Launch of project website – NHRIs and the prevention of torture

Today I launched with my colleague, Dr. Par Engstrom at UCL, a new research project website ‘National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) and Implementation of UPR Recommendations Relating to Torture Prevention’ which can be accessed here: (English) (Spanish)

The purpose of this research project, which began in August 2011, is to strengthen the capacity of NHRIs in Latin America – Defensorías del Pueblo, Procuradurías y Comisiones de los Derechos Humanos – to engage with the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council to promote State implementation of international torture prevention standards (CAT and OP-CAT).  NHRIs as torture prevention mechanisms are well-placed to ensure better understanding of local context, monitor follow-up and facilitate implementation of CAT obligations and their role is increasingly recognised within UN structures.  This project was initially made possible by a grant from the Human Rights and Democracy Programme of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The project has a number of objectives, including:

  1. Establish networks among NHRI and government officials, local civil society organisations and external stakeholders within the UN and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights focused on implementation of international torture prevention standards.
  1. Creation of a multimedia dissemination tool to facilitate regular communication of NHRIs and stakeholders and enhance transparency and exposure.
  1. Publication of a declaration based on Buenos Aires workshop held in December 2011, including specific action points for NHRIs on implementation of UPR recommendations relating to international torture prevention standards and State obligations under CAT and OPCAT.

The website highlights the important work of NHRIs in Latin America in the area of torture prevention and their engagement with the Universal Periodic Review process.  It is also intended as an information ‘wiki-resource’ and toolkit for project stakeholders and those with a scholarly and/or professional interest in the work of NHRIs in Latin America and elsewhere.  Towards this end, we will continue to build the website and would be extremely grateful for any electronic documentation, resources or news items that your organisation could contribute to enrich website content.

In addition to the website launch, we also issued the finalized Buenos Aires Meeting Declaration:

We believe it does justice to the impressive substance and quality of debate we enjoyed in Buenos Aires last December.

Looking ahead, the website will provide a venue for updates on new developments, events and announcements by NHRIs, project stakeholders, and partner institutions and we hope you will stay connected.

A (brief) political synopsis of the Bolivian Human Rights Ombudsman

Rolando Villena, the current Bolivian Defensor del Pueblo

Activated in 1998 under the leadership of the first Defensora, Ana María Romero Campero (1998-2003), the Defensoría quickly emerged as a powerful human rights voice from within the state.  As with many such accountability innovations that accompanied the sweeping neoliberal reforms of the 1990s, the Defensoría was conceived by its designers as a tool of modernisation and administrative efficiency.  That the Defensoría quickly and decisively moved away from the ‘neoliberal category’ to become an authoritative human rights champion is largely attributable to Romero and the election of a principled individual with strong inter-personal ties to social actors.  Various high profile acts during her tenure, including opposition to coca eradication policies under the government of Hugo Banzer (1997-2001), mediation efforts alongside the Catholic Church in the 2000 so-called ‘Water Wars’, and a decision to go on hunger strike in the wake of the shooting dead of 67 people by military forces during the ‘Gas War’ of October 2003 cemented her reputation and indeed the institutional credibility of the Defensoría itself.  This final controversial act was credited by the then sitting Vice-President as ‘[destroying] the government’s support base within the middle class’.

Underlying these cycles of violent conflict was a crisis of representation, with the privatisation of public utilities and deterioration of economic and social conditions fuelling popular dissatisfaction with faltering representative institutions.  This combustible mix provoked a situation of almost constant social protest throughout the early 2000s, a political crisis that toppled three governments in quick succession, and paved the way for the eventual election of Evo Morales, the leader of the Movement for Socialism (MAS), and a radical new political agenda.  Throughout this period, the Defensoría has withstood powerful political crosswinds to retain its status as a credible human rights actor under Romero’s successor Waldo Albarracín (2003-2008), a prominent human rights lawyer and former President of the Permanent Human Rights Assembly (APDHB) and his successor Rolando Villena (2010-present).  As Albarracín puts it, “the people know that the Defensoría is not with the government, not against the government, and not afraid of the government.”[1]

