Mirtha Vásquez talks to the PSG about the criminalisation of protest
21 October 2017
This year’s annual PSG conference had the pleasure of listening to a poignant keynote speech by Mirtha Vázquez, a woman human rights defender who works for Grufides in Cajamarca. Grufides has been at the centre of disputes in this region between communities and large mining operations, notably Yanacocha.
The subject of her speech was the criminalisation of human rights defenders and community leaders, understood as encompassing a broad range of tactics designed to restrict social protests and/or those that voice concern about specific economic projects.
She argued that criminalisation is not limited to the way police and security forces intervene to counter social protest, often with excessive force. It is a multi-faceted strategy that includes the modification of the legal penal framework so as “to initiate legal persecution against those that question extractive projects”. It also involves the use of the media (both traditional and new social media) to stigmatise people who participate in social protest and who dissent from the current economic model as being “dangerous for the country”.
So, what are the indicators? For Mirtha, there are many factors that point towards a pattern of criminalisation in Peru. First, the introduction of several laws, dating back to 2007, that have allowed for some acts allegedly committed as part of social protests being classified as ‘extortion’; this is equivalent in legal norms to organised crime that can carry sentences of up to 25 years in prison. Since then, more laws have been introduced, or modified, that further limit the right of communities (and civil society in general) to engage in protest. In 2014, for instance, a law was introduced that effectively makes it impossible to prosecute security forces for using lethal firearms to confront social protest.
More worrying still is the practice of what Mirtha referred to as “preventive denunciations” (denuncias preventivas), increasingly used as a tool to deter human rights activists and other civil society actors from participating in social protest. Where a person says that she or he intends to participate, the preventative denunciation is admissible in the courts; she or he can thus be forcibly brought before a court. People can be made liable to further charges if disturbances arise even if there is no direct evidence as to their guilt.
This runs parallel to the use of “preventive state of emergencies” in regions adjacent to places where protests are taking place, restricting civil liberties even though there is no evidence of the need for an increased police presence.
Although prosecutions of human rights defenders on spurious grounds are usually dropped for lack of evidence, such proceedings can last years and result in significant emotional and financial costs for those involved. There can also be high social costs arising from people killed or injured in altercations between protesters and security forces; and, where police impunity it rife, this adds to the costs of criminalisation.
Mirtha concluded by stressing the importance of international support in showcasing instances where civic society space is restricted, human rights defenders are targeted, and where the judicial system fails to protect them. She emphasised how government often listens to international opinion with greater attention than to local voices. She asked the PSG to help foster links with other international mechanisms and to continue exposing cases in which human rights activists are victimised and/or civic freedoms threatened.