New ombudsman threatens to downplay human rights protection
18 September 2016
As reported two weeks ago, Congress was due to vote on a new human rights ombudsman on 6 September; it has duly anointed the declared front runner Walter Gutiérrez. Eleven years since Congress last mustered the absolute majority required to elect Ombudswoman Beatriz Merino, this is an achievement of sorts. However, the election of Gutiérrez has given human rights observers little cause for celebration.
It was the Fujimorista Fuerza Popular (FP) bloc’s overwhelming majority in Congress which secured Gutiérrez’s election over a much more qualified candidate, Samuel Abad. Former ombudsman Walter Albán highlighted the lack of political consensus in spite of the absolute majority being surpassed.
In a hastily convened congressional public audience, two candidates, Enrique Mendoza and Samuel Abad, laid out their plan of action for the post. For his part, Gutiérrez declined to appear. Even the party of President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was split, with five of its members of Congress defying their leader’s wishes for the grouping to vote en bloc for the majority candidate (Gutiérrez). Many opposition legislators expressed their concern about Gutierrez’s links to APRA and FP.
Gutiérrez’s first few days in office have been dogged by scandal. On 9 September, three days after his election, the journalist César Hildebrandt published an exposé alleging that Gutiérrez was guilty of property fraud. Initially denouncing the publication as a criminal act, a day later Gutiérrez admitted to his involvement in the financial arrangement but denied any wrongdoing.
The scandal has cast a shadow over the new ombudsman. Meanwhile, leading longstanding experienced officials within the institution have begun to depart.
Deep uncertainty surrounds the policy intentions of the new ombudsman, especially regarding sensitive human rights issues such as past violations, freedom of assembly, and the rights of vulnerable groups. Addressing past allegations of improper conduct, Gutiérrez has sought to deny his involvement in the controversial special commission set up to investigate the Bagua conflict in 2009.
One of the last actions taken by Eduardo Vega, the departing and highly-rated interim ombudsman since 2011, was to issue a public recommendation calling on government to implement measures to uphold the rights of the lesbian, gay, transsexual, bisexual and intersexual (LGBTI) community, including recognition of civil partnerships. In response to questioning, Gutiérrez affirmed his support for civil partnership, prompting the ire of the polemical cardinal, Juan Luis Cipriani. Cipriani has demanded that civil partnership, as well as provision of the morning-after pill be put to a referendum.
The most pressing concern surrounds Gutiérrez’s position on past violations, specifically those crimes committed under the Fujimori administration (1990-2000). FP associates such as the former congressman, Alejandro Aguinaga, have already signalled their approval of Gutiérrez’s election, stating that “human rights will now be for all Peruvians, not just the left”. Gutiérrez has responded elliptically that “if some have linked him to [FP], it is because he is not anti-Fujimorista”.
Worryingly, Gutiérrez has been at pains to distance himself from the much revered first ombudsman, Jorge Santistevan, noting the transformed “historical and economic context”. He went on to insist that the ombudsman’s role demands “a new focus”, implying a shift from the robust human rights protection and promotion activity which has defined the office since it first opened its doors in 1996. Gutiérrez went onto say that the primary obligation of the ombudsman should be to supervise the efficient functioning of public services. As La Mula has put it, “what is to become of Peru’s human rights ombudsman? Is it to be reduced to yet another supervisory entity (among many)? Who will defend our human rights”?