Major Human Rights Victory in Inter-American Court of Human Rights

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The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled today (decision  here) that Mexico violated basic human rights by failing to investigate the disappearance and murders of several women over a 15-year period.  Pro bono counsel  M.C. Sungaila, Esq. at  Horvitz & Levy LLP summarized the decision in an email (reprinted with permission) to the more than 40 amici:

This is a blockbuster decision, and a tribute to the day it was issued, World Human Rights Day. The decision breaks legal ground by applying not only the American Convention of Human Rights, but also the Convention Belem do Para. It interprets women’s rights in the broader human rights context, and provides a powerful statement of the basic liberties the women and their families were deprived of.   The Court’s remedies are fittingly broad and holistic, too: from a memorial and public recognition by Mexico of its fault and a website listing all of the women who have disappeared, to payment of money to the families and requiring Mexico to properly and fully investigate the murders and disappearances.


In a  prior post, Feminist Law Prof Caroline Bettinger-Lopez explained the background of the case and requested signatories to the amicus brief.  In an editorial to the Pasadena Star News last month, M.C. Sungaila explained the case for a broader audience:

For over 15 years, young women and girls in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico have disappeared and been killed at an alarming rate. In 2003, the Rapporteurship on the Rights of Women of the Inter-American Commission reported that an estimated 268 women and girls had been murdered since 1993, that only 20 percent of these crimes ended in trials and convictions and that reported disappearances of an additional 250 women and girls also remained unsolved.

The number of women killed in Ciudad Juarez throughout the 1990s increased at twice the rate for men; the homicide rate for women in Juarez was more than three times as great as that in Tijuana, a border city of comparable size. * * *  Even more troubling than the sheer volume of the killings is the apparent serial nature of many of them. The victims are generally between 15 and 25. They are either students or employed in local shops or businesses. Many work at the 300 large foreign-owned assembly plants known as maquiladoras * * *

Thus far, however, the authorities in Mexico have done little about the ongoing tragedy. * * *

The authorities’ inaction has opened the door for even more murders. The unchecked epidemic of murders and disappearances of women and girls appears to have spread to the middle class, and to neighboring regions of Mexico. * * *

Last week, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the regional human rights body for the Americas, met in Costa Rica to consider the merits of a human rights case brought by the mothers of three young women who disappeared and were killed in Ciudad Juarez. The case, Campo Algodonero, is named for the abandoned cotton fields in which the young women’s three bodies were initially thought to have been found.

The mothers of these three girls claim that Mexico’s indifferent and ineffective response to the violence violates both regional human rights and women’s rights treaties.  * * *

In order to effectively address this problem, a holistic response to gender-based violence that includes both criminal justice and economic, social and cultural dimensions is necessary. Indeed, countries’ international obligations to eradicate violence against women and gender-based violence include not only having laws and policies on the books, but also effectively enforcing those laws and policies. The police’s failure to meaningfully investigate the crimes in this case, together with Mexico’s failure to prosecute these crimes or provide a remedy for this indifferent and negligent investigation, violate Mexico’s obligations to respect, protect and fulfill the rights of women and girls to be free from gender-based violence.

The full editorial is here.

For their creativity, tenacity and devotion to this case and the public good, congratulations to  M.C. Sungaila and her colleague David Ettinger.

-Bridget Crawford

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3 Responses to Major Human Rights Victory in Inter-American Court of Human Rights

  1. Ann Bartow says:

    That makes me proud to be a lawyer.

  2. NorthernFirefly says:


    I had high hopes for finally seeing justice for the missing and murdered native Canadian women, and this might help give the cause some force even though Canada has no part in the IA court. Prime Minister Harper very recently refused to hold an inquiry into these unsolved cases.

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