Category Archives: Latin America

The travails of the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman


The casual observer of Peruvian politics might be hard pressed to keep up with its many twists and turns. To put it plainly, little in Peruvian politics remains constant.

This is evidenced by a highly unstable institutional arena where the rule of law is often subverted and undermined by organisational dysfunction and political interference.  Peruvians are not oblivious to this fact, public approval of congress or the judiciary rarely tops 20%.  Peruvian support for democracy has plumbed the depths of the regional Latinobarómetro surveys, reaching a low of 40% in 2005, although it presently enjoys something of a recovery, buoyed by sustained economic growth.

The fragility of Peru’s institutions can be traced to a history of authoritarian government, widespread, systematic, and episodically massive, violations of human rights, and a political system with a tradition of showing little interest in representing its citizens.

Amid a sea of institutional disorder, one surprising constant has been the small island of functionality that is the Human Rights Ombudsman or Defensoría del Pueblo. It is no exaggeration to say that from its creation in 1996 to the fall of the Fujimori dictatorship in 2000, the Defensoría operated, practically, as the sole democratic agent of accountability within the state.

Even more extraordinarily, the institution has proved capable of adapting to the new democratising panorama and subsequent rotations of democratically elected governments, without succumbing to politicisation or bureaucratic malaise.  Against a backdrop of deep public mistrust towards state institutions, the Defensoría has consistently achieved approval ratings of 50% and above, reaching a high of 65% in 2000 as a result of its brave opposition to the Fujimori dictatorship.

A combination of credible and astute leadership by all three former incumbents, Jorge Santistevan, Walter Alban, and Beatriz Merino, combined with a solid record of principled and high-profile interventions in defence of democratic and human rights has also served to immunise the Defensoría from the worst effects of Peru’s persistent institutional pathologies.

That is, until now.

The future of the institution currently hangs in the balance, or, more specifically, in the less than capable hands of the Peruvian Congress which is entrusted with appointing a successor to the former Defensora, the highly respected and popular Beatriz Merino.

Merino may be of the political class, having served as a former Prime Minister of the Presidential Council of Ministers under Toledo. But, her distinguished service as Defensora and dedication to the role has earned her (sometimes begrudging) respect from the political class, and support from within the media, and human rights organisations.

Merino’s term in office ended in November 2010, but amid congressional gridlock over a successor, Merino remained in post until April 2011 when it became clear, to the exasperation of many, that Congress would not renew her term.

Nine months later, the Defensoría limps along, led by Merino’s Deputy Defensor, Eduardo Vega Luna, acting as Interim.  Vega, a highly competent human rights defender, is nevertheless hamstrung in his function by a lack of formal endorsement by Congress and the profile of the office has dipped.

A widely-criticised attempt by Congress to appoint a successor to Merino in mid-June led to violence amid claims that the outgoing APRA administration wanted to railroad its own candidate.  Pressure is growing on the political class to fulfil its obligation to elect a new Defensor.  In recent days, legislatures of various political stripes have publicly endorsed reappointing Merino as the “ideal candidate”.

It remains unclear whether her candidacy can achieve the 87 votes required or, for that matter, if she would accept the job.  But her recent intimation that she might consider a run for the Presidency in 2016 is likely to have unnerved some within the political class, maybe enough to secure their vote for another five-year term as Defensora.

Let there be no doubt that this is a critical moment for the Defensoría.  Latin America is littered with Defensorías which – having shone brightly, if briefly, for the cause of human rights – have subsequently been assailed and undermined by the political class.

El Salvador is a particularly egregious example of an independent and effective Defensoría having its wings clipped. Following the extremely effective tenure of Victoria Velasquez de Aviles (1995-98), Congress elected Eduardo Peñate Polanco as her successor, a former judge who was at that time under investigation for human rights abuses.  Polanco was expelled from office two years later, but the damage to the Defensoría’s prestige had been done.

Peru is one of the few offices in the region to have avoided this fate, thus far.

For some Defensorías such an event may be terminal, for others recovery is possible. Indeed, the current head of the El Salvadorian office is highly regarded. But the road back to credibility is a long and arduous one.

This is now a very real and present danger for the Peruvian Defensoría.

Merino has proven herself to be a dedicated and forceful Defensora for the cause of human rights.  Since she assumed office, the caseload of the Defensoría has risen from 62,500 in 2005 to 130,000 in 2010, in large part due to the visibility and authority she has given the office.

The Defensoría is one of very few institutions willing and able to respond to Peruvians’ everyday grievances and has become a powerful referent point for human rights in the body politic of the country.

