Impunity in Peru: The Importance of Civil Society

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In April 2009 Aldo Panfichi, a professor at Peru’s Pontificia Universidad Católica and consultant for OSI’s Latin America Program (disclosure: my current employer), carried out a survey of 462 residents of Lima about their perceptions of NGO’s. He found that respondents generally have a favorable view of NGO’s, but have very little idea of what it is they actually do.

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As I have written before, NGO’s tend to struggle at communicating their vision, strategy, and activities clearly to a public audience. Partly I believe this is because there is a tendency to use “NGO-speak”, a quasi-academic, jargon-filled language that aims for inclusion, but ends up mostly just complicating and confusing. Another obstacle is that most NGO’s are over-worked and under-funded. As soon as they achieve something important they are on to the next problem, rather than taking the time to explain how civil society was instrumental in bringing about a particular change.

Case in point: the repeal of the Peruvian congressional decree 1097, which would have given impunity to human rights abusers from Peru’s horrendous era of leftist terrorism and state-sponsored, extra-judicial violence. From the indispensable Hemispheric Brief by Joshua Frens-String:

In an about-face, Peruvian President Alan García has asked his National Congress to repeal a controversial decree he issued two weeks ago which gives what Reuters calls “virtual amnesty” to hundreds of human rights violators. Here’s the chronology of what seems to be a pretty remarkable example of successful human rights community mobilization.

First, the decree under question. A statement from nearly 30 regional human rights groups, released late last week maintains that Decree 1097 seeks to guarantee that human rights violations which occurred in Peru during the 1990s are not considered “crimes against humanity” but rather common crimes. Moreover, rights defenders maintain the measure sets a “temporal limit” on those trials already in progress and requires those cases which have extended beyond that limit to be ended. In the words of WOLA, the decree amounts to “state-sanctioned impunity.”

As reported here yesterday, Alan García, seemed to be feeling the heat from the rights community over the weekend, going so far as to tell the press Sunday that if the Peruvian Congress disapproves of the decree, he would not stand in the way of their overturning it. Then Monday, the bombshell. In a letter to the President, one of the country’s most well-known public intellectuals, author Mario Vargas Llosa, added his voice to the growing opposition. Vargas Llosa:

“The measure shows contempt for all the democratic sectors of this country as well as international public opinion, as displayed in statements by the UN, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, the Episcopal Conference, the Defensoria del Pueblo and representatives of numerous other social and political organizations, among them some APRA congressmen. I am in total agreement with these protests.”

But Vargas Llosa – the president of the country’s Comisión del Lugar de la Memoria — went one step further, resigning from the post to which President García had appointed him. “The reason for my resignation,” said Vargas Llosa Monday, “is the recent Legislative Decree 1097, which undeniably constitutes a disguised amnesty intended to benefit a significant number of individuals connected to the dictatorship.” The Peruvian author continued: “There is an essential incompatibility between sponsoring the construction of a museum to remember the victims of violence unleashed by the Shining Path terrorists and giving liberty to those who, in the course of repressing fanatics, also committed horrendous crimes.”

Upon receiving the letter, IDL-Reporteros says Mr. Garcia immediately telephoned Vargas Llosa, currently in Paris, and indicated that 1) Rafael Rey, the country’s defense minister and one of the principal authors of the decree, was going to be relieved of his position and 2) a bill would be sent to the Congress to overturn decree 1097. Vargas Llosa thanked the president for the change in direction but said he had no intention of revoking his resignation. Just hours later came the public announcement, in just 19 words, released via Twitter. “Ejecutivo presenta Proyecto de Ley para derogar Decreto Legislativo 1097 y pide a Congreso tramitarlo con carácter de urgencia.” For his part, the aforementioned Rey had this to say late Monday: “If Congress annuls [DL 1097], that’s their right, but I will fight until the end.”

Another challenge to understanding the importance of the work of NGOs in a country like Peru is that it takes a lot of time to understand the context. Even if you read every single article that Josh links to from his daily briefing, you still won’t get a sense of the historical importance of the repeal of the decree unless you also take the time to watch Ellen Perry’s incredible documentary, The Fall of Fujimori:

Even then, you still won’t understand the lasting impact of Peru’s era of terrorism and state sponsored violence unless you also watch La Teta Asustada, a 2010 Oscar nominee for best foreign film:

Even then, to really understand what took place, you also need to read the Wikipedia pages for the Barrios Altos Massacre, La Cantuta Massacre, and el Grupo Colina. Finally you would need to read IDL Reporteros’ investigation of who was behind Decree 1097 and why.

That is a lot to watch and a lot to read. But if you do so then you will truly understand the importance of the repeal of Decree 1097 and the role of Peruvian NGO’s in making it happen.

Now, to understand how it is that Alberto Fujimori’s daughter, 35-year-old Keiko Fujimori, is currently leading the polls for next year’s presidential election … well, for that you’ll have to travel to Peru.

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