Election of an ombudsman
7 May 2016
Once again Congress is scheduled to make a final vote on a new human rights Ombudsman, this time on 18 May. The preliminaries being over, Congress has proposed two candidates for the position: the sitting interim Ombudsman, Eduardo Vega, and the jurist and former member of both the National Council of Magistrates (CNM) and the National Jury of Elections (JNE), Gastón Soto Vallenas.
However, observers are unlikely to be holding their breath for the result. In what has become a symbol of the dysfunctionality of this much-maligned institution, the appointment of a new Human Rights Ombudsman has been repeatedly thwarted by horse-trading among party bosses. The current interim Ombudsman, Eduardo Vega, has occupied the post by default since the last elected Ombudswoman, Beatriz Merino, stepped down from the post in March 2011. Vega, a highly competent human rights defender, is nevertheless hamstrung in his function by a lack of formal endorsement by Congress.
The Human Rights Ombudsman has assumed an important role in Peruvian national political life as a credible and authoritative defender of human rights, defying the worst effects of Peru's persistent institutional pathologies. In a context of deep public mistrust towards public institutions, the Ombudsman consistently achieves some of the highest public approval ratings of any state institution.
Inevitably, the high profile of the office has led to conflict with partisan political interests, manifesting in repeated efforts by Congress to appoint dubious individuals to lead the office. An attempt in mid-June 2011 to appoint the APRA-backed candidate, Walter Gutiérrez, led to violent scenes in Congress and the quick withdrawal of his candidacy. Since then, there have been repeated aborted attempts to appoint party allies as a successor to Merino. Key to the institution's survival thus far is the requirement of 87 votes for appointment in congress, a high bar which necessitates a high degree of cross-party consensus.
The politicization of this process reached a peak on 17 July 2013. After four hours of intense debate and a protest walk-out by a small group of legislators, the Congress duly appointed Pilar Freitas, a Lima councillor with close ties to Perú Posible, as the new human rights Ombudswoman. Seven days later, reconvened in emergency session, Congress nullified that same decision. Described in the international media as a "coup of the outraged in Peru", Congress had been forced into an extraordinary reversal by massive social protests and the personal intervention of President Ollanta Humala calling on Pilar Freitas "to step aside".
Eduardo Vega has proven himself to be capable and demonstrably independent during his four years as interim Ombudsman, with a long track record as a human rights defender in the NGO sector. Notably, there is no love lost between Vega and the Humala administration which has not forgotten his intervention opposing First Lady Nadine Heredia's potential candidacy for the presidency, as well as the Ombudsman's forceful and ultimately successful campaign against discriminatory policy on compulsory military service.
The Human Rights Ombudsman remains highly regarded in Peru and has managed to avoid the ignominious fate of other ‘heroic’ Ombudsmen at the hands of their political principals. The future of the office is now in the balance once again. Whether Congress ultimately succeeds in its attempts to undermine this symbol of Peru's democratic aspirations will hinge on the enduring strength of public support for this embattled institution.