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Mexican Code of Military Justice Amended: A victory for WHRDs

FRIDAY FILE - On April 30, the Mexican Chamber of Deputies unanimously passed amendments to the Code of Military Justice, which restricts military jurisdiction in cases where the victims are civilians. AWID spoke to Cristina Hardaga, from JASS (Just Associates)[1] on what this reform means for women human rights defenders (WHRDs).

By Gabby De Cicco

Civil society organizations and international human rights protection mechanisms have historically demanded a reform of the Code of Military Justice (CMJ) in Mexico, for victims of abuses perpetrated by the military. In four of its legally binding verdicts ¾ all related to cases where it has been proved that military justice claimed jurisdiction over civilian victims, affecting their access to justice ¾ the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ordered the Mexican State to amend the Code. In addition, the Mexican Supreme Court of Justice declared Article 57 of the Code of Military Justice unconstitutional as it made Military Courts into the equivalent of a personal privilege[2].

AWID: Why are the amendments to the Code of Military Justice (CMJ) so relevant for Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs)?

Cristina Hardaga (CH): This reform is part of a series of actions aimed at ending military cover-up and violence; for WHRDs, it is also a victory over the Army. It was the victims of human rights violations, who exposed the violations perpetrated by the Army through their claims and reports. Many of them directly faced the abuses of power and institutional violence by the military, experiencing directly how “Military Courts” were synonymous with cover-ups and privilege. While they first brought their cases to civil courts, those courts, in accordance with CMJ, would refer them to the Military Courts to investigate. The cases then fell under Military jurisdiction and the military became the State body in charge of investigating the facts.

With the cases of the Gonzalez Pérez sisters to those of Inés Fernández and Valentina Rosendo, WHRDs made an effort to prove that the Army was not only perpetuating, but even increasing, the violence and discrimination women already suffered. One of the battles in the CMJ reform was to ensure that the Army would not be asked to investigate any civilian human rights violations case, because we wanted to expose the Army’s reluctance to investigate violations, particularly when the victims were women. So the fight that was started by Inés and Valentina with the support of Tlachinollan, was one of the most successful and there is no doubt that it contributed to the achievement that this CMJ reform implies.

AWID: What are the gender dimensions of human rights abuses and violations – including lack of access to justice – made evident in the cases and experiences of Tita Radilla, Valentina Rosendo or Inés Fernández?

CH: The most paradigmatic cases against Military Courts were those of women who were initially victims and then became WHRDs. Their complaints were a wake-up call for civil society organizations. They made visible something that many organizations had failed to see - that the direct attacks against; and the differential impact on women, particularly indigenous women, were rendered invisible in the reports on human rights violations by the military.

Our priority had been to expose the Army and the Military Courts and we did not see how these violations ¾ for instance, rape, denial of access to justice, obstacles in accessing health services ¾ had a direct impact on women. It was thanks to the feedback from WHRDs that we were able to see these gender elements that mainstream human rights organizations did not, and as the work on these cases progressed, it was possible to combine our agendas. In this way we were able to address both the specific challenges faced by women reporting cases, the obstacles to their access to justice and the violence perpetrated against women, together with the struggle against Military Courts.

AWID: Could you give us some examples of these human rights violations?

CH: The testimonies from Inés and Valentina have enabled us to show that in cases where rapes were reported, one of the Army’s first responses was to offer money to the victim so that they would not bring the complaint forward. Considering that the women were indigenous, monolingual[3],and living in poverty, their way to stop the complaint was to offer money. Military Courts lack specialized women experts or interpreters and in the cases of Valentina and Inés, it was their husbands who interpreted for them in the beginning.

Abuses by the health system are also evident. When Inés and Valentina went to the hospital in the course of reporting the attacks, they were told there were no female but only male doctors qualified to examine them. After demanding to be examined by a woman, the answer they got was “If a man has already raped you, what is the problem with having another one examining you?” Many other times, influenced by the military presence in the area, the doctors they went to see or the police officers who had to take down their complaints would respond, “I am not going to do it because I don’t want to be in trouble with the Army”.

AWID: How were WHRDs involved in the process to get Parliament to pass this reform?

CH: Tita Radilla, Inés Fernández and Valentina were very involved in the process because amending the CMJ also meant ensuring that no other woman would ever go through what they had experienced. Public hearings where testimonies and experiences of WHRDs could be heard were organized. In the state of Chihuahua, committed WHRD Alma Gomez, played a key role in exposing Military Courts and testified on the relevance of this reform based on her experience.

While the hearings and the proposal drafting were taking place, many other WHRDs joined this demand, because of what these women had experienced and also because of what this meant for the broader women’s human rights movement and particularly for WHRDs.

Regarding international women’s human rights organizations, there were several key moments when for instance AWID, Nobel Women’s Initiative and JASS strategized to develop public statements, making it clear that even though amending the CMJ was specific to Mexico, it was also meaningful for the entire region and for other countries as well. Campaigns were designed for direct support and statements written to put pressure on the Parliament, the Legislative or the Executive power, regarding their responsibilities to carry these reforms forward. At the Istanbul AWID Forum, Valentina heard the experiences of Egyptian women and she found many similarities with her own. It was moving for her to see how joint strategies to understand these processes could be designed and how she could walk together in the struggle with women from different regions.

For the last ten years, amending the CMJ has been a top priority on the agenda of human rights organizations at the national and international levels. We have used all paths available - the UN, OAS, international pressure, the strength of organizations. The cases were taken to the Inter-American Commission and Court and to the Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ). Even though these cases were not specifically linked to human rights violations against women, women’s organizations and victims that had been involved joined in, knowing that the SCJ’s verdict was one more stage where we needed to win.

AWID: From a WHRDs perspective, what are the challenges to implement this reform?

CH: In areas where there were no organizations or media, the Army was perpetrating violations and then immediately occupying the place, planting evidence and distorting all facts in such a way that nothing remained to be investigated, and the cases were not even registered as such. In this regard, one of the challenges will be to ensure that, as more cases continue to come to light, the Army is not involved in activities or take on roles that are not part of their specific mandate, eg. on public safety.

Another challenge is to guarantee that Civilian Courts will work as they should, according to the law, investigating and not re-victimizing women.

There is a need to keep supporting the families of those who disappeared in the 60s in their claims but also of those the Army is disappearing now. It is impossible to move forward without investigating those Army and Navy personnel involved.

Organizations will need to be on the alert, and monitor how the reform is implemented; and with the many cases that are being transferred to Civilian Justice, to ensure that those responsible for violations are held accountable. This will also allow us to better understand how many cases had reached Military Courts and the number of military personnel involved.

Thanks to the joint work and perseverance by victims and relatives, there is now a mechanism that restricts the power of the Army and ensures that investigations are conducted by Civilian Courts. This will contribute to better monitoring of how the military behaves.

[1] Between 2009 and 2014, Cristina has worked with Centro de Derechos Humanos de la Montaña Tlachinollan, one of the organizations advocating for the reform.

[2] Thanks to the work of the family and of Tlachinollan, the Bonfilio Rubio Villegas case led to the Supreme Court of Justice declaring Article 57 of the Code of Military Justice unconstitutional.

[3] Speak only their vernacular languages

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