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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Justice, democracy, international co-operation

Alex says: Peru’s Supreme Court today convicted former president Alberto Fujimori to twenty five years in prison for his involvement in a series of human rights abuses during the 1990s. Despite the fact that Fujimori was already serving a six year sentence for other crimes, this amounts to a major victory in the cause of international human rights.

Fujimori came to power in 1990. The country at the time was suffering deeply from runaway inflation and attendant social decomposition caused in large part by the government’s profligacy during the first administration of Alan Garcia (who is currently Peru’s president once again). Fujimori ran against and defeated the famed Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa, criticising his rival for being overly supportive of the neoliberal orthodoxy (the ‘Washington Consensus’), but ironically then proceeded to implement an aggressive programme of neoliberal reforms upon taking power, restoring fiscal discipline to a country that had lacked it for so long - but at great cost to the poorest Peruvians, who had to face uncontrolled prices for basic commodities and the dismantling of public infrastructure and dismantling of unions and other community organisations.

In part because of this peculiar political manoeuvring, Fujimori focused on the long-running battle with the Peruvian Maoist insurgency, Sendero Luminoso, as a way of maintaining his image as a man of the people. He looked to extend his presidential power in both the economic and military spheres. This culminated in 1992 with the so-called autogolpe (“self-coup”) in which Fujimori suspended the constitution and purged the apparatus of government – to much popular acclaim, it has to be said, since Congress was notoriously corrupt.

In his decision to seize virtually all state power for himself, Fujimori was defying the general trend in the 1980s and 1990s in the Americas away from authoritarianism, and was undermining democracy in a country that was already struggling to cope with severe problems of economic collapse and endemic corruption. So, in order to legitimate his claims to rise above the constitutional system, he continued to intensify his war on the Sendero Luminoso, using death squads overseen by his notorious head of intelligence, Vladimiro Montesinos. He also orchestrated a massive campaign of surgical sterilisation of indigenous women – as many as 300,000 women were sterilised – which, whilst known as ‘Voluntary Surgical Contraception’ is alleged to have involved a great deal of coercive or forced sterilisation.

By the end of the 1990s, disaffection, not to mention rumours of widespread corruption and graft, were to be heard everywhere in Peru. The loss of faith in Fujimori’s regime culminated in 2000, when it was revealed that Montesinos had made literally hundreds of videos of him bribing various senior politicians and public figures. It seemed that virtually no major power in the country had not been caught up in the webs of corruption coming outwards from the Fujimori apparatus. Montesinos fled the country, and Fujimori’s government fell soon after. Fujimori then jumped ship himself, to Japan.

For a long time, it seemed unlikely that Fujimori would face any consequences for his actions. Like so many criminal leaders, it seemed that a quiet life of exile and decline was ahead. Japan responded unenthusiastically to the efforts of president Alejandro Toledo to have Fujimori sent back. But there were signs that perhaps something might happen. With hindsight, it was extremely important that the OAS and several major Latin American nations were vocal in their opposition to the Fujimori autogolpe in 1992: standing up for democratic norms being something that fellow Latin American nations rarely did in previous decades. Indeed, in the end Fujimori finally came to justice through international co-operation on human rights grounds that centred on exactly these networks of opposition. He travelled to Chile in 2005 in the hope of reorganising his political party and returning to Peru to run once again for the presidency. Instead, the Chilean government – perhaps because it benefited itself from international efforts to bring Pinochet to justice – arrested and extradited Fujimori to Peru to face criminal charges.

Of course, there is a political element here. One can safely assume that the Garcia government is happy to see its successor regime's leader be brought low. But the politics of revenge is far less important than the lesson that, in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, it has become possible for former heads of state to be tried and prosecuted for crimes they committed against their own people – and not simply by imperial powers executing victors’ justice (as in Iraq), but also by networks of co-operating nations who share a fundamental commitment to the norms of liberal justice and human rights. In a time of so much international instability, these intermittent signs of law and order actually working properly are to be treasured.

Alex Goodall
Papamoka’s European Contributor
From A Swift Blow to the Head

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