The Focal Group on Business and Human Rights in Mexico is a group of civil society organizations that seek to ensure respect, promotion and protection of human rights by the government and national and transnational corporations, through the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. This group is made up of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre; the Mexican Center of Environmental Law (CEMDA), the Gobixha Committee for the Integral Defense of Human Rights (Código-DH); Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (ProDESC) and the Project on Organizing, Development, Education and Research (PODER); and is accompanied by Services and Consultation for Peace (SERAPAZ), the Interamerican Association for Environmental Defense (AIDA) and PBI Mexico. The organizations which constitute the Focal Group have been recognized for their work accompanying communities in resistance to or affected by diverse projects throughout Mexico

This article is an interview with Alejandra Hernandez Leyva, from CEMDA, an organization that aims at strengthening, consolidating, harmonizing, implementing and effectively enforcing the current legal-environmental system; and Karen Hudlet who was, until October 2017, a researcher and representative for Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean for the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre, an international organization dedicated to discovering positive and negative impacts of companies regarding human rights.

Land, territory and environmental defenders

Alejandra: To defend land, territory and environmental rights means to help both individuals and groups personally and professionally realize activities to protect and promote human rights related to the environment, water, air, land, flora and fauna. Therefore, this group of defenders is very broad, since it refers to communities and civil society organizations, groups and movements, and even people who exercise their advocacy work to defend such cases. This defense involves risk with differentiated impacts because in many cases it effects the interests of business and transnational companies. It also has to do with a disbalance of power between HRDs and the economic and political power that companies or stakeholders may have to impose large scale economic projects.

Karen:  When a person or a group of people oppose any project -- if there is a company or several companies involved -- there are never-ending stakeholders who have a specific interest in it being carried out: not only companies, but also investors such as development, foreign and national banks. HRDs not only face the government -- which often acts in collaboration with the business interests -- but also the companies themselves, which believe that they are not responsible for the abuses or for what happens to these people.

In this field, we are concerned that companies frequently say that advocates are radicals, that they are against development or that they are against the mining industry and, therefore, are affecting the community because they will not create jobs '. Companies should change their public discourse because it encourages certain types of attacks, which later occur against these defenders in their community.

Business, human rights and protection mechanisms

Alejandra: In 2012, the Federal Protection Mechanism was created for HRDs and journalists. It was created by a demand from civil society and was also positioned by several recommendations from United Nations special procedures. The general demand has been that the Mexican Government adopt a comprehensive policy, not only the mechanism. The fundamental criticism is that, if the underlying problem causing the socio-environmental conflict is not resolved, communities, individuals, and indigenous leaders will always be at risk.

There is a demand that the government implement preventive measures so that it does not have to focus all its efforts on reactive measures, when there is a conflict and a highly risky situation of violence. For example, a public statement by the Mexican Government recognizing specific defenders before the authorities, which can be a preventive measure that civil society has repeatedly pushed for, but with little success. It has also been recommended that the Mexican government should suspend the implementation of development and infrastructure projects when there is evidence of attacks against environmental and human rights defenders.

Karen: Mexico is one of the countries with the most attacks on environmental defenders who oppose business activities. This is important because it gives us an idea of the need and importance of implementing the Mechanism, as well as other security measures. In general, what we see when we document cases is that, when a project is launched, there is a stage where information is missing, where campesino and indigenous communities do not know what is going on, they begin to see the machinery, but they have no idea of what kind of project it is. This is one of the first violated rights, access to information. There are protests and the conflict escalates, which often results in serious attacks towards people who are opposed to these projects.

It is important that the government regulates and conveys clear messages about the behavior expectations from the companies that operate in this territory, or of the companies that have headquarters in Mexico, but carry out activities in other countries. This should be done through laws, public policies or positive and negative incentives. It is essential that companies are properly sanctioned when they commit any abuse of human rights, because it is very difficult to bring a company to trial, and when it is accomplished, the sanction is normally harmless. During their respective official visits to Mexico, the UN Business & Human Rights Working Group as well as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of HRDs both mentioned something that has been on the public agenda, which is that companies need to take action; the first step is certainly making a public pronouncement condemning this type of attacks.