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The Discourse of Human Rights in Chiapas

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The discourse of human rights in Chiapas is an incredibly nuanced one. While from our Western perspective, human rights is thought of as an objective constant, an imperative asset of any sensible civilization, it is not so cut-and-dry in the context of the Chiapas conflict. The concept of ‘human rights’ has become a malleable one, adopted and interpreted differently by the various local, global, and state-level groups with different things at stake. To the Zapatistas and their supporters, human rights was a vehicle for liberation from injustices at the hands of the state; a means to the end of a long-standing social struggle. Those that contested the rebels, including Ladinos and Chol paramilitaries, saw “human rights” as a buzzword used by groups mobilizing to alter or even subvert the status quo and therefore posed a threat to their elite positions in society. State authorities in Chiapas, similarly, noted the use of “human rights” as a challenge to their legitimacy and therefore “mobilized the discourse of human rights to justify counterinsurgency and limit indigenous autonomy” (Speed 58). The presence of mostly Western international actors, such as NGOs, further complicated the discourse; many sympathized with the EZLN and flocked to Chiapas to organize and aid the Zapatista cause, forming peace camps and providing protection to local communities. This outside presence further challenged the authority of the state and other actors opposed to the Zapatista movement — thus, human rights, to these groups, also became associated with outsiders.

While international activists sought to protect those in Chiapas without a voice, these Western notions of human rights largely ignored the historical context of the existing social structures, in which race, class, gender, and indigenous history all played a part in forming different local groups’ perception of the government. For instance, Speed recounts the history of the indigenous Chol Indians in Chiapas: during a fifty-year period of harsh treatment at the hands of exploitative coffee producers, the Chol “developed a binary understanding of the world, in which Chols were equated with good, and Kaxlanes, or non-Chols, with evil” (Speed 73). In the 1930s, the Cardenas regime implemented an agrarian reform project, which provided large tracts of farmland to the Chol. They took their land and gladly retreated from the national economy: as a result, the Chol saw the PRI government as an ally who freed them from the oppressive ruling of the mosojantel and allowed them to enjoy their culture free of Kaxlane influence or interference. Thus, the EZLN’s anti-government agenda was interpreted by the Chol as a direct attack on their autonomy. It is not that the Chol were necessarily anti-human rights the way we define human rights: it is that these international activists did not consider how their agenda could pose a threat to the autonomy that indigenous groups struggled to achieve over centuries. In this sense, one could fairly say that ‘human rights’ in this context was indeed a form of cultural imperialism: a gross prioritization of Western notions of liberty and justice without regard for or analysis of the nuanced indigenous history that led to varying perceptions of the Mexican government’s legitimacy among local communities. It certainly did not come from a place of malice — it is doubtful that these international activists sought to threaten these indigenous groups — but by rushing to the aid of the EZLN without full understanding of the local discourses in Chiapas, these human rights groups alienated a large population in such a way that prompted violent retaliation.

Similarly, varying discourses of women’s rights caused conflict and discrepancies in the feminist movements growing out of the Nicolas Ruiz community. Speed recounts the split of a feminist political committee that exemplified an issue of individual versus collective: the Zapatista-aligned faction was critical of a particular woman, Dora Matilde, and her perceived desire to promote her own agenda, amplifying her own voice over those of the group. Here, we see the will of the collective obscure an individual ‘outsider’ perspective; Speed expands on this binarist model, noting that “liberal notions of individual rights are not necessarily usefully applied to all women” (Speed 131), using the term ‘feminist ethnocentrism’ to describe this individualistic way of thinking, calling for a reconceptualization of “women’s rights in ways that encompass other experiences, such as collective identities” (Speed 132). Intersectionality, Speed asserts, is critical to understanding women’s oppression: one must think of a woman’s multiple identities not in an ascending or descending order, but as a unique combination of lived experiences based in collective, yet ever-changing norms. Thus, it is not productive to reduce women’s rights to a matter of universal versus cultural norms: rather, we should focus “instead on how women in a particular social context understand their rights” (Speed 133) while adjusting our own perceptions of the nature of these rights.

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