Opinion: Canada lends a hand in Mexico’s legal reforms

December 12, 2012

Original Article (Vancouver Sun)

By John Weston
December 09,2012

One of the greatest success stories of our foreign diplomacy has been Canada’s role in encouraging human rights and the rule of law in Mexico.

I saw this firsthand when I accompanied our Governor General, the Right Honourable David Johnston, to attend the inauguration of Mexico’s new young president, Enrique Pena Nieto, on Dec. 1.

Many are those in the riding I represent who flocked to join the 1.8 million Canadians who thronged last year to Mexico for sun and sandy beaches. Most of those travel despite their anxiety about drug-related violence and problems experienced by Canadians who end up in Mexican jails.

One of those Canadians is a North Shore resident who spent more than three years in Mexican jails, navigating opaque legal procedures before finally being released for lack of any relevant evidence against him. Based on his ordeal, I resolved to do what I could as a legislator to ensure Canadians in Mexico would be treated more fairly. That resolve, in part, led me to get elected president of the 70-strong Canada-Mexico Parliamentary Friendship Group and to accept the invitation of the Mexican government to the inauguration.

Critics of the Mexican legal system, including many Mexican leaders, say the system suffers defects, not just in dealing with foreigners, but also in dealing with Mexico’s own citizens. President Pena Nieto devoted one-fifth of his hour-long inaugural address to the rule of law. And this is where Canadians, with quiet, cost-effective work, have contributed to an astonishing turnaround.

Our Governor General, a renowned legal scholar in his own right, mentioned in an address to Mexican law students that an effective legal system must deliver justice, not just the rule of law. Justice must include transparency, fairness and integrity.

Mexico’s criminal justice system has followed the inquisitorial system developed from the Napoleonic Civil Code. In such a system, the judge plays more roles than in the British common law system we use. A Mexican judge typically steers the case through the system, determining the timing of hearings and directing the gathering of evidence. The system is closed to the public and media. There is no cross-examination of witnesses nor is there a strong presumption of innocence or an opportunity to receive judgment by one’s peers through trial by jury.

Someone arrested in Mexico today can expect trial by a judge who depends in large part on written testimonies gathered by a prosecutor who interviews witnesses outside the courtroom. Many of those convicted never see the judge who renders verdict.

All of this is changing under the new system. And Canadians are having a powerful impact on the transformation. Up to $8 million of our foreign aid has been invested in professionalizing the police and judiciary in Mexico.

Canadian judges and lawyers are working with Mexican judges, lawyers and law students to prepare them for the enormous task of grafting onto the Mexican system some of the good things from our justice system. To achieve maximum effect, our efforts have wisely been concentrated in four of Mexico’s 31 states. Our contribution has been offered in the spirit of a NAFTA partner truly concerned about safety, security and human rights in Mexico.

The initiative has been welcomed by our Mexican counterparts. The Americans, who have also invested in various aspects of Mexican legal reform, are monitoring our efforts out of deference for what we and our Mexican partners have together accomplished.

No one is saying the Canadian criminal justice system is perfect but Mexican people in search of improving their system are picking and choosing from us the best of what we have to offer in promoting justice and human rights.

Meanwhile, other, more targeted initiatives are underway to ensure Canadians stand a better chance of receiving justice in Mexico. Our government has, with the Mexicans, championed a rapid response team to deal more proactively with situations where one another’s citizens get in criminal-law trouble in one another’s countries.

At the upcoming joint annual meeting of Mexican and Canadian parliamentarians, I have asked for the chance to interview Mexican judges, police and lawyers who have benefited from Canadian training to learn more about the results of our work and to learn if and how Canada might continue to help.

Mexico’s government has acknowledged our efforts, most recently during Pena Nieto’s inauguration ceremonies. I believe the new Mexican leadership is committed to continue to work with Canada, not only on human rights and security issues, but across an array of economic and other issues.

In the words of our Governor General at the inauguration, “It is very important to Canada and the world that Mexico be successful.”

In the area of legal reform, we are doing more than our part.

John Weston is the member of Parliament for West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country.

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