The next Human Rights Ombudsman:continuing delay
2 November 2014
The speaker for the Regional Union (UR) party in Congress, Mariano Portugal, may have expressed his confidence at the beginning of October that a new Human Rights Ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) would be elected by the end of the month – but it is unlikely many observers held their breath.
Almost four years since Beatriz Merino formally stepped down as Human Rights Ombudsman in 2011, Congress has once again failed in its duty to appoint someone to this important public role. In the intervening years, the office has been debilitated by a lack of political support and chronic under-funding. Nevertheless, under the stewardship of interim Ombudsman Eduardo Vega, the ombudsman's office has doggedly continued to fulfil its mandate across a wide range of rights fronts.
Sadly, as with many other public appointments, the Human Rights Ombudsman has become the victim of horse-trading in Congress. This practice, endemic in Peruvian politics, was brought into sharp relief in July 2013 when Congress, without any prior public consultation, arbitrarily appointed three individuals with strong political party connections as magistrates to the Constitutional Tribunal and the post of Human Rights Ombudsman. In the face of massive popular protest in the streets of Lima, President Ollanta Humala felt compelled to intervene and annul the appointments. While appointments to the Constitutional Tribunal have since been made, the Ombudsman appointment process has languished.
The remaining four candidates being considered for the post in the current protracted round of congressional negotiations include the highly respected jurist and former Deputy Human Rights Ombudsman for Constitutional Affairs, Samuel Abad, the sitting interim Ombudsman, Eduardo Vega, as well as Víctor Gastón Soto, former member of the National Elections Board, and Walter Gutiérrez, the former Deacon of the College of Lawyers in Lima.
One reason why the election of the Human Rights Ombudsman has proven so contentious within Congress is the popularity of the institution. In a sea of institutional dysfunctionality, the Human Rights Ombudsman stands almost alone in terms of both effective function and popular approval. For the duration of its 18-year life span, it has consistently achieved public approval ratings of 50% or above, far higher than Congress or the judiciary. The office's enduring prestige is, in part, a product of its brave opposition to the Fujimori dictatorship under the astute leadership of the first national ombudsman, Jorge Santistevan.
Under successive leaders, the Human Rights Ombudsman has maintained a record of principled and high-profile interventions in defence of human rights and democracy, serving as the guardian of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's legacy and, in more recent years, engaging on issues as diverse as prison conditions, social protest in the context of socio-environmental conflicts, and the protection of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual (LGBT) rights.
Once again the fate of the office hangs in the balance. Dedicated and forceful leadership is the sine qua non for an independent and effective human rights ombudsman. Unfortunately, a Congress riven by particularistic interests does not see it that way.