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.

En Memoria: Professor Guillermo O’Donnell

It is with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Professor Guillermo O’Donnell in Buenos Aires on Tuesday 29, November 2011.  O’Donnell was one of the most brilliant and influential political scholars of his generation, and an inspiration to generations of students tackling the complex issues of democratisation and authoritarianism.  You can read a tribute to him here by Professor Scott Mainwaring of University of Notre Dame.

For my part, Guillermo O’Donnell was and remains a seminal influence in my work on democratisation, political accountability and human rights.  His conceptual innovations including delegative democracy, horizontal accountability and appointed institutions have done a lot of heavy lifting in my own research on human rights institutions in Latin America.

O’Donnell’s work has been a source of inspiration and an indispensable companion in making sense of a complex and often murky Latin American political landscape. The extraordinary contrasts I observed as a DPhil student fresh off the plane in Peru between Lima (the capital of Peru) and Huancavelica (the high Peruvian Andes) made a lot more sense when looked through O’Donnell’s prism of ‘brown areas’; territory where liberal guarantees and the rule of law are absent and subject to violations by state agents.

In short, O’Donnell’s work has been a gateway to my own more careful examination and appreciation of the Latin American lived reality. In his own words:

The compelling challenge in ‘societies marked not only by pervasive poverty but also, and even more decisively for our theme, by deep inequalities, is how to ensure that the weak and poor are at least decently treated by [state] agents…’

On a more personal note, O’Donnell was a long-term collaborator of my DPhil supervisor, Laurence Whitehead and a frequent visitor to Nuffield College, Oxford.  In my first year as a DPhil student, I found myself in a seminar with Guillermo and was introduced as a ‘horizontal accountability’ enthusiast.  Guillermo graciously expressed an interest in reading my draft work.

Upon emailing it over that afternoon, I received a short message of thanks and thought that might be that. An hour later, another email popped into my in-tray: “I’ve just read your very interesting texts…”

The following Tuesday afternoon we spent the best part of an hour discussing my MPhil study of the Peruvian human rights ombudsman, accountability theory, and where I might take the project as I made the leap to a comparative frame.  Listening again to the recording of the conversation, I am struck anew by his enthusiasm and gentle encouragement: “I thought it was very good, excellent, I learnt a lot…”

The US on the Palestinian Statehood Bid: Weighing the Costs

Reflecting on the controversy surrounding the Palestinian bid for statehood, Richard Falk neatly subverts the opening words of the UN Charter, “we the people,” as having always surrendered to “we the governments,” and, in the modern era of American empire, “we the hegemon.”

This may well be true. The UN Security Council (UNSC), in particular, is viewed in Washington as a vehicle for hegemonic ambitions—to be indulged when it serves its purpose and vetoed and sidelined when it does not. Unfolding events at the UNSC, reportedly due to vote on the Palestinian resolution on November 11 but now postponed perhaps indefinitely, do much to affirm this assessment.

But what are those hegemonic ambitions? Prominent moderate and more conservative thinkers are struggling to answer this central question, with experts of diverse political stripes expressing concern at the political fallout of Israeli and US belligerence towards the Palestinian bid. As Washington Post columnist Thomas Friedman reports: “I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future…”

The difficulties encountered by the Obama administration in pursuing a policy deeply at odds with much of the international community in the “Global South,” and the possible costs to the US and its regional allies and clients—both foreseeable and unintended—of opposing the largely symbolic Palestinian bid at the UN, certainly raise the question: what is the payoff?

The default position of many commentators is to point to the inordinate influence of the Israeli lobby on domestic politics in Washington, especially as the 2012 election year approaches. This would appear to be borne out in a recent opinion poll, which suggests that a majority of Americans actually support the Palestinian resolution. But is the Israeli lobby really powerful enough to “force the [Obama] administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s”?

Reflecting growing alarm in Washington, US officials have embarked—some would say rather belatedly—on a concerted push to derail or pre-empt a vote at the Security Council, without success. Diplomatic entreaties in recent weeks have given way to last ditch efforts at arm-twisting as momentum has built around the Palestinian bid. However, the US has struggled to get a grip on the situation.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has signaled that there is “no greater threat” to US support and funding of the UN than the prospect of Palestinian statehood being endorsed by member states. UNESCO has become the first test of US resolve, with the organization voting to recognize Palestinian statehood (a vote not subject to US veto).

