chiapas, 2009. Member of the DESC Observatory for Social Rights and a collaborator of the Human Rights Institute of Catalonia (IDHC)
Anaïs Franquesa

Anaïs Franquesa

In Chiapas, a state in Southern Mexico, mostly indigenous - as well as non-indigenous - communities - suffer from violence every day inflicted by the State and federal police, the army and various paramilitary groups, which in most cases are linked to business interests as well as local, state and federal political representatives. These attacks include forced displacement of the population, murders, arbitrary detentions, other violent attacks, and on a more subtle basis, access to basic services such as education and health care are made conditional on the division and subsequent privatisation of communal land (PROCEDE and other similar programmes).

There are various reasons for the violence, but they are part of quite a common pattern: these lands are very rich in natural resources - water, petrol, a high level of biodiversity, potential for tourism, etc and are located at a strategic point (the corridor that links Central America with Mexico and the United States) and are mostly inhabited by indigenous communities that make their living from agriculture. The economic interests involved are enormous, and the Mexican government and private businesses are already implementing large-scale plans related to tourism and mining, among other areas, to obtain the maximum economic benefit from it. The desires of the individuals and peoples who inhabit the area are not taken into account in the planning and implementation of these projects. They are neither consulted nor listened to, and when a community resists having to leave its land, and tries to continue its way of life and demands respect for its rights and dignity, it is repressed and threatened in various ways.

Sadly, individuals acting as international and national human rights observers are useful in this context. Their job is to observe, record and document the violations of human rights that take place in these communities. On many occasions, while they are on duty, the mere presence of observers has a deterrent effect and many attacks that would undoubtedly have occurred do not take place. Having said that, and taking this as a starting point, it is necessary to undertake a critical analysis of the role of the observer, highlighting the contradictions involved and its limitations.

First, it is worrying that the presence of people from outside the community (and outside the country in many cases) is needed in order to prevent the community from being attacked, or if it is attacked, for the events that take place to have any impact and some type of criminal or political consequences. This question raises various issues: do the legal and political consequences of certain actions depend on the geographic origin and economic background of the victim or witness? Is the life of a European or North American (from the USA) worth more than that of a person living on their own land? What is the level of impunity and corruption in the Mexican local, state and federal institutions which create this situation, in cases where they are not directly responsible for it?

Notwithstanding the above, the presence of human rights observers in communities also has negative effects and may be counter-productive. If the observer does not clearly understand his/her role, he/she may hinder or interrupt the community's everyday life and destabilise it. Some attitudes endanger not only the life of the observer, but also the community itself (for example, simply deciding to go for a walk without giving prior warning or not respecting private spaces). Likewise, direct involvement in violent conflicts has dreadful consequences and is not part of the observer's work. In these situations, observers must be visible, record everything that happens but not become directly involved in the events or place themselves in danger. Finally, paternalist attitudes - such as bringing gifts or money and distributing them randomly - create and perpetuate dynamics of dependence that do little to dignify individuals and peoples.

In order to minimise risks, good training for observers must be provided by the organisations that support them, and prior planning is necessary by the communities receiving them, and the rules in each community must be made very clear, all of which happens in most cases. However, it is essential that people acting as human rights observers are aware of the consequences of their actions, and remember why they are there at all times, as their stay will be a short one, but the members of the community will remain.

Finally, but perhaps most importantly, the importance of the struggle of the indigenous peoples in Chiapas must be emphasised. For years - indeed, for centuries - they have been fighting for their land, their culture, their languages, education, autonomy... and against exploitation, poverty, pillaging of their resources, and attempts to make them assimilate. Without communities with organised resistance, which build their autonomy and fight for their rights, the observer's role is meaningless. The task becomes futile.