This plaza in Ayacucho commemorates the many killed and disappeared in the region during the cruel period of political violence. Photo by June Carolyn Erlick.
An Opportunity at Risk
By Salomón Lerner Febres
Eleven years have gone by since the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented its final report. The report reconstructed the history of many cases of massacres, tortures, murders and other serious crimes. At the same time, it contributed an interpretation of the failures of our political and cultural system that made the violence possible. This enormous documentation of abuses and damages then called for decisive action on the part of the state. For example, it recommended a sweeping judicial reform, as well as a broad plan of reparations and changes to state institutions to transform the relationship between the state and the people and to construct an authentic democracy with full rights.
Eleven years have gone by, and some things have been achieved. It is certain, and this is important, that the country has experienced peace and relative institutional stability for years now, as well as positive economic growth for more than a decade. This has come accompanied by a significant but not entirely satisfactory reduction in the poverty levels. In contrast, however, key sectors of the operation of state and society, such as public school and university education, continue to stagnate in a ruinous situation.
The most precise way of observing the trajectory of reconciliation in Peru is by looking at it in the context of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR, after its Spanish acronym) recommendations. The discourse about reconciliation can be very persuasive and well-intentioned; in the end, however, reconciliation can only be measured by the attention the state pays to the victims of the violence. And, by extension, to the treatment it pays to citizens in general. As the CVR has affirmed, reconciliation should mean a transformation, in a democratic sense, of the relations between state and to society and of the bonds that unite Peruvians in their daily life.
Lamentably, fulfillment of these recommendations does not raise much enthusiasm. Judicial and educational reforms are sorely lagging. The state response to the demands for justice by the victims has been weak. Moreover, society as a whole seems willing to forget, responding poorly to the magnitude of the historical events.
Between 2001 and 2003, the report had been an integral part of the political transition begun in 2001, after the collapse of the government of Alberto Fujimori and the end of the period of armed violence that had afflicted the country since 1980. The creation of CVR was a way of responding to the victims of massive violations of human rights committed during twenty years, both by subversive organizations—mainly the Shining Path guerrillas—and the armed forces and police.
The CVR investigated for 26 months. In this period, commission members traveled throughout the country to spots affected by the violence. Investigators were able to get close to victims and populations affected by the violence, collecting 17,000 testimonies and carrying out many other activities expressing respect and attention to the victims. Five regional offices served to provide recognition of the victims and also, to a certain degree, to bring awareness of the devastating consequences of the violence to the part of the population less affected by it. But despite these efforts, Peruvian society is lagging in its implementation of the CVR findings.
The judicial realm reveals concrete evidence of this lack of response. Outside Peru, the sentencing of former President Alberto Fujimori for human rights violations generates a somewhat erroneous image of what has really happened in this area. It was certainly an important conviction for cases of corruption and crimes against human rights: a sentence rendered in an exemplary trial that should set a valuable precedent. But the general panorama is much less positive. In the first years after the CVR began to operate, the judicial branch showed some willingness to render justice, adopting certain progressive legal criteria. Nevertheless, after 2007, the courts changed their stance and retracted the position that had prompted them to confront massive crimes that took place years earlier. New sentences reflected a lack of institutional will to achieve justice in serious cases of forced disappearances. And, in general, the courts adopted criteria that make it much more difficult to establish responsibilities on the part of state agents in human rights violations. This trend is accompanied by a law that, in practice, would block the way for trials of the military and police. Following citizen protests, the law was changed, but the willingness to deny justice to victims was roundly demonstrated.
The evolution of reparations is equally complex and not very encouraging. The first responses to the CVR proposals were positive. It did not take long for a reparations law to be approved by Congress. A commission from the executive branch was placed in charge of coordinating the actions of the diverse ministries involved in the tasks of making reparations—giving the law an institutional context. In addition, an organization called the Reparations Council was put in charge of drawing up an exhaustive list of persons and collective groups entitled to receive reparations.
The execution of these tasks has not been as careful and timely as it needs to be. If previous governments had indeed begun to make some progress in terms of collective reparations, the process has not followed an orderly course nor has it been up to the challenge. Individual financial reparations have been completely overlooked, and victims feel that they have been deceived and belittled. If one takes into account that many of these victims are people of advanced age who lost their children or spouses decades ago, and who live in a permanent situation of poverty and deprivation, the insensitivity of the state and political elites has to be sharply criticized.
Insensibility and indifference, in effect, are the biggest obstacles to advancing reconciliation understood as basic justice for the victims and collective recognition of our failings and guilt. This is evident in the lack of institutional reform and of collective reflection about the violent past.
The CVR understood its mission as fostering a true sense of reconciliation in the country. And that reconciliation could not exist except as a natural outgrowth of truth and justice. It’s not just a matter of condoning or forgetting the crimes of the past. Mechanisms of amnesty for the guilty, which have occurred in the past in the region, were not morally justifiable or legally possible. For the CVR, any concept of reconciliation requires, first, that the facts be revealed and acknowledged, and second, that justice be done as a result of that acknowledgment. That justice would not be limited to the legal sphere. To obtain justice for the victims certainly meant bringing those presumed responsible to trial, but it also entails the payment of reparations and the enactment of institutional reforms to guarantee that violence and abuses cannot be repeated. Reconciliation also demands official actions to restore dignity and recognition of those who were affected by the violence.
None of the CVR recommendations on institutional reform have been taken into account by successive governments or by political groups competing for seats in Congress. Administration of justice, the armed forces, police and education need urgent reform. The problem of education is particularly worrisome. Education in Peru for decades has been based in authoritarianism; critical thinking has been mutilated and instruction is foreign to the culture of citizenship that Peru needs. A reformed educational institution would be an effective way to assure the country’s future welfare and integration. Education that promotes autonomous thinking and strengthens collective and individual identities would help to generate effective citizenship. Finally, a reformed educational system would need to treat the memory of violence from a particular point of view: one oriented towards learning the lessons of the past that demonstrates how racism and hierarchical thinking are the causes of death and suffering; instruction that fosters understanding that blind violence is never the road for the transformation of society nor for order and stability.
Today, Peru unfortunately lacks this sort of education. Therefore, memory is not used in a positive fashion to build a future on the experiences of the past. Nor is there an ongoing discussion and learning taking place outside the schools in the political realm. In politics, the lessons from the violence are completely absent from the debate. Victims have almost no opportunity to air their concerns in Congress. In the media, the theme continues to be treated in a sensationalist way, while on television, blatant racism against the indigenous population is accepted and even applauded. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to talk about reconciliation in a broad and encompassing sense as proposed by the CVR—not just isolated reconciliation among individuals. Political and economic elites continue to be hostile to the call for recognition, responsibility and compassion.
Of course, this does not mean that Peruvian society is on the verge of repeating the armed conflict. However, it is still a violent society in some very real ways, as evidenced by citizen protests in the Andes and Amazon. These take place in a context of certain institutional stability and economic growth, at a time when Peru is on a path to become a stable and established democracy. But in order to achieve this, society must recognize that all its citizens have full rights without discrimination. If we shut our eyes to the lessons from the violence, Peru will have thrown away an opportunity to create such an inclusive democracy.
Salomón Lerner Febres, rector emeritus of the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), is the former president of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Peru (CRV). He is currently executive president of the Center for Democracy and Human Rights at PUCP (IDEHPUCP).