Rights groups dismayed at lack of criticism for Peru abuses

In less than two months, more than 50 people have died in Peru, largely protesters at the hands of police officers

Daniel Politi
Tuesday 24 January 2023 16:30 GMT

In less than two months, more than 50 people have died in Peru, largely protesters at the hands of police officers. And while a few international voices of concern have emerged, much of the regional and global community has largely remained silent.

The silence comes at the dismay of human rights groups who are calling for more condemnation of the state violence after then-President Pedro Castillo was impeached and imprisoned for trying to dissolve Congress.

“The feeling is we’re alone,” said Jennie Dador, executive secretary of Peru’s National Human Rights Coordinator, a civil society group. “None of the states in the region have done anything concrete.”

As regional leaders gather in Argentina's capital on Tuesday for a meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, there were signs that, at least for now, some leaders appear to prefer to leave the issue aside.

But not all. Chile’s President Gabriel Boric said there was “an urgent need for a change in Peru because the result of the path of violence and repression is unacceptable.” Mexico's president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a staunch supporter of Castillo, gave a recorded message in which he demanded an “end to the repression” in Peru.

The two regional leaders spoke shortly after President Alberto Fernández of Argentina did not mention Peru in the opening of the regional summit.

That dynamic illustrates how although Peru's repression of protests has received some global attention, activists say it is far less than what they would expect considering 56 people have died since Dina Boluarte, the former vice president, was sworn in as president Dec. 7. Of that total, 45 have been in direct clashes with security forces, according to Peru’s ombudsman.

“The international community has expressed concern, but really I think it could be more forceful,” César Muñoz, associate director of the Americas division at Human Rights Watch, said. A key thing other governments in the region could do, Muñoz added, is emphasize “that the rule of law means there must be independent investigations of all the deaths.”

Latin American leaders are meeting on a day when yet another large protest is expected in Peru’s capital, the latest in a series of street demonstrations that began last week when thousands, many from remote Andean regions, descended on Lima for mobilizations to demand Boluarte’s resignation, immediate elections and the dissolution of Congress.

In Lima, protesters have been met with volleys of tear gas as the government has maintained a defiant attitude, accusing protesters of fomenting violence and using street demonstrations to take power. Before last week, most of the large anti-government protests took place in remote regions of Peru, largely in the country’s south, exposing deep division between residents of the capital and the long-neglected countryside.

While human rights activists agree there have been acts of violence by protesters — including efforts to take over airports and the burning of police stations — that does not justify a broader effort to criminalize political protest in general.

“Peru has managed to fly under the radar,” Marina Navarro, executive director of Amnesty International Peru, said. “Given the gravity of the situation, with this number of people who have died, we don’t see as much said about it as there could be.”

That same pattern is likely to continue in Buenos Aires on Tuesday after much speculation that some countries were going to try to bring up the issue during the regional summit.

“Peru is a prickly issue,” said an official in Argentina’s Foreign Ministry who declined to speak on the record because they are not authorized to talk publicly about policy. “From a regional point of view, Peru is a reason for worry and division.”

Negotiations over whether to include the issue at the summit continued until Monday, the official said, noting there was a general agreement to leave controversial issues aside to focus on things where there could be a general consensus.

The crisis in Peru that has sparked the worst political violence the country has seen in more than two decade, has proven to be a divisive issue in Latin America with some of the more left-leaning governments in the region expressing support for Castillo, Peru’s first leader from a rural Andean background who was facing his third impeachment proceeding of his young administration when he tried to dissolve Congress.

Yet the larger question about how Boluarte rose to power should not impede comments about abuses, human rights organizations say.

“There must be international pressure for this government to cease all types of repressive attitudes and that has nothing to do with emitting an opinion about the government’s legitimacy,” said Manuel Tufró, the head of the justice and security division at the Center for Legal and Social Studies, an Argentine human rights organization.

But Boluarte’s government has also made clear it won’t take any criticism lightly.

After law enforcement raided a university in Lima on Saturday, where some protesters who traveled from far-away regions for the protests were being housed, Colombian President Gustavo Petro wrote on Twitter that the Organization of American States must “examine Peru’s case.”

Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Alberto Otarola fired back and said Petro should “worry about your own affairs.”

Peru’s Foreign Ministry later issued a formal note of protest against what it described as Petro’s involvement “in issues of domestic politics.” It also issued a protest against Bolivia after its president, Luis Arce, expressed support for the protests.

One of the strongest statements criticizing Peru’s actions came from outside the region, with the European Union saying Monday that it “deplores the very large number of casualties since the start of the protests” and reiterated “its condemnation of the widespread acts of violence as well as the disproportionate use of force by security forces.”

The U.S. ambassador in Lima, Lisa Kenna, also surprised many observers earlier this month when she issued a statement saying it was “fundamental for law enforcement to respect human rights, the right to protest and protect the citizenry.”

For some analysts, the tepid response from the region tells a larger story about how Peru’s recent history of political crises — with six presidents over the past six years — means it has lost prominence on the world stage.

“Peru as a country has lost presence,” Oscar Vidarte, an international relations professor at the Catholic University of Peru, said. “It’s a chaotic country, a country that has become ungovernable, questioned in terms of democracy and respect for human life … countries in the region have clearly turned their backs.”


Associated Press writer Almudena Calatrava in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.

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