Training victims of human rights abuses to monitor and defend their rights

The Network of Community Human Rights Defenders (Red de Defensores Comunitarios por los Derechos Humanos) trains young Indigenous community members in Chiapas, Mexico to monitor and defend their human rights.

Chiapas is one of the Mexican states with the highest Indigenous population. Statistically, Mexican Indigenous populations are less educated, poorer and have worse health. They are also subjected to a variety of institutionalized discriminations that limit their development. In the 1990s, political and military uprisings within the Indigenous populations led to a government response that exacerbated the negative situation and allowed for human rights violations to occur.

Many international and Mexican non-governmental organizations (NGOs) got involved to try to stop these violations. However, in many cases NGOs were located far from the rural areas where the problems were occurring, making advocacy difficult. In addition, Mexican Indigenous populations place great value upon the consensus of the community as a decision-making method. Outside NGOs often did not understand the local context, which caused some problems.

In response, Indigenous communities in Chiapas began to organize and train community human rights defenders. Defenders are trained promoters of human rights who are chosen by and work in coordination with their communities. While their fundamental role is to respond to human rights violation perpetrated by the Mexican state or its agents, they will also help with violations committed by community authorities should such an occasion arise.

There are now nearly thirty defenders in fourteen different regions in Chiapas. All of the defenders are between eighteen and thirty-five years of age, and both men and women are able to participate. Before becoming defenders, all participants go through a yearlong training process. Once a month, they meet for an intensive session on human rights and penal issues, including visits to the justice and defense authorities. Sometimes prominent human rights activists are invited to speak at these sessions. The purpose of the training is to build the defenders’ knowledge of human rights and strengthen their self-confidence, as well as to provide them with the practical skills, such as photography, videography and computer use, needed to perform their duties.

Defenders present complaints to the government, give information to the press and human rights monitoring groups and seek the release or legal defense of people unjustly detained. They are able to locate detainees and present requests of habeas corpus (the right to be brought before a judge to determine if an individual was lawful­ly detained) when rights are in jeopardy. They know how to file a request for precautionary measures when human rights violations are imminent and who to approach to denounce violations when they occur. For cases that go before the courts or require long-term legal strategies, attorney advisors work collaboratively with the defenders.

In their communities, defenders engage in a range of work depending on existing needs. They collect testimony from victims and witnesses of human rights violations, gather video and photo evidence of abuse and determine appro­priate ways to intervene when a violation has occurred. They also train other community members in this work. This approach has led to numerous successes and has also increased the autonomy of indigenous communities by eliminating dependence on external actors such as NGOs.

For more information on this tactic, read our in-depth case study.

New Tactics in Human Rights does not advocate for or endorse specific tactics, policies or issues.

What we can learn from this tactic: 

Human rights practitioners often work in NGOs in big cities. As the situation in Mexico shows, this is often far from where the most significant human rights violations are taking place. The lack of local defenders makes these violations pervasive and difficult to eradicate. A network of trained community defenders can be an invaluable resource in these situations.

Outside NGOs may not be able to organize this kind of network simply because of a lack of understand of local community issues. Nor can an outside NGO force a community to organize to defend its human rights. There may be a lack of interest or hidden dangers that make such actions prohibitive. However, an NGO may be able to inform a community about the possibility of developing a program like the one in Chiapas. If the community is interested, the NGO can be instrumental in providing resources for training and supporting the new defenders. Because this tactic does not rely on culturally specific factors or respond to a certain type of human rights violation, it could be easily transmitted to many other situations around the world.