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Human Rights Watch Letter to VP Harris

Put Human Rights at Center of Upcoming Migration Management Talks

June 4, 2021
 

Vice President Kamala Harris
The White House
Office of the Vice President
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC  20050

Dear Vice President Harris,

We write to urge you to put human rights at the center of your upcoming dialogues to “advance a comprehensive strategy to tackle the causes of migration” in Mexico and Guatemala.[1] Places where rights are respected are places where people are not forced into moving or punished for doing so. Human Rights Watch urges you to focus on ensuring respect for human rights, the rule of law, and judicial independence in the region, as well as on access to protection for migrants, including in the United States. A migration management strategy that leads to rights violations or fails to address them in countries of origin or transit would undermine the long-term goal of reducing the need for people to undertake forced, irregular, and dangerous journeys. 

Guatemala

We hope that your visit to Guatemala and subsequent actions will emphasize the need for respect for judicial independence, the critical role that the independent media and human rights defenders play in democratic societies, and the importance of addressing violence and discrimination against marginalized groups.

President Alejandro Giammattei and his coalition in the Guatemalan Congress are working to remove the last few independent judges and replace them with allies in an apparent effort to halt an anti-corruption drive that has implicated many senior politicians. In 2020, pro-government legislators tried, unsuccessfully, to have criminal charges pressed against members of the Constitutional Court because they disliked its rulings.[2] In April of this year, when new members of the court were elected, they refused to confirm the election of the well-respected anti-corruption fighter Gloria Porras.[3] Legislators are also attempting to block funding to the country’s human rights ombudsman, whom they have tried to remove from office several times.[4] Meanwhile, the new members of the court will soon rule on whether to completely dissolve the Office of the Special Prosecutor tasked with investigating corruption cases, which Giammattei has criticized.[5] We urge you to raise these issues directly with President Giammattei in your meeting, and send a clear message that these attacks on the rule of law are a serious concern for the Biden administration.

Guatemala’s failure to guarantee the rights and safety of vulnerable groups, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, contributes to harm and leads people to flee the country as a result of hate crimes and other forms of persecution.[6] Guatemala should take meaningful steps to increase protections for LGBT people, including by passing Initiative 5674, which would address hate crimes and require the government to establish a comprehensive national plan to protect LGBT and intersex rights.

We also encourage you to urge President Giammattei to respect freedom of expression and association. You should ask him to curb his government’s worrying harassment of independent media[7] and ask him to repeal the recent law that allows the government to restrict non-governmental organizations’ funding and disband those it accuses of “disturbing public order.”[8] The law has been green-lighted by the newly appointed Constitutional Court.

Even though this trip does not include other Central American countries, similar concerns regarding attacks on the rule of law and fundamental rights in El Salvador under President Nayib Bukele,[9] Honduras under President Juan Orlando Hernández,[10] and Nicaragua under President Daniel Ortega should be at the forefront of any US policy strategy on migration.[11]

Mexico

With respect to your visit to Mexico, the dialogue should not solely focus on migration management or enforcement. The agenda should focus on addressing the many significant human rights concerns in the country such as: extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, gender-based violence, attacks on NGOs and independent journalists, corruption, impunity for serious human rights abuses, and attacks on the rule of law.[12]

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has shown total disregard for judicial independence and is trying to eliminate checks on his power by taking control of the courts and other independent human rights institutions,[13] which have attempted to block[14] some of his most abusive policies.[15] He has also launched an assault on independent media outlets and civil society groups that are critical of his government and done little to protect independent journalists and human rights defenders who are regularly killed with impunity.[16] We urge you to use this visit to condemn President López Obrador’s serious attacks on judicial independence and call on him to respect the invaluable contribution of independent journalists and civil society groups in a democratic society.

Access to Protection and Migration Management

US support for harsh migration enforcement in the region has exposed migrants to increased human rights violations. Migrants traveling through Mexico or expelled to Mexico[17] by the United States regularly face violence,[18] kidnapping and extortion by criminal groups and Mexican police and immigration agents. The Mexican government rarely if ever investigates these crimes. In response to US pressure, the Mexican government has deployed tens of thousands of Mexican soldiers to detain undocumented migrants. In March, soldiers patrolling the southern border killed a Guatemalan man in what the government called a “mistaken reaction.”[19] And Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has uncovered numerous flagrant abuses in Mexican immigration detention facilities.  Men, women, and children have been found held together in cramped spaces without running water, electricity, or natural light.[20] The commission found detainees ill with Covid-19 and discovered at least one detainee had died of Covid-19 at a time when the Mexican government claimed there were no cases in detention centers.[21]

One key element of the response should be strengthening Mexico’s asylum system and child protection system to advance the best interests of migrant children in Mexico.[22] We urge you to pledge US support to help governments in the region build their capacity to humanely receive asylum seekers and expand complementary protection so that families and children can seek protection closer to home or in countries where they feel safe.[23] However, such support should be in addition to, not a substitution for, access to protection at the US-Mexico border via a humanitarian and welcoming reception system in the United States.[24]

Throughout your visit, we urge you to hold a frank and open discussion about the root causes that are forcing people to leave, including ongoing threats to the rule of law and fundamental rights in Mexico and Central America, and to encourage humanitarian responses from governments in the region that recognize people’s rights to seek international protection and help ensure their safety in transit.

We hope that this letter can serve as a basis for a constructive dialogue on these important matters. We remain at your disposal to discuss our findings regarding country conditions in Mexico and Central America and US immigration policy.

