Indigenous leader seeks support in Geneva amid Peru's turmoil

Lourdes Huanca, president of Fenmucarimap, a women’s Indigenous farmers’ organisation, listening to Luis Chuquihuara, Peru’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, following a Human Rights Council session, 25 January 2023. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Peru took centre stage this week at the Human Rights Council as delegations came down on ongoing human rights violations during the country’s scheduled rights review. But civil society groups are hoping that the international community can go further, to bring lasting justice to the country’s long-forgotten populations.

As head of Peru’s biggest peasant organisation, Lourdes Huanca was in Geneva this week to represent well beyond the more than 126,000 workers that are part of her federation.

On Tuesday, Dina Bolluarte, the country’s president, called for a truce after at least 50 people died in anti-government protests since December. But Huanca wasn’t buying it.

“Today, as we defend our country and our governance with our children on our backs, they kill our husbands, they are killing our fathers,” the president of Fenmucarimap, the National Federation of Women Indigenous, Native, Peasant, Artisan and Salaried Women, told Geneva Solutions, as tears ran from her eyes. “Our pain is profound.”

She said that if Bolluarte had been serious about the truce, police violence against protesters would have ceased.

Hours after the president’s announcement, protesters were injured from teargas canisters and pellets, including during a peaceful gathering on one of Lima’s main squares, ahead of the city’s most violent confrontation on Tuesday.

Marches had moved to Lima last week, over a month after they began in provincial regions following the ouster of former President Pedro Castillo on 7 December after he attempted to dissolve Congress.  Indigenous protesters, many of whom supported Castillo, a former Indigenous teacher, were already aggrieved by the state’s historic neglect of their condition and their own lack of political representation.  Their indignation rose at the disproportionate and deadly use of force by police against them.

“There is no democracy now, no human rights,” Huarca said.

Communities have long been demanding social and environmental standards, Huarca said, particularly in mountainous regions, where mining activities have polluted rivers and drinking water, and where the effects of climate change have dried up other water sources. Extractive companies, she said, have not contributed taxes that would allow for the development of regions, which are among the nation’s poorest.

Castillo had been in talks with workers groups to reform legislation affecting the powerful firms, Huanca explained, claiming members of his administration and Congress acted to remove him to thwart such efforts. The president, now in detention, faces charges of involvement in corruption, including “irregular promotions” of officials.

“What is happening now in Peru is due to racism, against Indigenous peoples. The mixed-race person and the ‘indio’, we don’t have rights,” Huanca said. “They would be happy if we were quiet. But as we are not quiet, and instead defending our rights, the reaction has been to kill the Indigenous. Who will defend us?”

International recognition of abuses

The Human Rights Council discussed on Wednesday Peru’s crisis at its Universal Periodic Review (UPR). Every four years, states assess each other’s human rights records at the Geneva-based process, highlighting developments, failures and violations.

A number of the historic grievances Huarca elicited, including recognition of Indigenous and women’s rights, were presented in a UN report for the session. The document criticised the use of force against Indigenous people who opposed mining projects, racial discrimination in the justice system and social services, discrimination against women and the lack of protection of human and environmental rights defenders.

Subsequent statements from at least a couple dozen delegations at the council included strong condemnations of the excessive use of force by state authorities during the ongoing anti-government protests.

Switzerland, one of the most emphatic, said it “deplores the death, violence and destruction in connection with the protests and calls upon authorities to respect human rights, notably freedom of expression and peaceful association”. It demanded  “proportionate use of force only as a last resort”, that the government investigate violations and dialogue be undertaken.

Representatives from Peru, including ambassador Luis Chuquihuara, political party Perú Libre representative Americo Gonza and the vice-minister for human rights, Luigino Pilotto Carreño in Geneva for the country’s Universal Periodic Review on 25 January 2022, amid its ongoing crisis. (Geneva Solutions/Paula Dupraz-Dobias)

Reacting to the council’s statements, Peru’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Luis Chuquihuara, told Geneva Solutions that Lima was open to dialogue, emphasising that a member of Congress from Castillo’s party had even been invited by the government to take the floor at the meeting.

“There has been some disinformation,” he said. “We respect peaceful protests.” Chuquihaura accused protesters of setting a historic building alight last week, even though the incident has not been formally investigated.  President Bolluarte has qualified the protests as violent and alleged they are being financed by criminal groups.

Amid the rising violence, many protesters are calling for Boluarte to step down. Other demands include the dissolution of Congress, the rewriting of a new constitution and the reinstatement of Castillo, who some believe was unfairly removed.

For Raffaele Morgantini, representative of the Geneva-based CETIM, an NGO advocating for civil society from the Global South, the reaction this week in the council to the disproportionate use of force by the state was a success.

He described the UN human rights body as a key “battlefield for access to justice” for groups like Huarca’s Fenmucarimap, which is part of Via Campesina, a global network of peasant organisations.

CETIM and other civil society groups in Europe had supported Huanca by arranging meetings with UN offices, politicians and diplomats ahead of the UPR.

Possible UN routes

UN secretary general António Guterres  expressed on Thursday his “deep concern” over the situation in Peru, and “urge(d) the authorities to conduct prompt, effective and impartial investigations into these deaths, and to avoid the stigmatisation of victims”.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) reported the deaths of four Haitian migrants on 18 January who were unable to access assistance due to road blockades in southern Peru, near the border with Bolivia, leaving behind an orphaned 12-year-old.

Volker Türk, the UN high commissioner for human rights, told journalists in Quito, Ecuador, earlier this week, that he planned to send teams to various regions in the country, in hope of finding a solution to the crisis.

Christain Salazar Volkmann, an envoy of the UN human rights office, travelled to Peru, where he met with government officials, including president Dina Boluarte, asking what it is doing to avoid injuries and deaths during protests. “Let us avoid to stigmatise protestors as terrorists,” he said.

Huarca said that help from the international community to achieve justice could not come sooner. “We want justice for the 62 companions who sacrificed their lives. As long as Dina Boluarte doesn’t resign, there will be no truce to be able to move forward,” she said.

A fact-finding mission by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights found last week that deaths of protesters, most of whom are younger than 30, were caused by gunshot wounds to the head and upper body.

In Geneva, Clément Voule, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of peaceful association and assembly, said he was “considering” a visit to Peru, but “the government needs to agree” to it.

Somewhat annoyed when questioned about whether special rapporteurs would be welcomed in the country, Chuquihaura said: “We have already invited them.”

Voule, however, stressed the urgency of the situation: “The council will probably have to take action as the repression is continuing.” The UN expert said the police occupation of the University of San Marcos in Lima on 20 January and the arrest of hundreds of people was in “complete contradiction to academic freedoms and in violation of the university’s autonomy”.

“Trying to repress legitimate demands will only deepen the crisis and add to the anger of Peruvians,” he said.

He added that civil society space has been shrinking in Latin America in countries such as Nicaragua, Venezuela and El Salvador, and it was important to react to human rights abuses.

“We should continue to remind the international community and Human Rights Council member states that we need to prevent crises and we need to be vocal when such conduct is committed by the state,” he said.

“We cannot have another state where freedoms are completely ignored, in Peru. We need to prevent that.”