Timely interventions by Merino on issues such as the reinstatement of the death penalty, exhumation of mass graves, arbitrary detentions, communal land rights, corruption, and deaths on the roads have been a mainstay of public discourse in recent years.  Notably, Merino was the first Defensor, and one of very few public officials, to publicly speak out about racism and discrimination in Peru.

Under Merino the Defensoría became a key mediator in escalating socio-environmental conflicts, with high profile, sometimes even decisive, interventions in cases as diverse as Majaz, Moquegua, Bagua, and most recently the Conga.  The Defensoría continues to play a significant role in monitoring rising social conflict, issuing weekly bulletins, recording 217 latent and active conflicts in October 2011.

The real achievements of the Defensoría over its 16 year lifespan show that its legacy must be protected.  The Peruvian Congress needs to be sent a clear signal that it will be held to account if it destroys this enduring institutional symbol of Peru’s democratic aspirations.

Originally published by the Peru Support Group, in Peru Update No. 149, Dec 11-Jan 12

The Human Rights Legacy of Brazil’s Upcoming “Mega-Events”

Preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games are well underway in Brazil, with local government officials in Rio de Janeiro trumpeting the “major success” of initiatives intended to address notoriously high levels of violent crime.

In an attempt to head off widespread concerns, which preceded South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup, the apparent success of initiatives such as the Police Pacification Units (PPUs) cracking down on insecurity in Rio’s shantytowns (many, such as Rocinha, close to popular tourist areas and venues for Olympic events) has been loudly hailed by local politicians and duly reported by the international media.

The Chinese 2008 Olympics served as a catalyst for international human rights mobilization, leading to calls by prominent politicians for the games to be boycotted.

Criticism of Brazil’s human rights record by activist organizations has been far more muted. International media reporting on the impact of Rio’s beefed up security policy, such as this month’s Roundtable article, conspicuously fail to mention human rights at all.

To a large extent, this reflects a lack of equivalence between an authoritarian dictatorship and a constitutional democracy where, according to Freedom House, civil liberties and political rights are broadly respected. Such a claim, however, masks a more complex lived-reality of rights violations.  Indeed, Freedom House data sits uneasily alongside human rights indicators such as the Political Terror Scale, where Brazil is the worst performer in South America after Colombia, sharing equal pegging with China and Russia.

Brazil’s democratic regime faces profound rights challenges, witnessed in a homicide rate of 27.0 per 100,000 people in 2009 (South Africa: 33.8, US: 5.0). The Sangari Institute starkly notes that 192,804 homicides in Brazil between 2004 and 2007 compare with 169,574 people killed in twelve major conflicts over the same period.

At the local level, in Rio de Janeiro the homicide rate in 2009 was 31.8 per 100,000 people, a marked improvement on a high of 51.0 in 2000. That said, observers have recently cautioned against taking official homicide data at face value, noting a recent dramatic rise in violent deaths due to “unknown causes.”

The 2010 report on Brazil by former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, documents pervasive impunity, as well as widespread killings by on-duty police and by off-duty police participating in death squads and militias. The report reserves particular criticism for police practices in Rio de Janeiro, where for every 100 homicides in 2008, the Rio police killed 19.89 people. (Sao Paolo police killed 8.46. By comparison, the rates in South Africa and the US were 2.58 and 2.62 respectively)

To grapple with the causes of massive violations of rights at the hands of state officials within an ostensibly democratic regime is to delve into Brazil’s troubled legacy of dictatorship. High levels of violent crimes, coupled with historical disrespect for civil rights and a culture of official impunity, have reinforced a deep public ambivalence toward human rights.

Alongside very serious violations of political and civil rights, Brazil also confronts structural human rights violations of an economic and social nature, including access to clean water and sanitation.

In the run up to the Games, criticism has focused on the impact of alleged displacement and evictions on the right to adequate housing. The right to adequate housing is protected by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Brazil ratified in 1992.

Brazil is not alone here. The Olympics have been blamed for the forcible removal of two million people over twenty years, with China accounting for three quarters of that total. The legacy effects of the Olympics in Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney (and possibly London) have more often than not been the displacement of the urban poor, leaving a trail of community breakdown, racial tensions, and loss of affordable housing in their wake.

In the spirit of Professor Conor O’Gearty’s observation that human rights is “a visibility project: its driving focus is to get us to see the people around us…it is concerned with the outsider, with the marginalised, and with the powerless…”, the upcoming “mega-events” in Brazil provide an important opportunity to pressure the Brazilian state to act on what are complex human rights challenges.

What will be the rights impact of the PPUs and urban redevelopment? Is this a sincere attempt by the Rio de Janeiro authorities to seek long-term solutions to deeply entrenched rights issues that invariably affect the poorest, most socially and economically vulnerable in the city?

