The US State Department should not issue a recommendation to grant the former president of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo, immunity in a civil suit, Human Rights Watch said. The State Department is expected to notify a US district court judge in Connecticut on or before September 7, 2012 of its recommendation regarding whether Zedillo, who served from 1994 to 2000, should be granted immunity in a lawsuit alleging his responsibility for a massacre carried out when he was president.

The plaintiffs in the civil suit, brought under the Alien Tort Statute, claim that Zedillo is responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and other crimes in relation to the killing of 45 unarmed men, women and children in the community of Acteal, Chiapas, on December 22, 1997.

The merits of the plaintiffs’ claims should be evaluated by a judge, rather than pre-emptively thrown out because the defendant was formerly a ranking government official, Human Rights Watch said. Functional immunity of state officials should not be invoked to shield them from accountability for serious crimes committed in violation of international law (considered to be jus cogens norms), such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In criminal cases the International Court of Justice has recognized immunity in narrow circumstances for high-level incumbents. .

Offering immunity in the circumstances of this case would be inappropriate and set an overly broad precedent contrary to the rights of victims and the evolution of international law. The US is party to several international treaties that impose an obligation to respect, protect, and fulfill the human rights protected in the treaties. Those treaties also guarantee victims of human rights violations a right of access to an effective legal remedy, and to grant immunity in this case would be an arbitrary interference with that right.