Time to Speak up on Military Abuse in Mexico

When Felipe Calderón comes to Washington this week, his army's troublesome human rights record should be front and center.

When President Felipe Calderón of Mexico is received at the White House as part of his official state visit this week, he can expect President Barack Obama to reaffirm the United States' full support for Mexico's struggle against its violent drug cartels. So far, that has meant more than $1.3 billion in aid, much of it to the Mexican military. What it hasn't included -- and should -- is pressure to uphold the human rights requirements to which both governments have agreed.

The Mexican army's human rights record is very troubling. Soldiers deployed in counternarcotics operations have engaged in grave abuses, such as killings, torture, rape, and beatings. And if the abuses themselves aren't worrisome enough for the Obama administration, their impact on the efficacy of the drug war should be. Each time that civilians are abused, Mexican soldiers contribute to the climate of violence and lawlessness in which the cartels thrive. Worse, the force's abuses have cost it public trust and cooperation, both of which are vital to effective counternarcotics operations.

Understanding this, the United States and Mexico included human rights requirements in the Merida Initiative, a comprehensive plan begun in 2007 to confront organized crime. But rather than cracking down, the Calderón government has largely ignored the requirements and pretended its human rights problems don't exist. Meeting Obama last year, Calderón publicly challenged human rights advocates to point to "any case, just one case, where the proper authority has not acted in a correct way."

In fact, Mexico's own National Human Rights Commission has done a comprehensive job of providing just those sorts of examples. Since Calderón came to power in 2006, the commission has issued reports on more than 50 cases involving egregious army abuses, including killings, rape, and torture. In one of those cases from 2007, for example, soldiers raided several communities in Michoacan, arbitrarily detaining 36 people, most of them at a military base where they were tortured to obtain information about alleged ties to drug traffickers. Four of the victims, underage girls, were also raped. The commission has reported receiving nearly 4,000 additional complaints of military misconduct.

In addition to these widespread abuses, Mexico has failed to meet the requirements stipulated in the agreement. For example, Merida requires Mexico to eradicate torture by, among other things, ensuring that the torturers are brought to justice. Yet in its 2009 report on the Merida requirements, the State Department noted continuing abuses and said, "We are not aware that any official has ever been convicted of torture." Nor have steps been taken to ensure that Mexican soldiers implicated in abuses be tried in civilian courts. To date, these trials are prosecuted in military courts, which lack the independence needed to ensure accountability.

The Obama administration has recognized the Mexican military's ongoing human rights problems but has done little to press for a better result. Despite the State Department's finding that Mexico had not met the requirements of the Merida pact, the portion of the aid package tied to human rights improvements (a mere 15 percent of the total), the United States released the funds anyway. Mexico received not only the additional funds, but also a powerful signal that Obama was unwilling to enforce the human rights requirements if it meant embarrassing an important ally.

Obama has rightly recognized the United States' shared responsibility for confronting Mexico's cartels, as the bulk of the money and weaponry flowing to these powerful criminal organizations comes from north of the border. But by failing to uphold Merida's human rights conditions, the Obama administration is shirking an important part of this responsibility. And it's missing an opportunity to help Mexico wage a more effective campaign against its drug gangs -- which, after all, was the point of this whole endeavor. 

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Sri Lanka's Vindictive Peace

A year after the final battle against the Tamil Tigers ended, the war is far from over.

Last May, Sri Lankan soldiers captured the final piece of land held by the separatist Tamil Tigers, killing hundreds of rebel fighters, including the group's leader, and definitively ending a 26-year civil war that claimed as many as 100,000 lives.

On May 19, the first anniversary of the war's end, however, there is little to celebrate. As many as 93,000 Tamils remain in detention camps and transit centers, while 11,700 more (of which 550 are children) are being held as ex-combatants without charges, denied access to an attorney or their families. Conditions in the camps and prisons are appalling, with human rights groups documenting cases of torture and rape, in addition to poor housing, health, sanitation, and education facilities.

This is not what peace is supposed to look like. And the centers and camps are only the most visible symptom of the Sri Lankan government's apparent disinterest in genuine reconciliation. Far from ending the root conflict, the end of fighting has left the island as ethnically divided as ever, undermining the prospects for a durable peace and regional stability. In many ways, Sri Lanka has simply traded the horror of war for conflict of another, more tedious, continuous sort: a two-tiered society in which Tamils are kept at the bottom.

The evidence is everywhere. Outside the detention and transit centers, there has been little significant reconstruction or development in the Tamil regions of the country. Citizens believe that vital aid to rebuild war-torn communities is being siphoned by the government for its own budget priorities, including investment in tourist projects in the former warzone. More than 1.5 million landmines contaminate the north of the country. Few job programs have been launched, and infrastructure has been neglected, leaving many Tamils unable to return to communities where homes, schools, hospitals, businesses, and churches were destroyed. Land seized during the conflict has not been returned, and fishing rights have not been restored.

More ominously, President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has made no headway in advancing the essential freedoms and political reforms necessary for true reconciliation, like political power-sharing and decentralization. Such changes could help eradicate the Tamil disenfranchisement that inspired the insurgency in the first place, for example by giving the Tamil-dominated north a stronger voice in the country's government.

But instead of launching those sorts of conciliatory programs, as Rajapaksa promised he would do in his successful reelection campaign in January, the government has done exactly the opposite. After the election, Rajapaksa's administration arrested his opponent and accused him of plotting a coup. The government continues to intimidate the press and restrict freedom of movement and speech. It is discouraging Tamils from returning to their homelands and instead pushing the resettlement of majority Sinhalese in the north and east. In short, the policy smacks of an official campaign to engineer the island's demographics and diminish the Tamil culture. Instead of ending discrimination, the government's actions too often institutionalize it.

What Rajapaksa doesn't seem to realize is that the quest for Tamil equality and dignity did not end with the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, as the rebel group was formally known. The government and the Tamils will only fully and finally resolve their differences when equality is promoted for all citizens, and when hope and prosperity are open to everyone. That opportunity is open to Rajapaksa today, but he shows few signs of taking it, or of amending the decades-long policies of marginalizing Tamils.

Take the Rajapaksa government's intention to establish a Commission on Lessons Learned and Reconciliation, for example. This will only be worthwhile if it is independent, impartial, fully funded, and empowered to investigate war crimes. And the chances of that, in such a climate, are slim. It must have a mandate to uncover the truth and hold people accountable, or it risks being a whitewash commission.

In the meantime, it is urgent that the international community not write off Sri Lanka as a closed book. Its message instead to Rajapaksa must be clear: The time to act is now; he must rise above the ethnic divide and move to transform Sri Lanka, with power-sharing a key component. The United States and other democracies, along with international agencies and NGOs, can promote this by tying assistance to political progress and investing in much-needed infrastructure projects in predominantly Tamil areas.

The local population must also be involved in these efforts. That will help develop a skilled labor force and encourage Tamils to see the government as their ally in reconstruction and good government. The Tamil diaspora can contribute its energy, expertise, and resources to this effort, if just conditions are created on the island.

But as long as tens of thousands of Tamils are detained and hundreds of thousands more are neglected, there will only be rancor, not reconciliation. Many will believe that the government has gone from a shooting war against the rebels to a war of attrition against Tamil society at large. The world community needs to step up and seize the moment, showing people everywhere that wars are won by the peace they create, not by the battles that end them.

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