On the housing front, the omens are not good. Local government officials have been criticized for a lack of public consultation on major infrastructure projects that are in progress as part of an $18 billion “Plan for Accelerating Growth” in host cities for the World Cup and Olympics. According to one report, an estimated 150-170,000 people have already been subject to forced removals, with inadequate compensation or suitable alternative housing, to “[c]lear the ground to make way for big, money-making real estate projects.”

As for the PPUs, initial results suggest that this initiative can have a positive impact. In the nineteen (out of 130) gang-controlled favelas where PPUs have been established, they have proven popular, with violent incidents declining dramatically.

The promise of PPUs lies in their potential to transform relations between the police and local communities in Rio and elsewhere. In contrast to the lethal methods employed by the elite special unit battalions to neutralize the power of the drug traffickers, the PPUs offer a very different approach to law enforcement, one that relies on capturing and holding territory through a “permanent” police presence (police do not currently live within the communities).

If sustained, the PPUs might begin to normalize new terms of engagement between the police, drug gangs, and local residents. The PPUs may have been conjured up as a clever ploy for local and international media consumption. Certainly, what is a tentative move in the right direction faces a range of formidable obstacles in terms of resources, institutional resistance, and pervasive mistrust, among others.

However, if the PPUs prove popular, if they achieve modest but real results on the ground, it may become difficult for Brazilian politicians and security officials to later defy demands and expectations for their continuation, even after the Games have packed up and left town. Never underestimate the potential for unintended consequences.

Originally published here.

Human Rights as a Vocation: A Portrait of Ana María Romero de Campero

“With Ana María Romero dies a piece of the history of Bolivia. This woman is who built our democracy.”

These words of remembrance by the Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera marked the death of Ana María Romero de Campero on October 25, 2010, at the age of 69, the first woman President of the Senate of the newly formed Bolivian Plurinational Assembly. In the days that followed, his sentiments were echoed not only by many of the urban elite and professionals of La Paz but also, more unusually, by civil society activists and ordinary Bolivians throughout the country.

Largely unknown outside Bolivia, Ana María Romero dedicated her life to promoting democracy and human rights with particular regard for those most disadvantaged in Bolivian society. Her work reached its apogee with her appointment as the first Defensora del Pueblo in 1998, an office broadly translating its intent into English as “Human Rights Ombudswoman.” The high public standing of the Defensor del Pueblo in Bolivian society today is largely attributable to her forceful leadership as Defensora until 2003. In turn, Ana María used her considerable public popularity as the former Defensora del Pueblo to continue to play a constructive role amidst the turbulent and divisive events that followed Morales’ rise to power in 2005. The recounting of Ana María’s story serves also to reflect, albeit partially, upon the past, the present and the future of Bolivia’s struggle towards viable democracy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ana María at her office in July 2008 as part of my research into the human rights impact of Defensorías del Pueblo in Latin America. Intriguingly, little attention had been paid to these new state human rights institutions although they seemed to be held in high public esteem, in contrast to their much-maligned political systems. Bolivia was no exception. Over the course of a three-hour discussion, Ana María provided valuable insight into the grand schemes and operational minutiae that informed her term as Defensora, as well as the philosophical basis for her actions. A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggested that the Bolivian Defensoría—alongside its Colombian, Guatemalan and Peruvian counterparts—was, and remains, widely regarded as a credible, impactful institution in a sea of dysfunctionality. In the course of my five-year investigation, a recurring predictor of success came into focus: the exceptional leadership qualities of individual Defensores, including Jaime Córdoba Triviño (Colombia), Ramiro de León Carpio (Guatemala), Jorge Santistevan de Noriega (Peru) and Ana María herself.

Ana María Romero Campero was born into a deeply political household in La Paz on June 29, 1941. Her father, Gonzalo Romero, was a leading figure on the left of the Bolivian Socialist Falange (FSB) party, and at the center of the turbulent revolutionary politics of the era. His nationalist revolutionary ideology was likely to have fostered Ana María’s outlook on Bolivian society, as she pursued her own political formation, honing her abilities as a journalist to convey a complex Bolivian reality to the world. A noted irreverence towards the powerful, as well as a gift for mediating conflict, provided early indications of her future vocation.

During decades of political strife, Ana María became a figurehead for independent journalism and a rare authoritative woman’s voice on the national stage. The first woman to preside over the Journalists Association, she also founded and led the Circle of Women Journalists and became President of the National Press Association. In a Bolivian world of male hierarchy, such a trajectory was a significant achievement and perhaps inevitably marked her out for political office. Initially, however, her experience with official politics would be fleeting. In 1979, Ana María was appointed Minister for Information during the short-lived democratic administration of Wálter Guevara Arce that was toppled by one of the many military coups that plagued Bolivia throughout the twentieth century, led on this occasion by General Alberto Natush Busch. Ana María was instrumental in tipping off the international community about the coup with the aid of her personal telex machine.

