The UN rapporteur on human rights defenders (HRDs) has issued his report on his visit to Peru. It contains critical observations as to the treatment of HRDs in the country and a list of recommendations for the government to consider in improving the situation.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst visited Peru from 23 January to 3 February in a first-hand assessment about the situation facing human rights defenders in the country. His mandate was “to evaluate, in the spirit of cooperation and dialogue, if there is a safe and enabling environment for human rights defenders in Peru”. During his visit, he met with many HRDs from across the country, travelling to Piura, Cuzco, Madre de Dios and Ucayali regions. All in all, he met with 475 HRDs, 40% of them women. He held multiple meetings in Lima with civil society organisations and officials from various ministries and state agencies.

He wrapped up his visit outlining some key findings and recommendations. He congratulated the Peruvian government for its inclusion, for the first time, of HRDs as a special category in the National Human Rights Action Plan (2018-2021) and for its approval of the Protocol for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in April 2019. There have been nine requests for protection since the adoption of the protocol.

But he also reminded the authorities about their commitment to adopt a multi-sectoral mechanism to protect HRDs, backed up by the necessary human and financial resources and the commitment of all relevant ministries, state agencies and regional governments. As the PSG has reminded readers, the development of a comprehensive policy of protection was embedded in the National Action Plan on Human Rights, a policy to be developed by 2021. Forst also called on the private sector to support the implementation of the protocol and the action plan on business and human rights.

In his final remarks, Forst referred to indicators of a restricted and unsafe environment for HRDs, including their being stigmatised as ‘enemies of the state’ or being ‘against development’. He also referred to the increasing use of the legal system to criminalise them on such charges as ‘usurpation’, ‘illicit association to commit a crime’, ‘kidnapping’, ‘obstruction of roads’, among others. He pointed to environmental defenders being at special risk of unfounded prosecution because of their participation in acts of social protest.

Forst referred to cases from Piura and Cuzco and the situation of defenders working in Madre de Dios and Ucayali. The latter face constant threats due to their fight against illegal logging and mining. The Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (CNDH) claims that, since 2002, at least 960 individuals have been criminalised for their role in defending and promoting human rights. Of these, no less than 538 were involved in social protest.

He also referred to defenders being persecuted “when they advocate their rights with the effect of disrupting extractive activities by private companies, particularly through the disruption of traffic”. According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which Peru is a signatory), temporary disruption to traffic must be tolerated by the state. It says that the state should only intervene when protests interfere with access to essential services or cause profound and sustained damage to the economy.

In Peru, Forst said, protests that restrict transit are not considered legitimate, neither in law nor in practice. This enables the security forces to use force to break-up those protests for which protesters have not obtained previous authorisation. Forst expressed special concern about the use of excessive and indiscriminate force, as well as deployment of the military by means of states of emergency to protect oil, gas and mining sites.

With regard to the state’s duty to protect HRDs and remedy human rights violations committed against them, Forst stressed his concern that the justice system is often used against HRDs. He cited cases where investigations against defenders can take many years, even when there is no evidence to support accusations. He claimed that the state had fallen short in providing adequate protection to those at risk. Investigations of violations of HRDs’ rights tend to be unduly slow and often subject to interruption. He cited the case of Saweto in Ucayali, where nearly six years have passed since the killings of four environmental defenders without the perpetrators standing trial. Tellingly, his report stressed that “when compared with the efficiency with which authorities respond when the interests of powerful economic actors are at stake, the imbalance is striking”.

Forst referred to the agreements between the national police and private companies to provide police officers for security purposes, arguing that this interferes with the impartiality of law enforcement. Lastly, he pointed to the lack of an effective protection for those at risk, stressing that the burden of proof on the applicant is often unreasonably high, and when protection is urgently needed, the response is limited.

He also mentioned the role of corruption and the undue influence that large economic interests can have, particularly at the regional and local levels.

Forst stressed how all defenders working on indigenous land rights and environment are at most risk. Many conflicts, he said, could have been averted if meaningful consultations had been held. He expressed concern at the approval of large projects that ignore the need to consult properly with local communities.

He referred to the critical role played by women HRDs and the threats they face because of their activism and gender identity; he claimed that indigenous and rural women defenders are at special risk because of time-honoured discrimination and racism. He pointed to the lack of public data on attacks against women defenders and the lack of a systematic and cross-cutting approach to investigating human rights violations against women.

Women campaigning for access to reproductive health, to sex education and for the rights of LGBTI persons tend to be targets of smear campaigns on social media and face threats of sexual violence and legal action. LGBTI defenders also face hate speech and online threats, particularly following media interviews. Forst mentioned how journalists and trade unionists had faced intimidation, smear campaigns and defamation.

He made specific mention to the Ombudsman’s office (Defensoría) and the role that human rights institutions should play in providing a safe and conducive environment for HRDs. He noted that he had received contradictory testimonies about the Defensoría’s role in certain instances. While some spoke of the confidence they had in the Defensoría, others talked of disappointment and a lack of confidence in its actions. The rapporteur strongly encouraged the Defensooría to support human rights defenders and to strengthen efforts to achieve a closer relationship with defenders in remote areas. He also recommended the Defensoría to review and challenge laws that restrict the recognition and enjoyment of human rights.

For a full list of recommendations, see the report here. Here are just some of them:

  • to guarantee the right to free, prior and informed consent of indigenous communities in accordance with the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, and meaningful consultation to guarantee the protection and respect for the rights of indigenous communities as upheld in ILO Convention 169;
  • to ensure legal recognition of the ancestral lands of indigenous peoples by providing and registering land ownership titles;
  • to end to the criminalisation of defenders;
  • to ensure more active public participation of women defenders, including indigenous and rural women;
  • to strengthen public institutions by tackling corruption, conflicts of interest and undue influence;
  • to increase the budget and human resources of the Defensoría with a view to increasing its presence at regional and local levels; and
  • to combat impunity by prosecuting and punishing those responsible for violations against HRDs, including law enforcement officials.

The report also tasks the international community to increase efforts to reach out to defenders, particularly those in remote areas, with support, funding and the monitoring of trials. It asks private companies to demonstrate commitment to human rights through their adherence to the UN Guidelines on Business and Human Rights and by ensuring meaningful consultations and effective grievance procedures.