The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has proposed an initiative to transform itself into the National Ombudsman’s Office for the Rights of the People, a Constitutional reform that would increase its powers and assert its autonomy from the Senate.
The CNDH argued in public statements that the agency has been plagued by high spending and poor results since its creation in 1990. Reform is necessary to further the transformation that has taken place under current president Rosario Piedra Ibarra, it said.
“Today, with fewer resources, we have the CNDH’s best historical results: more declarations of unconstitutionality are issued, more recommendations, and the number of files has increased significantly,” a statement issued on Jan. 30 said.
“The time has come to consolidate these changes and move forward with its reform. For this reason, [Piedra Ibarra] presented a bill to the Chamber of Deputies and senators to elevate the CNDH to the rank of ombudsman, not only to serve the poor, as has been wrongly suggested, but… to reaffirm its autonomy and enhance the scope of its mission.”
Piedra Ibarra first announced the initiative on Jan. 25, during the presentation to Congress of the CNDH’s annual report for 2022, but she did not make the full text public. According to the CNDH’s subsequent statements, and according to media that have reviewed the initiative, the key reforms it proposes include:
- The institution’s president and advisory council will be elected by the people, rather than by the Senate, and possibility for reelection will be limited.
- It will be able to demand enforcement of its recommendations, without having to rely on government bodies.
- It will prioritize direct attention to victims.
- The CNDH’s statements argue that its current structure reflects the “neoliberal” approach of previous governments who, it claims, lacked interest in human rights. For this reason, it argues, autonomous bodies such as the CNDH became “very costly bureaucratic apparatuses” that only have the power to play a “testimonial role.”
The initiative thus seeks to create a more robust human rights body with greater enforcement capacity, operating under a tighter budget, the statement said.
However, the proposal has been criticized by some observers who argue that the commission has become politicized and is overstepping its mandate to promote the agenda of President López Obrador.
“The CNDH stopped defending victims of human rights violations to become the Ministry of Press and Propaganda for [AMLO’s party] Morena,” Senator Emilio Álvarez Icaza wrote on Twitter.
The language used in the CNDH’s statement, describing the body’s structure as reflecting “neoliberal” ideas, is frequently used by President Lopez Obrador, who uses the adjective to negatively describe previous federal governments, previous presidents and most opponents, who he says don’t have in mind the people’s best interests but rather elites’.
Piedra Ibarra is the daughter of the late Rosario Ibarra de Piedra, a left-wing political activist who fought for justice for Mexico’s missing persons. Daughter Rosario is known as a political ally of AMLO. She has headed the CNDH since 2019, during which time the agency has sided with the president on several contentious reforms.
For instance, in September, the CNDH declared that it would not challenge legislative reform that put the National Guard under military control, despite concern from many organizations about Mexico’s ongoing militarization.
In October, the CNDH supported AMLO’s controversial bid to reform the National Electoral Institute (INE), which many human rights organizations fear will undermine the independence of the electoral body. The CNDH openly argued that the reform would “vindicate the people’s right to democracy,” claiming that the INE “has only served to maintain vices that… have tainted our electoral processes.”
The INE responded that “the Constitution establishes that human rights protection bodies are not competent when dealing with electoral matters.”
In this context, Mexican media outlet Latinus has pointed out that one implication of the CNDH’s recent initiative would be to give it broad powers to investigate acts and omissions by the INE and Electoral Tribunal in the field of human rights.
The human rights NGO Centro Prodh also criticized the CNDH’s initiative, arguing that its focus on legal reforms and budget reduction is inadequate in the face of pressing concerns surrounding militarization, disappearances and impunity.
“Our fundamental criticism is that autonomy has not been consolidated,” the NGO tweeted. “We don’t support emphasizing only budget reduction, in a context of subordination to the political power of the day.”
Centro Prodh also pointed out that the CNDH lacks the legal power to present initiatives and would have to gain the support of legislators to advance the proposal.
“Instead of advancing in this route, we must open a profound and plural debate about the weakened ombudsperson system,” the NGO argued.