Sincerely,

José Miguel Vivanco
Americas Executive Director
Human Rights Watch

Nicole M. Austin-Hillery
Executive Director, US Program
Human Rights Watch

 

[1] Jasmine Wright, “Harris aiming to deepen US relationship with Guatemala and Mexico on first foreign trip,” CNN, June 2, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/06/02/politics/kamala-harris-guatemala-mexico-first-foreign-trip/index.html.

[2] “Guatemala: Congress Assaulting Judicial Independence,” Human Rights Watch news release, November 17, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/11/17/guatemala-congress-assaulting-judicial-independence.

[3] Lorena Arroyo, “Gloria Porras: “Me preocupa cómo en Guatemala están utilizando las leyes para alcanzar objetivos aviesos,” El Pais, April 13, 2021, https://elpais.com/internacional/2021-04-14/gloria-porras-me-preocupa-como-en-guatemala-estan-utilizando-las-leyes-para-alcanzar-objetivos-aviesos.html?ssm=TW_CC.

[4] “Guatemala: Rights Official at Risk of Dismissal,” Human Rights Watch news release, July 22, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/07/22/guatemala-rights-official-risk-dismissal.

[5] César Pérez Marroquín Y Douglas Cuevas, “CC da trámite a acción de inconstitucionalidad que busca eliminar acuerdo que dio vida a la Feci,” Prensa Libre, https://www.prensalibre.com/guatemala/justicia/cc-da-tramite-a-accion-de-inconstitucionalidad-que-busca-eliminar-acuerdo-que-dio-vida-a-la-feci-breaking/ (accessed June 4, 2021).

[6] Human Rights Watch, “’Every Day I Live in Fear’: Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and Obstacles to Asylum in the United States, October 7, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/10/07/every-day-i-live-fear/violence-and-discrimination-against-lgbt-people-el-salvador.

[7] “Guatemala: Free Press Under Attack,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 18, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/02/18/guatemala-free-press-under-attack.

[8] Sofia Menchu, “Guatemala's top court backs controversial NGO law, overturns past ruling,” Reuters, May 12, 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/guatemalas-top-court-backs-controversial-ngo-law-overturns-past-ruling-2021-05-13/ (accessed June 4, 2021).

[9] José Miguel Vivanco and Juan Pappier (Human Rights Watch), “The U.S. can stop El Salvador’s slide to authoritarianism. Time to act.” commentary, Washington Post, May 21, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/21/us-can-stop-el-salvadors-slide-authoritarianism-time-act.

[10] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2021 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2021), Honduras chapter, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2021/country-chapters/honduras.

[11] “Nicaragua,” Human Rights Watch, https://www.hrw.org/americas/nicaragua.

[12] Human Rights Watch, World Report 2020 (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2020), Mexico chapter, https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/mexico#.

[13] José Miguel Vivanco (Human Rights Watch), “López Obrador Threatens Judicial Independence” commentary, Reforma, April 26, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/26/lopez-obrador-threatens-judicial-independence.

[14] Centro Mexicano De Derecho Ambiental, “Obtienen comunidades mayas suspensión definitiva al Tramo 2 del proyecto Tren Maya,” December 7, 2020, https://www.cemda.org.mx/obtienen-comunidades-mayas-suspension-definitiva-al-tramo-2-del-proyecto-tren-maya/ (accessed June 4, 2021).

[15] Patricia Dávila, “MUCD gana amparo contra el acuerdo de AMLO sobre militarización de la seguridad,” Proceso, October 15, 2020, https://www.proceso.com.mx/nacional/2020/10/15/mucd-gana-amparo-contra-el-acuerdo-de-amlo-sobre-militarizacion-de-la-seguridad-250978.html (accessed June 4, 2021).

[16] “Mexico: Public Accountability, Privacy Under Threat,” Human Rights Watch news release, January 28, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/28/mexico-public-accountability-privacy-under-threat.

[17] “Q&A: US Title 42 Policy to Expel Migrants at the Border,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 8, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/08/qa-us-title-42-policy-expel-migrants-border.

[18] “Mexico: Abuses Against Asylum Seekers at US Border,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 5, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/03/05/mexico-abuses-against-asylum-seekers-us-border.

[19] Julio Roman, México confirma que soldado mató al guatemalteco Elvin Mazariegos por “error”, Prensa Libre,  March 30, 2021, https://www.prensalibre.com/ciudades/san-marcos/mexico-confirma-que-soldado-de-ese-pais-mato-al-guatemalteco-elvin-mazariegos-sin-que-hubiera-agresion-breaking/.

[20] Tyler Mattiace (Human Rights Watch), “Mexico cannot solve the U.S. border crisis” commentary, Dallas Morning News, May 23, 2021, https://www.dallasnews.com/opinion/commentary/2021/05/23/mexico-cannot-solve-the-us-border-crisis/ (accessed June 4, 2021).

[21] CNDH, Mexico, Comunicado de Prensa 293/2020, September 11, 2020, https://www.cndh.org.mx/comunicado/4417/comunicado-de-prensa-2932020.

[22] Human Rights Watch, Closed Doors: Mexico’s Failure to Protect Central American Refugee and Migrant Children (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2016), https://www.hrw.org/report/2016/03/31/closed-doors/mexicos-failure-protect-central-american-refugee-and-migrant.

[23] Bill Frelick (Human Rights Watch), How to make the US asylum system efficient and fair, The Hill, May 21, 2021, https://thehill.com/opinion/immigration/554341-how-to-make-the-us-asylum-system-efficient-and-fair.

[24] “US: End Misguided Public Health Border Expulsions,” Human Rights Watch news release, April 8, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/08/us-end-misguided-public-health-border-expulsions.

 

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