Using the inquiry procedure to ensure gender equality (Equality Now)




Jacqui Hunt and Shanta Bhavnani of Equality Now explain the background to the first inquiry undertaken by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW Committee) under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Optional Protocol).  The inquiry concerned the abduction, rape and murder of women in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico.

Mexico ratified the Optional Protocol in early 2002.  Together with our partner Casa Amiga, a rape crisis centre in Ciudad Juárez, Equality Now contacted the CEDAW Committee in October 2002 with a request for an inquiry concerning the murder and disappearance of several hundred women in Ciudad Juárez between 1993 and 2003 and the failure of the Mexican Government to carry out adequate investigations into those deaths and abductions. 

Grave and systematic

By October 2002, the murders had been taking place for nearly a decade but there had been few arrests and no convictions.  The ineptitude of the investigations meant that much evidence had been lost, making convictions increasingly unlikely.  Credible claims had been made of the use of torture by police to extract confessions and Government officials had blamed the women themselves for their deaths referring to the way they dressed and the fact that they went out at night.  Furthermore, the problem extended beyond the murders themselves with threats being made to campaigners and those investigating the murders, including lawyers, journalists and family members of the victims.

We felt the situation in Ciudad Juárez met the threshold of grave and systematic abuse required under the Optional Protocol.

Breach of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW)

The situation in Ciudad Juárez had been the subject of commentary by a number of inter-governmental organisations since the late 1990s.  The UN Human Rights Committee, the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, and the Special Rapporteur on Women’s Rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had all reported on the gravity of the situation, the ineffectiveness of the investigations, and the indifference on the part of state officials towards the murders.  We referenced their work to underpin the credibility of our information and to show that continued pressure on the Mexican authorities was needed to address the femicide and gain justice for its victims.  Our letter claimed breach of article 2 of CEDAW, that is failure of the Mexican Government to afford women equal protection of the law.  The Committee in its General Recommendation No 19 confirmed that discrimination is not restricted to action by or on behalf of governments but may include private acts where governments “fail to act with due diligence to prevent violations of rights or to investigate and punish acts of violence”.

The inquiry and the report                                   

In January 2003, the CEDAW Committee agreed to investigate whether an inquiry was justified.  It took evidence from the Government of Mexico and accepted a further submission from Equality Now and Casa Amiga with details of newly-discovered murders and indications of the possible complicity of the Mexican authorities in the continuing violence against women.  By then, we had joined forces also with the Mexican Committee for the Defence and Promotion of Human Rights, which had previously provided information to the CEDAW Committee on this issue for review of Mexico as part of its regular activities under the reporting procedure.  In July 2003, the CEDAW Committee decided to carry out an inquiry under article 8(2) of the Optional Protocol, the first one it had ever undertaken.

In October 2003, two CEDAW Committee officials visited Mexico to carry out their own investigations.  It was important that they heard from as many local groups and people affected as possible: they travelled to Juárez as well as Mexico City and talked to civil society and government officials alike.  This included representatives from Equality Now and our partners.

The Committee issued its findings in a report published in January 2005.  It was strongly worded, stating that the evidence uncovered during the inquiry demonstrated the murders were not “instances of sporadic violence against women, but rather … systematic violations of women’s rights, founded in a culture of violence and discrimination that is based on women’s alleged inferiority, a situation that has resulted in impunity.”

The report made a number of specific recommendations concerning the investigation of the murders and the punishment of the perpetrators as well as more general recommendations on the prevention of violence and the promotion and protection of the human rights of women.

Impact of the report

The inquiry process and the publication of the report had an immediate effect.  In 2004, the Chihuahua state authorities created the Office of the Special Prosecutor with a specific mandate to investigate the murders in Ciudad Juárez.  The Special Prosecutor issued a number of reports identifying hundreds of state officials, including judicial, police and prosecutorial staff who she judged to have acted with administrative or criminal negligence in handling the investigations.  While the State Public Prosecutor’s Office claimed that all those implicated had been removed from their positions, the details of the alleged misconduct remain confidential and there is no evidence that any of the officials involved have been prosecuted.  To keep up the pressure on Mexican authorities, Equality Now in 2006 issued a letter-writing action supported by our global membership calling for full investigation of and strong punishment for those responsible for the obstruction of justice for the disappeared and murdered women.

The Special Prosecutor concluded that many of the murders in Ciudad Juárez were likely to go unpunished due to the serious deficiencies in the original investigations and the length of time that had passed since the crimes were committed.  Against this backdrop of ongoing failure to deliver justice for the dead women, murders continue to take place in Juárez with increasing frequency.

In its 2012 periodic report to the CEDAW Committee, Mexico has claimed that it continues to implement the inquiry’s recommendations through a programme of prosecution and enforcement of justice and promotion of respect for the human rights of women, services for victims, and strengthening of the social fabric.  However, civil society organisations presented worrying evidence that the situation has only worsened as regards the numbers of women missing and/or murdered, the degree of violence with which the murders are committed and the aggression visited on relatives and/or those seeking justice for the victims.  They state that the formal actions taken by the Mexican Government have not resulted in any specific or effective progress for ordinary people.

A recent decision by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) seems to confirm that this is the case.  In March 2012 it admitted a petition from the family of Lilia Alejandra Garcia Andrade who was murdered in Ciudad Juárez in 2001.  Despite the state’s contention that the murder is still being investigated, the IACHR found that there has been an unwarranted delay by the Mexican judicial bodies and that it is therefore prepared to hear the merits of the case.

This latest evidence brings to light the strengths and weaknesses of the inquiry process.  The CEDAW Committee’s report brought international attention to the issue and was a significant source of pressure on the Mexican Government.  It set out clearly what needed to be done and was the catalyst for a number of positive initiatives.  However, problems of such a complex and entrenched nature as exist in Ciudad Juárez require sustained action over decades if they are to be effective.  Although the CEDAW Committee continues to monitor the situation in Juárez through its regular review of Mexico as a State Party to CEDAW, it might wish to consider developing a more sustained and structured follow-up procedure on this issue and to any inquiry it undertakes.  In order to ensure the Mexican Government commits the necessary effort and resources, it must be subject to ongoing international scrutiny, not only from the CEDAW Committee but also from the IACHR and other regional and international treaty bodies.  In the meantime, NGOs and the loved ones of the murdered women will continue their quest for justice.

Jacqui Hunt is the Director of Equality Now’s London office

Shanta Bhavnani is a lawyer and former intern in Equality Now’s London office 

19 August 2012

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