IT creates new power disparities in Mexican human rights network

Michele Waslin

Information technology (IT) has had a profound effect on the human rights movement in Mexico. For decades, daily human rights violations went largely undetected by the international community. Today, information about abuses is transmitted almost immediately to a worldwide network of human rights activists. While the impact of IT has been generally positive, it has also resulted in new power disparities and created new problems for Mexican human rights actors.

The Red Nacional de Organismos de Derechos Humanos ‘Todos los Derechos Para Todos’ (National Network of Human Rights Organizations ‘All Rights for Everyone’ or RedTDT) is the largest, most powerful human rights NGO network in Mexico, with a diverse membership in terms of ideology, resources, degree of institutionalization, geographic region and issue priorities. By the mid-1990s RedTDT members had begun to acquire IT. The Internet and email have permitted easier communication between organizations, improved their efficiency and coordination, increased the amount of information exchanged, and increased communication with other key actors, particularly those in the international human rights community. These transnational linkages have helped to strengthen Mexico’s human rights community and have created mechanisms by which the international human rights community can apply increased pressure to the Mexican government. But there have also been difficulties.

New power disparities

RedTDT members vary widely in terms of access to IT. The use of IT, particularly the Internet, requires adequate infrastructure (eg telephone lines) to support the technology, adequate computer literacy and technological know-how, and English language capabilities, thus placing the small, local members that do not possess these capabilities at a disadvantage compared to larger, often Mexico City-based NGOs.

Furthermore, the network members with greater access to IT also have better, more frequent access to the transnational human rights network, including funding agencies. The result has been to concentrate power and decision-making in the hands of a few actors with better IT and more international linkages who collect information and transmit it between domestic groups and the transnational community. Meanwhile, the smaller network members are left behind as the gap between the haves and the have-nots widens.

Reliability of information

Moreover, the quality of information regarding human rights is sometimes questionable. Complex testimonials of human rights abuses taken by local NGOs are often simplified and watered down before the information is transmitted abroad. Some international observers have come to feel that information received from Mexican human rights NGOs may not be reliable and thus send their own researchers to the site to document evidence before acting on it. As a result conflicts between local organizations and international actors have developed, and at times the local organizations get lost in the midst of larger domestic and international organizations, who use their information, often without giving credit to the human rights activists who originally produced it.

Immediately following the Zapatista uprising in January 1994, many Mexican and international human rights groups arrived on the scene, each searching for information, testimonials and evidence.  Because of their intimate knowledge of the region, contacts with key actors and experience, local NGOs in Chiapas had accumulated reliable information regarding the uprising and its aftermath. However, this information was turned over to or taken by larger Mexico City-based organizations who presented it as their own, arguing that their international reputation and contacts would more effectively elicit a response from the international community. To this day, NGOs in Chiapas are reluctant to share information with other human rights organizations.

While it is clear that IT and the resulting increase in transnational activism is having a significant and often positive impact on Mexican human rights NGOs, it is crucial that local human rights activists, and especially the victims of violations, should not be forgotten.

Michele Waslin is completing her PhD in Government and International Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, IN.  She is employed as an immigration policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza in Washington DC.  She can be contacted by email at waslin.1@nd.edu


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