Last week, CSW’s Latin America Advocacy Officer detailed the culture of impunity that hinders the protection and promotion of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in Mexico. In this post we put a human face on the effects of the government’s inadequate response to violations of FoRB, showing what happens to individuals when authorities delay or neglect their responsibilities to protect religious minorities.
One case which illustrates the
deep rooted culture of impunity that surrounds attacks on religious minorities
in Mexico is that of the community of Yashtinin in San Cristóbal de las Casas Municipality in
Everything began in 2012, when several
people converted away from the majority religion. Some members of the community
were afraid that this new religion would damage their customs and traditions
and negatively affect their children. On 10 June 2012 a large group from the
community went to the house of a Santiago Hernández Vázquez, one of the men who had converted, and took everyone that was meeting there to prison,
insulting them and threatening them with violence and even death in the
After imprisoning 16 men and boys in a space normally meant to hold a single individual, local teachers employed by the government falsified a document stating that the families had voluntarily decided to leave the community. The victims were forced to sign it and given three days to leave. Upon the expiration of the ultimatum, 12 families were expelled after villagers destroyed all of their homes and property. By 2015, a total of 28 families had been expelled.
While Mexico’s drug trade is far from vanished, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) recently stated that “there is no longer a war.” He has a new strategy. The president says they are no longer trying to arrest drug lords, but instead want to look at the causes of violence.
“We have not detained the bosses [of criminal gangs] because this is not our main function. The government’s main function is to guarantee public security…What is important to me is lowering the number of homicides, robberies, that there are no kidnappings. This is what is essential! Not the spectacular, because we lost a lot of time in this and it resolved nothing.”
To achieve this, AMLO appears to be looking
to religious groups.
While the Mexican constitution provides strong protections for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), moderate to severe violations of this right are regular occurrences in many parts of the country, particularly the states of Chiapas, Hidalgo and Oaxaca. Often these violations take the form of local authorities attempting to enforce conformity on religious minorities, for example, by denying access to basic services to Protestant families in majority Catholic villages.
CSW’s latest fact-finding visit to Mexico revealed a number of cases where Protestant families have been presented with an ultimatum to either renounce their faith or leave their village before a specific deadline.
To take one example, last year in Colonia Los Llanos in the San Cristóbal de las Casas Municipality, Chiapas, several Protestant families were forced to leave their village after they defied orders to renounce their religious beliefs. CSW also found evidence of similar experiences in two more communities in Chiapas and another in Oaxaca during the visit.
These ultimatums do not come out of nowhere and tend to follow years of religious tension.
Tensions include but are not limited to threats, cutting off basic services and attempts to force minority groups to pay fines or participate in religious activities. In another example, just last month community leaders in another part of Chiapas refused to allow the burial of a Protestant woman in the village cemetery and her family were forced to bury her in a nearby city. The Mexican government regularly fails to act to reduce such tensions or to stop the deliverance of ultimatums. A culture of impunity surrounds the local authorities responsible for these violations of FoRB.
Next week the United Nations’ (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) is holding a high level dialogue to assess the situation in the Central African Republic (CAR). The last time the HRC considered the situation of CAR was in September 2017, when President Faustin-Archange Touadéra made an unexpected appearance, and addressed member states, nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and human rights mandate holders.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) was present during this address and noted the positive engagement CAR maintains with the UN’s human rights mechanisms, including by granting access to the Independent Expert on CAR, Ms. Marie-Therese Keita Bocoum.
End of transition was not the end of the security crisis
During his speech, President Touadéra noted that the end of the transitional government and the return to democracy did not bring an end to the security crisis in CAR. Since November 2016, armed groups that were once part of the Seleka Alliance have clashed in the north and eastern regions. This violence has been characterised by the targeting of civilians and destruction of civilian infrastructure leading to mass displacement.
No one should be denied food or medicine on account of their ethnicity or religion, but that is what is increasingly happening to some people in Burma. A humanitarian crisis is emerging because in some parts of the country, the authorities are blocking aid access. In other areas, international agencies are cutting aid. Blocks and cuts combined are resulting in displaced people who have fled conflict going hungry at night. That is why we have launched our new campaign: “Real Change”.
