WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
9 Feb 2023 | WOLA Statement

Peru’s Deteriorating Human Rights Situation Signals Deeper Political Crisis

On 2 February, WOLA President Carolina Jiménez Sandoval together with Senior Fellow and Peru expert Jo-Marie Burt met with Peruvian Foreign Affairs Minister Ana Cecilia Gervasi at WOLA’s Washington, D.C. office to discuss the human rights situation in the crisis-stricken country.

Large protests have shaken Peru since President Pedro Castillo was removed from office after he illegally attempted to dissolve congress and install an emergency government on December 7, 2022. After his removal, then Vice President Dina Boluarte took the presidential seat—becoming Peru’s sixth president in as many years. 

In the two months since then, at least 58 civilians have died in the context of the unrest that has erupted across the country, according to Peru’s Human Rights Ombudsman. Of these, 47 died as a result of gunshot wounds or injuries from other projectiles such as tear gas canisters, according to the National Human Rights Coordinator. Video and testimonial evidence including, in some cases, ballistics reports, point to the role of Peru’s police and the armed forces in these killings. Hundreds of protesters have also been reported injured, including 59 journalists. 

WOLA has also learned of hundreds of arbitrary detentions, including of minors and reporters, some of whom complained they were ill-treated and prevented from contacting their lawyers while in detention. Additionally WOLA has taken note of many reports of racist and demeaning language being used by police against protestors, many of whom are from rural, indigenous regions of Peru. Human rights organizations have also documented hundreds of instances of harassment and attacks against journalists and human rights defenders. Such abuses represent a serious deterioration of Peru’s human rights situation.

In addition, another 11 civilians died in the context of the dozens of road blockades erected by protestors across the country. One police officer was found burned to death. WOLA also received worrisome reports of violence, vandalism, burning of government buildings, and the takeover of airports. While the government has the duty to maintain public order and to investigate and sanction acts of violence or criminality, it must do so while upholding strict respect for human rights.

President Boluarte and her government say they are committed to ensuring public safety. However, attempting to achieve security through the disproportionate use of force is a predictably counterproductive strategy that, so far, has only intensified the protests and deepened the country’s crisis.

To date, no officials have been charged for the deaths that have taken place as a result of the actions of the security forces during the protests. Government representatives have called for the Public Ministry to investigate the abuses. But widespread impunity for human rights violations at the hands of the Peruvian security forces tempers hopes for effective accountability. Moreover, President Boluarte and her ministers have emphasized public messages that praise security forces and vilify demonstrators, congratulating police for their “immaculate” actions while blaming protesters for causing “chaos.” Such messages undermine confidence that the government is committed to ensuring accountability and preventing further abuses.

WOLA is also concerned about the government’s state of emergency decrees, which enable the participation of the armed forces in police actions of social control. A 30-day state of emergency was declared on December 14 in specific regions of the country; the following day, December 15, soldiers reportedly killed ten protestors, including a man who was tending to a wounded demonstrator, in Ayacucho. The state of emergency was renewed on January 15, and on February 5, a 60-day state of emergency was declared in several regions. This most recent state of emergency decree puts the armed forces in charge of internal order in the department of Puno, where 18 protestors were killed by police on January 9. The armed forces are not prepared for conducting such operations and state of emergency decrees in a context of deep political crisis only contribute to aggravating the human rights crisis.

Protests have continued to spread across the country over recent weeks. The calls for President Boluarte to resign and for early general elections ring loud, as do the concerns over democratic backsliding in Peru. While there was hope that Congress would heed the demands for early elections, in recent days the archiving of all legislative proposals toward that end seem to have closed off that path, which is likely to increase social unrest and political instability.

The Boluarte government has stated that it prioritizes dialogue to address the current political crisis. If the Boluarte government is committed to genuine and productive dialogue among Peruvians, it is essential that it fundamentally change its approach to the challenging political and institutional crisis Peru is facing.

First, it must cease violent repression against peaceful demonstrators and ensure that security forces act within the framework of the law to prevent and respond to any acts of violence. Responding to protests with excessive force, including lethal force, is not only contrary to the human rights standards Peru has committed to upholding but also fuels chaos and mistrust in government.

Second, it should urgently revamp the way it publicly refers to protesters, particularly those who have suffered human rights abuses. Broadly stigmatizing and criminalizing demonstrators as a way to delegitimize their demands will do little to resolve this crisis, or open doors to dialogue. Instead, the Boluarte government should show good will by publicly acknowledging and apologizing for the abuses committed by the security forces and ensuring that victims have access to the justice and reparations they are entitled to. Unless the government acknowledges the abuses that took place and commits to repairing them, there’s little chance for any meaningful conversation to take place.

In the absence of dialogue, repression and violence will likely escalate and Peru’s human rights crisis could also become a humanitarian one. In this sense, Peru’s deteriorating human rights situation reflects a deep political crisis that requires an urgent, peaceful solution.

For its part, as WOLA has stated previously, the United States and other international actors should unequivocally condemn the human rights violations that have occurred in the context of the protests, call for prompt investigation into the perpetrators, and support a path to holding early general elections as one step to addressing the country’s fragile democracy.