However, ensuring independence has not been simple.  The Defensor is elected by a two-thirds majority in Congress for a term of six years, enjoys legal immunity for acts carried out in the performance of his/her duties, and has broad budgetary and operational autonomy.  Notwithstanding formal design safeguards, the Bolivian office has repeatedly been subject to interference and delays in appointment.  Congress has routinely violated its legal obligation to elect a new Defensor within 30 days of the post falling vacant.  First, in October 2003 the embattled Sanchez de Lozada government (2001-2003) summarily replaced Romero with its own preferred candidate.  The collapse of the Lozada government and under intense pressure from civil society the new Defensor was forced to stand down just 11 days later.  In effect, social actors mobilised to ensure the integrity of the Defensoría and further compelled Congress to elect Albarracín to the post two months later.  Upon Albarracín’s departure in December 2008 Congress failed to elect a successor for well over a year, leaving the institution in a debilitating state of insecurity.  Rolando Villena, a Methodist Bishop and former President of the APDHB, was finally elected in May 2010 with the support of the governing MAS party.  Notwithstanding initial concerns, Villena has proven to be a serious voice for human rights, unafraid of criticising government policy.

A new political context has facilitated a more expansive rights agenda; but the turbulence of the period has also presented profound challenges to the integrity of the Defensoría.  The issue of human rights has become one more arena of intense contestation between highly polarised political forces in a context of endemic social conflict, an increase in what the Defensoría has termed the ‘racialisation’ of political violence, and attempts at secession by departments in the East.  Social actors aligned with the Morales government have gone so far as to question the need for a Defensoría “when we [the people] now defend the community”.[2] In turn, those opposed to Morales have repeatedly attempted to co-opt the Defensoría to their own partisan ends.  Some argue that the price of independence for the office has been a bunkering down, a lowering of its public profile – with Albarracín criticised on occasion for not confronting the government on high-profile politically-charged human rights issues. Albarracín conceded in interview in 2008 that “the environment is not favourable, as the Defensoría we are always in the eye of the storm disliked by both government and opposition for not taking sides.”[3] This claim seems to be borne out by the critical assessment of Albarracín’s tenure by the Vice-President, Álvaro García Linera:

“The role of Defensor demands not only being on the side of civil society, but also a regard for strengthening the State and the rule of law…This [Albarracín] failed to do, the State was under assault, it was subject to mutilation and division, the Defensor should have defended the State as guarantor of the liberties and rights of the people.”

A number of factors emerge from this brief synopsis which are worth highlighting.  Firstly, as with many other cases in the region, leadership is central to understanding the experience and impact of the Bolivian Defensoría. The ability of the Bolivian Defensoría to retain independence is largely attributable to the personal qualities of Romero, Albarracín and Villena.  It is also critical to the strategic direction of the institution and its relations to other actors within and outside state structures – especially powerful and mobilised social movements.  Although Romero liked to characterise the Defensoría as a bridge between state and society, such a bridging function is in practice perilous and always hostage to partisan forces on both sides of the divide.  Given such conditions, advancing a human rights mandate will inevitably be shaped by powerful external, cross-cutting pressures and the often incompatible demands and expectations that arise.  Nevertheless, the Defensoría has attempted imperfectly, but importantly, to address these new and competing demands.

* Extract from forthcoming paper.  Please do not cite without permission of the author.  Comments gratefully received.

[1] Waldo Albarracín, former Defensor del Pueblo (2003-2008), interview with author, La Paz, 15 July 2008.
Sonia Cuentas, functionary in the Bolivian Defensoría del Pueblo, interview with author, La Paz, Bolivia 17 July 2008.
Albarracín in interview with author, 15 July 2008.

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…”