When we talk about refugees today, we think of Syria and Iraq. But Burma remains a country where significant numbers of people are fleeing conflict and persecution. Thousands escape to other countries, but others are internally displaced. Over 120,000 in Kachin and northern Shan states, and over 130,000 Rohingyas in Rakhine state.
Military powers remain problematic in Burma
The news headlines from Burma over the past year have mostly been positive. A remarkable peaceful transition from military rule to a civilian, democrat-led government, with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi at its helm, should be a cause for celebration. Her party, the National League for Democracy, overwhelmingly won the country’s first credible elections in a quarter of a century last November, and formed the government in April. To see her with Theresa May on the steps of 10 Downing Street, with President Obama in the White House, or at the United Nations, after over 15 years under house arrest and the best part of three decades of struggle, is extraordinary.
Yet behind the headlines, the reality is more complex. The military may no longer be in direct charge, but their power remains. Under the military-drafted constitution, a quarter of the seats in Parliament are reserved for them and they control three key ministries in government: home affairs, border affairs and defence. One of the two Vice-Presidents is a military appointee.
So unless the military agrees, the prospects for tackling the root causes of Burma’s conflicts remain slim. In August, Suu Kyi organised a major peace conference with representatives of most of the ethnic nationalities, which was a welcome start. But to secure genuine peace, a political solution needs to be found to address the ethnic nationalities’ desire for autonomy and equal rights within a federal system. And the fact that as the talks were going on, the Burma Army launched new attacks in Kachin and Shan States is hardly an encouraging sign. Even in Karen State, where a ceasefire was agreed in 2012, reports of new violence have emerged recently.
Dimensions of Religious Intolerance
Religious intolerance in Burma has several dimensions. In its most acute form, there is the appalling crisis facing the Rohingyas, a predominantly Muslim people in Rakhine State. Described as one of the most persecuted people in the world, enduring what some experts say may amount to crimes against humanity or even potential genocide, the Rohingyas are marginalised, dehumanised and stateless. Their mosques have been destroyed or closed, their movement restricted, their access to education denied and their citizenship taken from them. In 2012, two horrific explosions of violence against them forced thousands out of their homes and into displacement camps that seem more like concentration camps.
After years of reluctance to speak about the issue, Suu Kyi finally formed an international commission led by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan last month, to investigate the causes of the conflict and seek solutions – something CSW had been calling for. Rakhine nationalists and military-backed groups responded with outrage.
Trying to find lasting solutions to end conflict and build peace in Burma is of course vital and these two steps taken by Suu Kyi’s government – the peace conference and the Kofi Annan commission – have to be welcomed. But there is the more immediate, more urgent challenge of allowing humanitarian aid to reach those desperately in need.
“For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability.”
Aid is a Lifeline to Internally Displaced Communities
Last week, the Burma Army prevented trucks containing a month’s supply of rice from the World Food Programme (WFP) from reaching a camp for internally displaced people in Kachin state, and the previous month the military blocked a vehicle carrying medical supplies for four camps, provided by the United Nations.
In a separate but equally troubling development, reports have emerged that over 40 camps in Rakhine state have experienced cuts in WFP aid or been informed of cuts to come. These are apparently part of a plan to phase-out relief assistance in parts of Rakhine State.
In July, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma Yanghee Lee said, after meeting internally displaced peoples, that she had heard of their “daily struggles to survive”. She expressed concern about the “extensive difficulties in accessing and delivering aid”, even though such assistance “provides a lifeline to communities”. In Rakhine state, she noted, access can only be approved “through a cumbersome procedure”, and in Kachin state “humanitarian access is shrinking”. The conditions of the internally displaced peoples’ camps she witnessed “remain poor”.
If this continues, more people will die. For a country in the midst of a fragile transition from military dictatorship to some form of democracy, a humanitarian crisis stoked with ethnic and religious conflict is not what is needed to ensure stability. It is in Burma’s own interests to ensure that this does not happen. Suu Kyi’s government needs to stop the block on aid, and the international community must end the cuts, and we must all do what we can to ensure that no one starves to death because of their race or religion. Join us in this campaign today, and help bring real change for Burma.