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