“Political Rights are Human Rights” An interview with Father Miguel Concha

By  |  13 / July / 2018

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Free and fair elections are a critical component of a real democracy and citizens have long fought for the right to vote and to have their vote counted. Less recognized is that the right to vote is not just the right to elect representatives. It’s a human right, in the category of civil and political rights. These refer to the ability to participate in political life without discrimination or repression.

Today we want to look at that relationship between political rights, human rights and the right to vote, in the context of the upcoming elections. To do that, we’re privileged to have with us Father Miguel Concha. Father Concha is the Director of one of Mexico’s oldest and most prominent human rights center– the Fray Francisco de Vitoria center in Mexico City– which is organizing elections observations this election in Mexico. He’s also a professor at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

Father, you’ve traditionally focused on the defense of human rights for over three decades. Ow did you make the decision to focus on the elections this year and what does that have to do with your work in the human rights field?

MC: Laura, this started in the year 1997, when they were first creating autonomous institutions for organizing and overseeing the elections in Mexico, influenced by our Central American sisters and brothers who were working in El Salvador and Guatemala to end the violence in a peaceful way and establish democratic systems. I was heavily influenced by that and I published a book titled: “Political Rights as Human Rights”.

I gave a copy to the then-Secretary of Government who was a friend of mine. He had been the Federal Attorney General before that and President of the National Commission of Human Rights before that and was the co-founder of the Mexican Human Rights Academy. I’m referring to Dr. Jorge Carpizo MacGregor.

I gave him the book and he told me, very enthusiastically, ‘This book has to be presented and distributed’. So, he organized a forum in the Coyoacan Cultural Center to promote citizen efforts to oversee the elections, and I asked Jose Woldenberg, who was the first president of the General Council of the National Elections Institute—we still didn’t know that he would later become the president of the council of the first autonomous institution in Mexico to run elections. in the Coyoacan Cultural Center, we presented the book that I’d written and coordinated with others, and that reflected the influence of the Central Americans who were seeking peace, and an end to violence and war in El Salvador and Guatemala.

LC: So, this is one of the founding concepts of not only the start of elections institutions here in Mexico after seven decades of one-party rule, but also of establishing the peace agreements and forming democratic institutions in Central America. What were some of the basic precepts that you presented in this book?

MC: Really, it was based on the conviction of the Central American grassroots leaders after fighting so hard for respect for civil rights and also –although not so much yet–also for social rights. They insisted that the right of every person to the free and secret vote, the right of citizens to run for public office, the right of citizens to have their vote counted and the popular will represented in the processes of representative democracy be fully exercised.

It was terrible to see that the political rights were promoted out of the context of violence. And it’s a little sad to see that based on civil rights or economic, social and cultural rights, political rights are not measured, are still not considered human rights in Mexico– they have a lot to do with respect, protection, guarantee, and promotion of all the other rights.

A democratic state necessarily has to recognize these rights, has to respect them and has to protect them from attack, and has to promote them.

LC: If this was a concept that was fundamental at the very beginning of creating democratic institutions, why don’t we hear about it now? We hear about the technical aspects of organizing elections, but political rights as human rights doesn’t seem to be on the agenda.

MC: Unfortunately, in the coalition’s political campaigns in this race, among the candidates– at least among the candidates for president of the republic– we’re not seeing and we’re not hearing them talking about human rights.

And this in spite of the fact that in the country we have a crisis of human rights, of civil rights, of fundamental rights. We don’t see them addressing this. I think that they’re ignorant, they ignore the issue… Many federal government authorities don’t know what human rights are, they don’t understand why so many social organizations today in Mexico interpret their struggles as a fight for human rights—civil rights, political rights, economic, social and cultural rights. They don’t understand and that’s why they don’t comprehend what is happening in society and they can’t relate to the cause of respect and protection and promotion and guarantees for human rights.

LC: Since these are the people who govern us, that’s a pretty damning statement.

MC: Exactly, yes. And the same thig happens in the campaigns—they don’t understand.

LC: Yet Mexico is one of the countries that has signed the most international treaties and agreements on human rights, which means they’re part of Mexican law.

MC: Exactly. Mexico is known in the international sphere as a human rights promoter of because it has approved many of the international agreements on protection of human rights, and it hasn’t just approved them, but it has even recognized them constitutionally and legally. But this is very different from actively assuring that they are carried out in

practice and fomenting public policies–among them ELECTORAL public policies– that really respect human rights. In the electoral public policies, among others, that means to respect the vote of the citizens, to develop institutions that guarantee the citizens’ right to vote, to have authorities who understand the issues, who understand the problem, who know the importance of the matter and really guarantee the rights of the citizenry.

LC: Now that the Human Rights Center is involved in forming citizen observation missions for the 2018 elections, are you seeing a serious problem or threat to democracy as a result of this somehow disconnect between electoral processes in practice and the full recognition and respect for human rights?

