PSG annual conference highlights criminalisation of protest
15 October 2017
The PSG’s annual conference took place at University College, London, on 14 October.
The day began with an overview of the year in Peru presented by John Crabtree from Oxford University. The year has been dominated by the political impasse created by the lack of support for the president in Congress in ways that have undermined coherent policy-making. This has been aggravated by two major external factors afflicting the country: the huge impact of this year’s El Niño and resultant flooding in many coastal areas including Lima, and the overspill of the corruption crisis in Brazil caused by the Lava Jato affair.
The principle concern of the day was the trend toward increased criminalisation of activities in civil society space, with its adverse consequences for human rights. This was the focus of a strong contribution by Skype from Mirtha Vasquez, an energetic and committed human rights lawyer working with Grufides, an NGO supporting grass-roots groups in northern Peru with particular concern for the impact of mining.
We will present a full version of the interview with Mirtha next week; her insights on the growth of ‘preventative’ denunciations to curb protest before it has even started were both revealing and alarming. She does not see the current government as worsening the situation, but as totally failing, along with the two previous administrations, to remedy harmful laws and norms introduced by Alan García between 2006 and 2011.
The situation in the Amazon in relation to human rights and land titles was summarised by John Beauclerk, who works with a Swiss organisation on land titling there. He was referring not so much to criminalisation of protest as to increased criminalisation corroding the whole area of land rights. Land grabbing has become a massive and growing problem. Individuals grab land to sell on to companies who have plans for commercial development.
Despite numerous safeguards stemming from Velasco’s land legislation of the late 1960s, increasingly these do not work. Intimidation is ever-more common with contract killers now coming from Peru not, as before, from over the border in Brazil. Public attitudes embodied in García’s famous ‘dog in the manger’ statement of 2008 underscore an unfavourable context as well as encourage lethargy in the state’s response. Legal safeguards have been diluted and the right to prior consultation is being weakened by the haphazard way it is adopted. Nevertheless there are some good initiatives for forest defence which the PSG needs to highlight and support.
Ana Zbona from the London-based Business and Human Rights Resource Centre outlined the nature of the Centre’s work in trying to convince business organisations worldwide of the advantages of transparency and in working collaboratively with communities affected by business activities. She underlined the rather gloomy conclusion that most businesses which have been the object of criticism for their activities have a negative view of the role of human rights defenders. Criticised companies normally deny any direct responsibility.
Of those surveyed by BHRRC, extractive companies are in the majority. Its figures show that for companies involved in larger extractive projects (those involving investments of between US$3 and US$5 billion), the cost of conflict can be as high as US$20 million a week. Despite a notable shift to more authoritarian modes of governance in many countries, BHRRC argues that well-run markets can only work effectively when based on observance of the rule of law. There are many groups in society (including lawyers, environmentalists, CSOs, journalists, labour unions and defenders of land rights) which, together, provide a strong coalition in pursuit of improved corporate behaviour.
A possibly more uplifting presentation was given by Katie Jenkins from Northumbria University in Newcastle of her work in progress with indigenous women threatened by mining in Cajamarca. This many-faceted project helps raise awareness of the situation facing women and generate positive alternatives. The women were given cameras for a month (with training) and asked to reflect their reality and the alternatives to mining through their photos. The project has yet to conclude, but the strength of the women’s vision of the beauty and potential of their homeland shines through, providing a clear and upbeat finding. We saw the project as an interesting combination of research and activism, with its potential to increase participants’ awareness of their rights and opportunities.