Irish president visits Peru

11 February 2017

President Michael D. Higgins this week became the first Irish head of state to visit Peru. He was in Lima to celebrate historic links, as well as to strengthen cultural, economic and political relations between the two nations. The state visit included the signing of an agreement to facilitate political consultations between the two nations, as well as commemorating the influence of human rights advocate Sir Roger Casement. In advance of his meeting with President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, Higgins was briefed by civil society organisations on the human rights situation in Peru.

Among the events attended by Higgins, who arrived in Lima on 8 February was an exhibition about Casement, the pioneering Irish human rights advocate and rebel who revealed the scale of violations committed during the Peruvian rubber boom at the beginning of the 20th century. His work in exposing abuse of indigenous peoples in the Putumayo region of the Peruvian Amazon was the inspiration for Mario Vargas Llosa’s novel, ‘The Dream of the Celt’.

President Higgins is himself a long-standing human rights activist, with strong ties to Latin America through his involvement in solidarity movements with Chile and Nicaragua, among others. He is a former recipient of the Seán MacBride Peace Prize in recognition of his work for peace and justice.

In a powerful and emotive speech delivered in Lima, Higgins evoked the importance of protecting indigenous rights from the depredations of extractive industries, evoking the memory of Casement whose powerful writings about the violations wrought upon the peoples of the Amazon jungle during the rubber boom led eventually to the collapse of the Casa Arana, one of the main companies involved in the Peruvian rubber trade. He linked the Irish struggle for independence from British colonialism to anti-colonial movements across Latin America. Casement, who had worked for the British foreign service in Africa and Latin America, was shot by firing squad for his involvement in the 1916 Easter Rising.

Higgins also showed he was just as concerned for the present as for the past. “Can it be that, nowadays, no one cares about the immunity sought once again by morally irresponsible, but powerful, commercial interests in sectors such as mining, oil drilling and logging? Can it be that no one objects to industrial strategies predicated upon the seizure of land and the appropriation of natural resources, notwithstanding the rights of those whose ancestors were caretakers of the forests and the great rivers, those who are dependent today on those resources to preserve their particular ways of life? Can it be that no one wishes to recall the names of those environmentalists and indigenous activists who are murdered year after year in the name of greed and a new rush to the forest, this time for gold, and oil, and gas, and exotic timber?”

In advance of his trip – which also included visits to Colombia and Cuba – Higgins received briefings on human rights issues in the region from Irish civil society organisations. Members of the Latin America Solidarity Centre, in consultation with NGOs in Peru, prepared a briefing paper on the human rights situation in Peru. The document is available on the Conga Conflict blog. Higgins had been expected to raise issues regarding human rights and socio-environmental conflict in his meeting with President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski.

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    The Peru Support Group exists to promote social inclusion, sustainable development and the observance of human rights in Peru. To that end the PSG highlights shortcomings in observance of established norms, whether international or local in nature, in its research, advocacy and publications. In so doing, it underscores the relationships that exist within the political system, how institutions work, and the effectiveness of policies that aim to reduce poverty and inequality within the context of sustainable development.

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    Over the past century Peru has suffered a series of autocratic governments and a civil war in which nearly 70,000 people died. Many of the country's ongoing political and social problems are a legacy of its somewhat turbulent past. 

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