Reaction has been swift and decisive. The US withheld $50 million in funds from the organization, sending a clear signal to the broader UN community. For its part, Israel has responded to the UNESCO vote by speeding up settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Neither action is likely to be looked on kindly by allies or adversaries; indeed, the White House and the British Foreign Secretary have expressed deep disappointment in the Israeli response. This provocative move by Israel further undermines the already tenuous credibility of US insistence on a negotiated settlement.

This round of retribution follows the earlier punitive decision by the US Congress to freeze $200 million of economic aid destined for the Palestinian Authority. That move drew criticism from across the political divide, including from Hilary Clinton, who voiced concern that it will provide an opening for radical groups to fill the vacuum.

Unable to deter the Abbas administration, US attention has turned to the Security Council. With the majority of UNSC members having signaled their voting intentions, diplomatic maneuvering has focused on those few remaining undeclared members, Gabon, Nigeria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in an attempt to secure the nine votes necessary to avoid a US veto.

At the time of writing, this approach appears to have worked. With Britain and France declaring their intention to abstain – despite the latter voting in favor of Palestinian statehood at UNESCO – and Colombia, Portugal, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany expected to oppose the resolution, the Palestinian leadership can count on only eight votes in support (China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon).

The costs to the US of checking Palestinian ambitions may be significant, in so far as doing so further diminishes US influence in the Middle East. US foreign policy commentators have singled out repression of Shia minorities by US client regimes and the enduring plight of the Palestinians as the two key issue areas undermining US efforts to win hearts and minds in the region.

Only last year, Barack Obama declared his ambition that a negotiated agreement “will lead to a new member of the United Nations.” However, the apparent inability of the US to halt Israeli settlement activity, combined with the revelations of the Palestinian papers, which documented Israel’s rejection of historic concessions by the Palestinians, have left many observers deeply disillusioned about the prospects for peace through negotiation and the sincerity of Obama’s rhetoric.

Stalwart US allies in the region have counseled the US to support the Palestinian bid. Saudi Arabia has declared that its “special relationship” with the US risks becoming “toxic.” Recent reports of Saudi Arabian nuclear ambitions indicate the regime’s growing sense of vulnerability. Similarly, Jordan has expressed deep concern at the prospect of the Palestinians being “really short-handed on this issue.” Turkey has also signaled its intention to defy US entreaties.

In the background lies the bigger uncertainty for the US regarding the growing influence of Iran, its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the continuing fallout of the Iraq invasion. The refusal by the Iraqi government to allow continuation of a US military presence (under current immunity laws) after 2011 was widely reported as a major diplomatic and military rebuff.

Against this backdrop of deep uncertainty, can the US afford to further alienate the Arab world by blocking the Palestinian bid for statehood? Are the hands of the hegemon tied by the Israeli lobby? No doubt, many of those who argue that the preponderance of the Israeli lobby has forced the hand of the US are sincere.

However, to sound a more skeptical note, it is also likely that US policymakers have conducted their own risk assessment and concluded that the costs are either acceptable or largely immaterial given the country’s unrivaled hegemonic status. Some decision-makers may argue that opposition to the Palestinian bid actually serves US interests by signaling cast-iron support for Israel.

Israel is a de facto US aircraft carrier in the region—an important asset for the projection of US power by proxy. However, as part of this arrangement, Israel’s dependence on US patronage is absolute, which raises the question: is Israel really in a position to dictate terms to Washington on the Palestinian bid, or on any other issue for that matter?

As for US allies in the region, Washington may view their continued allegiance over the long term as uncertain in any case. Strongly worded support by Clinton and others for democratization in the region is likely to jeopardize relations with autocratic allies, such as the Saudi royal family.

Despite arguments to the contrary, this reading of events suggests that it is still, very much, a case of “we the hegemon”.

Published here: http://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/roundtable/2011/panel-c/11-2011/pegram-2011b.html