MC: Yes. Based on the experience I told you about since 1997, I asked the team at our center to present a project for electoral observation the day of the election, and two or three days afterward covering the count, with three lines of action: first, to carry out elections observation, registering ourselves with the National Elections Institute, and organizing elections observation in twenty districts with seventy national observers, Mexicans, and twenty international observers, also registered with the National Electoral Institute.

The second line is that the elections observation has to start before the day of the vote, observing the electoral process and filing public complaints and formal complaints of all the illegalities that are observed before the electoral process, and during and after the process, with public offices and institutions that in principle should guarantee fair and clean elections.

LC: Then they have to investigate those complaints.

MC: Exactly, right. And they’re investigating how, in practical terms, it effects freedom of the vote, how it’s meddling in the electoral process, right?

The other line is to get the word out—to publicize our work, the complaints; to reach the public through national media and also to go to international media.

And so, what we’ve been seeing in the current Mexican electoral process, along with other civil society organizations, is that there are forms that are repeated, of distorting democracy…

LC: Not just in this election…

MC: Forms that are repeated, like, for example, voter coercion and vote buying, inducing other people’s votes, unduly influencing their electoral preferences, their candidate preferences, especially with individuals who are dependent for reasons of employment, you know? Or even not just deceiving them, but others imposing a point of view, not leaving individuals free to consider and make their own decisions.

LC: Like employers.

MC: Exactly. So, we’re already seeing situations that pervert representative democracy to benefit powerful interests– not the interests of the sovereignty of the people, not the interests of the public’s right to have their decisions respected, but rather sectoral, particular interests. There’s a lot of pressure and vote-buying and voter coercion.

LC: If everything worked the way it’s supposed to, first of all, you wouldn’t have these practices, which have been documented in elections for years and yet don’t seem to change, and second you would assume that the electoral authorities would be able to control them, to prevent them and at least to sanction them when they do occur.

The idea of mobilizing citizens, is that because you don’t entirely have faith that the electoral authorities will do their job?

MC: Yes. Look, it’s not that I’m indiscreet, but last week I had the opportunity to be in a session with several experts in electoral issues. They were also concerned with how clean the elections would be, and also very concerned with the behavior of the National Electoral Institute, of the specialized Prosecutor’s Office for Electoral Crimes, of the Electoral Tribunal of the judicial branch of the federal government—they were really worried. And Porfirio Muñoz Ledo, a colleague, a Mexican lawyer, internationalist, with many years of experience working for change in Mexico, a man committed to democracy…

LC: We had to opportunity to interview him here on the show.

MC: So, he said to the director of the National Electoral Institute, Lorenzo Cordova, ‘You are an institution of the state. You are not a government institution. You are an institution of the state. And in elections, you are the maximum authority. You have the other powers of government under your mandate. In some countries, like Venezuela for example, there is the legislative power, the executive power, the judicial power and the electoral power. In Mexico, we have the National Electoral Institute, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Electoral Crimes, the Tribunal. It is the most important institution of the state in the elections period, and it has all the faculties to act, Porfirio Muñoz Ledo said, to act in an official manner, following the letter of the law, or to act in an officious manner. Promoting, protecting, respecting and guaranteeing what you owe this society, which is a real representative democracy.

He told him, ‘You are the referee, and you have to have your cards, like the referee in a soccer game, in a soccer match and hold up your cards—the yellow card, the red card. We’re working so that the public institutions act without favoritisms or phobias, in a timely manner, with firmness and resolve. We told the president of the National Electoral Institute that.

LC: How did he respond?

MC: I think he paid attention to us in some ways, because now that some big businessmen came out very strongly against one Coalition, against one candidate, saying he was a huge danger to Mexico (instead of saying he was a danger to their pocketbooks)

LC: And pressuring their employees

MC: Lorenzo Cordova at least began to say that they were bordering on illegality. For me, they weren’t bordering on illegality—they were over the edge of illegality, because it’s a way of pressuring against people’s right to a free and secret vote… So, we keep insisting that they have to act without favoritisms, without phobias, in a timely and firm way, and with complete transparency.

LC: This project of organizing citizen observation efforts, both national and international, how do you see this pushing the electoral institutes to do their job and to actually apply the law?

MC: I think it’s necessary –not just useful, but necessary. I think this is the time when electoral observation, with this component of public and formal complaints and the use of the media, is more necessary than ever. It’s strange that in this year, in this electoral process, the government has not really promoted electoral observation. I think the government hasn’t wanted this process to be closely observed. And for this reason, it hasn’t encouraged it, it has really limited the possibilities to carry out citizen observation, in a lot of ways.

LC: There seems to be a lot of interest though on the part of the people. We’ve come very quickly to the end of the program, but what’s clear is that historically and especially at this point in Mexico it’s really been a mobilized citizenry that has to stand up for political rights and for political rights as human rights. As a pioneer in this field with your decades of experience it has been a real privilege to have you hear on the show. Father Concha, thank you.