On 14 February, during the 171th period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), civil society organisations had the opportunity to present their ongoing concerns about the situation of human rights defenders in Peru. They believe it has reached a crisis point.

The government has made a series of commitments to establish a framework to protect human rights defenders at risk, and has taken some steps towards this by developing a protocol for their protection under the auspices of the Justice Ministry. However, those representing civil society point to the lack of involvement by other crucial ministries and state agents, in particular the Interior Ministry of the public prosecutor’s office. Without their involvement, such mechanisms mean little, they claim. They also stress the need to address the causes of the risks to which human rights defenders are exposed.

The hearing was petitioned by the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH/OMCT). During the session, civil society representatives pointed to the 121 documented killings of human rights defenders since 2011 and to 900 cases of criminalisation.

Mar Pérez, for the CNDH, noted that out the 121 killings, 48 had been carried out by contract-killers, while the remainder had been victims of excessive force by state security forces in tackling social protests.

Among the root causes that place HRDs at risk, CNDH identifies

  • the contracts between companies and police to provide private security services,
  • the inappropriate use of states of emergency,
  • excessive use of force in confronting social protests, and
  • the criminalisation of human rights defenders.

Also present at the hearing was Guillermo Benancio, an Indigenous leader from the community 12 de Octubre, one of the communities affected by oil exploitation in Block 192. He told the Commission how he has been facing legal proceedings for the past ten years for having taken part in a social protest in 2008 demanding state involvement to address many of their grievances caused by contamination from oil drilling.

According to Mar Pérez, Benancio and another 39 people were detained, tortured and held in a container for three days. They remained in preventive custody for several months thereafter. Ten years later, the case against them remains open. They could face up to 25 years in prison for the extortion.

For their part, representatives of the Peruvian state spoke of the steps being taken to protect human rights defenders, referring to the National Human Rights Action Plan which identifies human rights defenders as a vulnerable group requiring special protection. The Plan commits to creating a national system to register attacks against HDRs and introducing measures to that end by 2021.

The commissioners pointed out that the Commission is working closely with the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights to create a set of best practice tools and guidelines drawn from other Latin American countries where such protection systems are in place and which have offered Peru advice. Commissioner Joel Hernandez requested more detailed information about the protocol being developed and for more specifics as to the protection measures in place. Commissioner Flavia Piovesan expressed concern about Benancio’s situation and requested more information about the measures Peru is taking to guarantee the right to protest. She also highlighted concerns about the use of states of emergency and questioned their legal basis.

In conclusion, civil society representatives asked the Commission to provide technical support and expertise to Peru in drawing up future protection policies and to negotiate with Peru over state practices in managing social conflict. For their part the Peruvian authorities reiterated that genuine steps are being taken to address the problem. They argued that the use of force is well regulated through DL 1136 and that this adheres to international standards of proportionality.

State representatives also gave a very brief outline of what the protocol contains, including prevention measures and actions to end impunity. Mar Pérez responded that “it is a beautiful policy but it lacks teeth”.

Peru will now have to deliver on its promises, producing a protection framework that addresses not just immediate reactive measures but one that tackles the root causes.