With Dignity: The right to life, liberty and personal security

Marika Straw

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”

Although we are quick to point out what is happening with immigrants on our side of the border, I suspect that many Americans are somewhat oblivious about events happening in Mexico.

We may have a vague awareness of the vast movements of migrants toward America, but little awareness of these people’s countries of origin or reasons for migrating. Likewise, we may know that Mexico has been embroiled in a dangerous, bloody drug war for quite some time now, but be unaware of the reasons why these conflicts exist or the ways in which they are perpetuated.

I do not pretend to be an expert on this. I, too, know very little about what goes on “below the border,” but I learned just a few pieces of information about it over the weekend that I would like to share.

The first piece of information concerns the gravity of the current situation in Mexico. Due to drug-related violence, 40,000 people have been killed in the past five years in Mexico. Do you have any idea how many people this is?

These deaths have been caused by a complex set of factors and players including — but not limited to — Mexican gangs, Mexican police and American guns. Yes, American guns. According to a recent congressional report, 70 percent of the weapons seized in Mexico in 2009 and 2010 that were submitted for tracing came from the United States.

If “security of person” is a human right, is this situation a human rights violation? Traditionally, we have viewed governments, not citizens, as the perpetrators of human rights violations, but isn’t the murder of 40,000 people a violation of the right to security of person?

Who is responsible in this situation? Is it the Mexican government for being negligent enough to allow this to happen and, in some cases, participating in the killings themselves? Or the murderers themselves?

Do we lay any responsibility on the U.S. government for allowing American weapons to cross its border and fall into the hands of the murderers? What about the American people, for failing to protest their own government’s negligence on the problem of arms smuggling?

Although people tend to see human rights violations as black and white, situations are often much more complex than they seem at first glance, and often multiple parties are responsible. However, in human rights work we often limit assignations of blame to countries, rather than specific people, especially specific people who are not involved with the governments.

As Joy Olson, director of the Washington Office on Latin America — a human rights advocacy organization — pointed out, if a government commits a crime against humanity, it is a human rights violation. But if a Mexican gang member commits a crime against humanity, it is just a crime.

To me, this seems to limit both our structures of accountability for atrocities and our conception of human rights in general. How much more vast our conception and advocacy of human rights could be if we viewed human rights not only as principles to be upheld by governments, but also as responsibilities to be upheld by all of humanity. Human rights violations are complex.

Does it do the victims of human rights violations justice to assume that all of the responsibility for atrocities rests on governments’ shoulders? Or should we question the role of individual actors as well?

What about the roles of neighboring countries, such as the U.S.? And what about the role that we play as citizens in the choices we make about how to vote, what petitions we sign — and how we do or do not make our voices heard on issues of human rights abuses? Do we not have a role and responsibility too?

If you are interested in learning more about your role in the issue of gun smuggling and what you can do to change it, visit www.wola.org. To learn more about the human right to security of person in Latin America, watch the films in the Engaging Human Rights film festival and meet film director Pamela Yates. Yates personally interviewed a dictator who orchestrated genocide in Guatemala.