Saturday, July 24, 2004

"Genocide" in Mexico?

Josh Marshall has a valid point when he questions the charge of "genocide" by Mexican prosecutors in the case of the former President Luis Echeverría, indicted for the killing of 25-30 student protesters in 1971.

Is this genocide?  Eric Olson of Amnesty International doubts it, but goes on to say that
"This is uncharted territory in Mexico, but I think the prosecutor has taken a bold step," Olson said. "This could help clear up a real tragedy in Mexico's past and lend some credibility to Mexican institutions that are bankrupt of any credibility at this time. And I think there is a glimmer of hope that Mexican prosecutors and judges will do the right thing." 
Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch is quoted in the New York Times --faithfully reflecting the HRW press release from a few days ago--as applauding these indictments for "achieving the unthinkable." 

But if the genocide charge really doesn't apply, how can credibility be restored to the judicial system?  It almost seems like a cynical exercise.  Indeed, Adolfo Aguilar Zinser is quoted in the Washington Post story as seeming to agree that, "if the basis of the prosecution is not firm, it could be the beginning of a horrible time. It could lead to a lot of political revenge."
I'm all for holding anyone and everyone accountable for past abuses, especially elected officials, but it's hard to see how this could amount to anything other than a pyrrhic victory for the human rights movement. 

On further investigation, i.e., reading the latest HRW report on Mexico and the special prosecutor's office, I discovered how complex the issue is.  Turns out that one obstacle to prosecution is that the statute of limitations might apply to these crimes....unless they can be categorized as "crimes against humanity," for which international obligations override any national statutory limitations.  

However, crimes against humanity--the highest charge that HRW even mentioned in its report--is still not the same as genocide.  According to M. Cherif Bassiouni, professor of law and Director of the International Criminal Justice and Weapons Control Center at DePaul University in Chicago: 
To some extent, crimes against humanity overlap with genocide and war crimes. But crimes against humanity are distinguishable from genocide in that they do not require an intent to "destroy in whole or in part," as cited in the 1948 Genocide Convention, but only target a given group and carry out a policy of "widespread or systematic" violations. Crimes against humanity are also distinguishable from war crimes in that they not only apply in the context of war-they apply in times of war and peace.
Another possibility is that, as can happen in the U.S., a judge could see fit to find Echeverría guilty of a lesser charge, should he find that genocide does not apply.  But because of the statute of limitations argument, the only likely lesser charge seems to be that of "crimes against humanity" as defined by international law.

It would be nice to have this clarified, but until then, these are the musings of this non-lawyer.

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