THE BLOG
06/06/2011 09:04 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2011

Seeking Justice in Mexico, and the Legacy of Robert Kennedy

On this day, 43 years ago, in the midst of a national struggle to make real the promises of justice and equality, we lost Robert F. Kennedy. Today, we honor his legacy when we stand with heroes who are devoted to the pursuit of justice and put their own lives on the line for others. RFK Human Rights Award Laureate Abel Barrera Hernández is under constant death threat because he dares stand against police, military, and government officials on behalf of indigenous communities in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Despite the differences in their eras, their countries, and their languages, these two men are united by their shared, deep commitment to advancing justice and human rights.

As Attorney General, Robert Kennedy ensured that the federal government stood on the side of the Civil Rights Movement. He sent federal marshals to protect the Freedom Riders and federal troops to the University of Mississippi to assure the integration of African-American students there. He sent in the National Guard when a white supremacist mob, 3,000 strong, surrounded First Baptist Church, shouted racial epithets and threatened to burn it to the ground while 1,000 African-American men, women, and children worshiped inside.

He did it not because it was the politically expedient thing to do. John Kennedy had won the presidency with the slimmest of margins, and RFK knew that support for civil rights might well cost his brother re-election. He did not do it because there was a precedent of the federal government supporting the Civil Rights Movement. Not since the Civil War had an attorney general aligned himself with blacks attempting to assert their rights.

He did it because it was the right thing to do.

To the best of my knowledge, there has never been a minister of justice who took a principled position in a case of this societal dimension, at the risk of endangering the re-election of a sitting president. Ditto for the brother, or campaign manager, of a head of state. Despite the dangers, he spoke truth to power and transformed our country.

Today, Mexico confronts its own social crisis, as indigenous communities, which have suffered extreme poverty, are besieged by narco-traffickers and live amid a heavy military deployment, are demanding their rights. Abel and his organization, the Tlachinollan Center for Human Rights in the Montaña (Tlachinollan), are leading a dynamic, indigenous, civil and human rights movement near the town of Ayutla de los Libres.

Perhaps Guerrero is Mexico's Alabama, and the town of Ayutla its Birmingham -- the center of a profound struggle. Eleven Na Savi and Me'phaa indigenous persons were murdered by the Mexican Army in Ayutla thirteen years ago tomorrow, June 7. In 2002, the Mexican military forces sexually tortured Ines and Valentina, two indigenous women. When heroic indigenous leaders Raul Lucas and Manuel Ponce documented and reported the abductions, they were murdered in 2009. Abel and his colleagues at Tlachinollan shut their satellite office following their murders.

Now, two years later -- on June 16 -- Abel and his colleagues are courageously committed to reopening the Tlachinollan office in Ayutla, with a ceremony to mark the occasion.

When state and local officials defied the Constitution, Robert Kennedy brought the power of the federal government to the aid of civil rights activists. Today, we in the international community have a duty to bring the power of international law to the aid of Abel and Tlachinollan. We must pressure Mexico to comply with the basic human rights requirements under our foreign assistance agreements, such as under the Merida Initiative, and we must stop the flow of select aid if necessary. We must pressure Mexico to abide by the orders of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which require the implementation of protection measures for Abel and other indigenous human rights defenders in Guerrero, and the transfer of cases of abuse by the military out of military jurisdiction.

Every staff member of Tlachinollan and the indigenous human rights defenders from the Costa-Montaña region put their lives at risk so they can report abuses, denounce crimes, and find justice. Without these human rights defenders, and their accompaniment of victims and survivors, justice in Guerrero does not stand a chance. For those of us in the United States, we must know that all of Mexico's national reforms and all of the U.S. assistance will be futile if we don't support the civil and human rights movement on the ground.

As Robert Kennedy said: "We must recognize the full human equality of all people -- before God, before the law, and in the councils of government. We must do this not because it is economically advantageous -- although it is; not because the laws of God and man command it -- although they do command it; not because people in other lands wish it so. We must do it for the single and fundamental reason that it is the right thing to do."