(Washington, DC) - President Vicente Fox should establish a truth commission to investigate past abuses in Mexico, Human Rights Watch urged today. In a letter sent to President Fox, Human Rights Watch responded to critics of the proposed body, explaining why such a commission is needed.

"The time has come for President Fox to fulfill his promise to establish a truth commission in Mexico," said José Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of Human Rights Watch's Americas Division. "It would be a tragedy if he let this opportunity slip by."

President Fox promised to establish a truth commission in his inaugural speech last December. Since then, however, his administration has sent mixed signals. Some cabinet members have supported the formation of such a commission. Others have argued against it on the grounds that it might undermine the institutions that already exist to administer justice in Mexico.

"The commission's opponents have created the impression that Mexico must choose between truth and justice," said Vivanco. "But this is a false choice. Mexicans have the right to truth and justice. And the Mexican government has an obligation to provide both."

Under international law, states have an obligation not only to prevent abuses, but also to sanction those responsible for perpetrating them. This duty reflects the view that ending impunity for past human rights violations is crucial for preventing future ones. A first step in this process is the systematic investigation and clarification of past abuses.

"Seeking the truth about abuses that occurred under past governments is not a matter of political vengeance or witch-hunting," the Human Rights Watch letter said. "It is a fundamental obligation binding on your government, regardless of who was in power at the time the abuses were committed."

Past historical precedents demonstrate that truth commissions can strengthen existing judicial mechanisms. In Argentina, Chile, Guatemala and other countries, truth commissions have played a crucial role in improving the judiciary's capacity to handle human rights cases. Not only have they presented new evidence necessary for prosecutions, they have also helped societies to understand and to address the failings of the institutions that allowed these crimes to go unpunished. The Chilean and Argentine commissions, for example, dedicated whole chapters of their final reports to explaining how their judicial systems had failed to handle abuse cases.

The letter emphasized that for a Mexican truth commission to be effective, it must be taken seriously by people across the political spectrum. It must therefore be an independent, non-political body, made up of knowledgeable and qualified members. It must also be allocated the resources necessary to conduct thorough and fair investigations. Finally, it must be granted the legal authority to obtain documents and cooperation from other government institutions.

"President Fox has an historic opportunity to bring an end to years of impunity in Mexico," said Vivanco. "A truth commission would not only help Mexico deal with past abuses, it would also help identify the persistent problems in the judiciary that have allowed such abuses to go unpunished."