In the late 1990s, Ana María Romero truly found her voice on the national stage. According to the Bolivian journalist and historian Rolando Carvajal, her influence on some of the most important social and political events of recent years is perhaps exceeded only by Evo Morales. Crucial to this narrative is the almost unanimous congressional endorsement of Ana María as the first Bolivian Defensora in 1998, during the government of erstwhile dictator, later democratically elected, President Hugo Banzer. A novel office, autonomous yet part of the state, and with an explicit human rights promotion and protection mandate, the Defensor del Pueblo appointment provided Ana María with a powerful bullhorn with which to advocate for change. She proved an adept political operator, capable of navigating in an increasingly polarized social reality and a faltering political system. Above all, she had the virtue of understanding that her role as Defensor was to represent a “Magistratura de la Persuasión [Magistrate of Persuasion].” The message that all Bolivians had rights—irrespective of political affiliation or ethnicity—and that the state had a responsibility towards those most vulnerable and marginalized within society had a powerful resonance. Ana María rapidly positioned herself and the institution as a voice for the voiceless.

The Defensor del Pueblo set about reframing human rights as an objective standard apart from the political fray of competing ideologies. Campaigns to redress widely perceived injustices (such as the denial of kidney transplants, reform of the social security code and compulsory military conscription) contributed to her popular appeal as a determined human rights defender in the face of formidable opposition. Against vocal objections by the Bolivian government and U.S. embassy, Ana María intervened in a violent conflict between cocaleros and security forces in 1998 in El Chapare. Her efforts—alongside those of local civil society and church—to generate a space for dialogue are widely credited as having achieved an ultimately peaceful resolution to the impasse.

Ana María was a familiar mediating presence in many other social and political conflicts in the late 1990s and 2000s. During the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, the Defensora actively sought to hold the water utility company and regulators to account. She also successfully petitioned the Constitutional Tribunal to strike down the Banzer government’s state of emergency decree, much to the chagrin of government ministers.

Ana María’s term as Defensora expired in September 2003, and in the midst of a highly contested reelection bid, the Gas War saw countrywide protests against the selling of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves to the United States through Chilean territory. On October 11, 2003, on the order of Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, military forces shot to death an estimated 67 people in El Alto and left hundreds more wounded. In response, Ana María began a hunger strike in protest against the actions of the Sánchez de Lozada government, quickly joined by hundreds of human rights activists. This controversial action was regarded even by some of her family as a step too far. Nevertheless, Ana María felt compelled by a “moral duty” to do something. In our interview, she commented simply, “I suppose this action was coherent with my life and, in particular, my work as Defensora.” It proved effective. Then-sitting Vice President Carlos Mesa remarks in his 2008 memoir, Presidencia Sitiada: Memorias de mi Gobierno, that the action by the Defensora “resulted in the destruction of the government’s support base within the middle classes,” almost certainly contributing to the fall of the government days later.

These events would eventually redefine Bolivian politics, precipitating a seismic shift in the political landscape with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. In the wake of Black October, Ana María did not seek reelection as Defensora. Nevertheless, her legacy as a human rights advocate, as well as the prestige she brought to the office, has contributed to the appointment of credible individuals as successors. Both Waldo Albarracín (2003-2008) and the current Defensor Rolando Villena are highly respected within the human rights community. The election of Morales and ascendance of the traditionally excluded marks a decisive break from the old political model. This inverting of the old order ushered in a period that has seen high levels of polarization and bitter social conflict along political, regional and ethnic lines. Such a challenging new context has also demanded adaptation and reinvention on the part of democratic and rights-oriented stakeholders.

The former Defensora turned her energy towards conflict resolution, negotiation and dialogue, resulting in the 2005 creation of the NGO Fundación UNIR.

While generally supportive of the reforms undertaken by the Morales government, Ana María remained an independent- minded and constructive critic of the administration. Notwithstanding intermittent disagreements, her relationship with Evo Morales remained one of mutual respect and even admiration. An invitation in October 2009 for her to stand as the first MAS Senator for La Paz in the newly formed Plurinational Assembly was widely viewed as Morales’ attempt to broaden the appeal of the MAS to the urban middle classes and intellectual elites. After some deliberation, Ana María accepted the invitation and publicly endorsed the general direction of Morales’ political project. Elected Senator for La Paz in December 2009, she was unanimously appointed President of the Senate shortly thereafter. Illness denied Ana María the chance of fully realizing the role of “mediator-in-chief ” within the Senate. Nevertheless, her election to one of the highest offices in the land was a fitting tribute to a life lived in defense of ordinary Bolivians’ human and democratic rights.

Originally published: