Two remarkable women rights defenders from Mexico: Olga Guzmán and Stephanie Brewer

December 15, 2016

OMCT-LOGOpublishes a series of 10 profiles human rights defenders to commemorate International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2016. Here two women HRDs from Mexico: Olga Guzmán and Stephanie Brewer:

What set off Olga Guzmán Vergara was the inequality she herself faced in her country as a woman. Then her determination to fight injustice quickly moved onto to denouncing all violations of human, social, economic and cultural rights. While her motivation to speak out for others was easy to find, she was not prepared to discover that her biggest challenge as a human rights defender would be her stigmatization by the general public, leaving her with few allies to count on.

olga-guzman-mexicoIn, Mexico when you say that you are a human rights defender, people immediately think of you as a defender of criminals, that you are against security policies,” said Ms. Guzmán, currently Advocacy Director at the Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos. “It might put you at risk because the authorities do not like what you do, and even society does not support your work. So you have both sides against you.” The current global trend towards populism is troubling for Ms. Guzmán who sees in this the conjuring of human rights defenders as “public enemies,” who can bare the blame for society’s ills and someone to “declare a war against,” as did Mexico when it launched in 2006 an all-out war on drugs that triggered a human rights crisis. Yet this is a failure of the human rights movement to make its voice heard outside of a “human rights bubble” of like-minded activists who are in the know, but surrounded on the outside by a generally indifferent and misinformed public.

I think we have to be more friendly with society, in terms of how we spread our messages,” she said. “How do we get out of this bubble? Because we don’t have to be convinced that torture is a horrible crime, but I think that we haven’t been able to convince the others on the outside.” Ms. Guzmán, who holds a Master’s degree in International Political Science from Kent University, believes that it is the work of human rights defenders to raise awareness and “to make people angry” that human rights violations continue to occur in our age. Putting the public in the victims’ shoes is the only way to do that.

Guzmán believes that furthering cooperation between groups, creating more coalitions, sharing ideas and innovating, the human rights movement will also speed up the democratization of the human rights challenges affecting us all. “Indigenous communities, all the underdogs: women, LGBT communities, youth, they are getting empowered and we are making our voice louder,” Ms. Guzmán concludes as her hope for a change which, she believes, will come from the grassroots.

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stephanie_brewer

As a human rights lawyer at Mexico’s Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustin Pro Juarez (Centro Prodh), Stephanie Brewer fights for those who have been victims of abuses in a country whose violent history has had ripple effects to the present day. In Mexico, the global Cold War between the two ideologically opposed blocks that followed the world wars took the form of a bloody repression of opponents to the regime by the PRI-ruled Government.  The nation was not able to recover from this “Dirty War” waged in the 1960s through systematic torture and thousands of disappearances and summary executions. These crimes having stayed unpunished for decades, violence has gangrened the entire Mexican society. Violence now continues unabatedly, driven by both criminal groups and the State, with a yearly toll of tens of thousands of people tortured and some 28,000 missing or forcibly disappeared. “There has not been accountability for crimes in the past, so neither is there accountability of crimes in the present,” she said.  The drug war has only made things worse. For years now, Mexico has been carrying out a crackdown on cartels, supposedly to reduce drug-related crime. Yet, the heightened security constraints it has meant have in fact only infringed upon people’s rights. The military are regularly handling public security, police investigations and other tasks normally undertaken by regular police forces. This only aggravates the culture of violence.  “Instead of making us more secure, these are actually just creating exceptions to respect for human rights, even in the Constitution; so obviously there are massive human rights abuses,” she explained.

In this context of pervasive violence and impunity, human rights defenders in Mexico obviously face many challenges in their everyday work, ranging from the authorities’ lack of will to investigate human rights abuses, to smear media campaigns or indeed physical violence and killings of human rights defenders.

Though a Harvard graduate who has presented cases before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations, Ms. Brewer considers that the real defenders of human rights are the families and the victims who are searching for justice – the very people she strives to help. Ms. Brewer is convinced that if change is to come in Mexico, it will come thanks to these courageous people who keep fighting for the liberation of their loved ones, wrongfully imprisoned after having been tortured for instance.

It’s not a question of ‘which is going to be the winning side’ or whether we are going to have advances in the near future or setbacks,” she said. “It’s simply a question of ‘this is the right side to be on?’ We know we’re not going to give an inch in that fight.” 

Sources:

Mexico: Olga Guzmán: Breaking the human rights bubble for everyone to understand / December 12, 2016 / Statements / Human rights defenders / OMCT

http://www.omct.org/human-rights-defenders/statements/mexico/2016/12/d24111/

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