I’m pleased to report that the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled on November 26 that Mexico is responsible for the arbitrary detention and torture of Rodolfo Montiel Flores and Teodoro Cabrera García, two environmental activists who were falsely imprisoned and subjected to horrific physical and psychological abuse by Mexican military forces in 1999-2000. This legal victory comes after nearly a decade during which Mexico obstructed investigations and blocked the victims and their advocates from seeking justice. At the request of the Centro Prodh, the Mexican NGO representing the Montiel and Cabrera families, ERI submitted an amicus brief to the IACHR on the rights of environmental defenders.
In some ways, the Court’s opinion is quite progressive. It sees right through the sham judicial procedures and investigations carried about by the military, noting the irregularities and delays and rightfully rejecting doctored medical reports that papered over the effects of torture on the bodies and minds of the victims. It finds that Mexico’s practice of submitting cases involving human rights violations to military jurisdiction is inconsistent with the protection of human rights, and insists that the state allow such cases to proceed in the ordinary civilian courts instead. And it requires that the Mexican State provide medical and psychological care to Srs. Montiel and Cabrera.
On the other hand, the IACHR declines to consider the context in which the abuses against Srs. Montiel and Cabrera occurred, thereby limiting the reach of its decision. These attacks were part of a larger pattern of intimidation and violence against defenders of the environment whose activities threatened powerful local and international economic interests. Both ERI and the Environmental Defender Law Center submitted amicus briefs on this issue. They argued that the precarious status of environmental defenders imposes a heightened duty on states to take proactive steps to protect them, and that attacks on such persons due to their public interest activities amount to violations of their right to freely associate, to participate in government, and to be involved in development decisions that affect them. These issues were not taken up by the Court, not because they weren’t significant but because the Inter-American Commission (which receives and considers complaints and refers them to the Court only if the State respondent does not comply with its recommendations) had focused exclusively on the individual harms and judicial irregularities rather than the wider implications of the case.
Centro Prodh deserves applause, and victims and their families are to be congratulated for finally obtaining justice in this sad case. But as we celebrate a long-awaited victory, I think it’s important to consider the dangerous position in which environmental defenders still find themselves in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America. (Just last year, for example, a mining activist in Chiapas was assassinated after receiving death threats about his activities.) Activists will not be free of this menace until governments and the international community finally take the steps necessary to protect environmental defenders and other human rights advocates from the violent abuses to which their work exposes them.