Francisco Soberon

Dawn arrived in Peru in January 1980 and with it, a sight the world has never imagined. All over the country, dead dogs hung from lampposts announcing the first actions of Sendero Luminoso—the Shining Path, a Marxist guerrilla organization whose war against Peru’s landed power oligarchy swept the country into a state of emergency from which it only now has begun to emerge. In those early days, Francisco Soberón, a young lawyer with a background in education and agricultural cooperatives, began to investigate alleged human rights violations. Taking up the cause of Peru’s fragmented population caught between state security forces and the two terrorist groups, Sendero and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Party (MRTA), Soberón estabished Asociacion Pro Derechos Humanos (APRODEH) in 1985. The purpose of APRODEH is to combat the continued, egregious human rights abuses, including routine beatings, torture, “disappearances,” and arbitrary detentions prevalent in a state where 16 percent of the country continues under complete military control to this day and all constitutional provisions are suspended. APRODEH has come to play an increasingly central role investigating and documenting human rights violations, and is known as one of the foremost human rights oganizations in Latin America. Soberón has had numerous roles, reporting to the international community, attempting to use the beleaguered judicial system, and educating the poor about their rights. In 1985, Soberón organized human rights groups from across the country into an effective coalition. He has served with numerous human rights organizations, including the United Nations, the International Federation of Human Rights (as vice president for South America), and the Coalition for an International Crime Court (as a member of the steering committee). In the violent, vicious military and political battle that has divided his country, Soberón has been viewed with suspicion and fear by both sides. Throughout the past several, arduous decades, Soberón has never failed to report abuse, even though doing so has endangered his life. Soberón could easily have sought a safer haven in his extensive travel on human rights missions throughout the world. However, he always returns to his homeland, determined to forge a new Peru, one based on human rights and democracy. He was bestowed with the National Order of Merit by the French Government and Soberon and ARPODEH were the 2008 recipients of the Letlier Moffit Human Rights Award.

In Peru, in the early eighties, guerrilla insurgency groups like the Shining Path and MRTA started committing acts of political violence in the highlands. Initially, no one paid much attention because everyone thought it was local activity, easily defeated. But the number of incidents started to grow. After two years, the government militarized those areas, declaring emergency zones, and that’s when human rights violations emerged as a pattern. At the time, I was working with organizations of peasants in rural areas. Friends of mine at the Commission on Human Rights of the Chamber of Deputies in Peru asked me to help monitor the situation. So I started researching reports from the militarized areas.

There were no nongovernmental human rights organizations in those days, except for the Catholic Church, so we started APRODEH in 1982. At the beginning there were four or five of us. We organized a legal assistance unit, a communication unit, and a documentation center. As the violence spread, our work expanded. Within the first two months, we received the first report of the enforced disappearance of seventy people in Ayacucho; within the first two years, there were nearly two thousand enforced disappearances. In 1983, there was a case of journalists ambushed and killed walking through the highlands while investigating reports of abuse. The navy controlled the area, and though there was never a conclusion to the case, the extrajudicial executions appeared to be linked to the military. We started to make reports to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), and other international institutions. We didn’t know we could make reports to the UN or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; that came later.

In the next few years, the political violence spread all over the country, the demand for monitoring the situation was enormous. As other human rights organizations were formed, we tried to join forces with them and, in 1985, established what is now the National Coordination Network of Human Rights (Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos or CNDDHH) as a network of trained human rights defenders across the country, now made up of nearly seventy organizations. With the CNDDHH we produce an annual report on the state of human rights in Peru which is distributed domestically and internationally and we do lobbying in intergovernmental bodies.

But those first efforts were very difficult because we were in a cross fire of violence. The Shining Path and MRTA were the two armed groups operating, with daily violations of humanitarian laws. And the countersubversive operations of the armed forces were responsible for human rights violations regularly, permanently: disappearances, serial executions, torture, arbitrary detentions. So we went into the emergency zones very carefully. For example, one of our colleagues from a highland department, Angel Escobar Jurado, disappeared. He talked with me by phone in the morning, telling me that he was coming to Lima, bringing information about new cases of enforced disappearances. And at 7:00 that evening, when he was leaving his office, he was detained by men believed to be army personnel. He was never seen again. This case, like thousands of others, has not been solved yet.

The human rights defenders and the civilian population were caught between the government countersubversive operations and the armed guerrillas. They had to live their life trying to survive in those two opposing pressures. That is why so many innocent people were disappeared, killed, or accused of being linked to subversive groups. Their crime was to live in an area where the armed groups operated, where they had a presence. Sometimes they were pressured to give food to them, and though it was compulsory assistance, the armed forces then considered them collaborators. During all this violence, nearly six hundred thousand people were displaced from the highlands to small cities in the Andes or big cities on the coast—one of the social consequence manifestations of political violence.

By the early nineties, with armed groups still present, we human rights activists started to become more visible and also more vulnerable. They were hard years and personal security was needed to protect ourselves. An activist lawyer received an enveloped bomb, was severely injured in Lima, and had to leave the country. Several of our colleagues were killed, threatened, and several were exiled. During this period we had three elected governments—and this is important, because everyone thought that in Latin America, a gross pattern of human rights violations only occurred during military regimes. But Peru has never been under a military regime during the political violence of these last decades. Nevertheless, in these seventeen years of political violence we had five thousand persons disappear, and thirty thousand people killed.

It is true that a significant percent of these crimes were perpetrated by the Shining Path. But now, after the defeat of the subversive groups, the current regime is trying to present an official history that lays all the responsibility at the feet of the subversive groups, while trying to cover up all the responsibilities of the military and the death squads related to the military forces. And that is not true.

In 1995, the present regime introduced an amnesty law to “pardon”—or rather annul—all responsibilities of the armed forces from 1980 on. Fifteen years of abuses and crimes with no possibility of investigation, punishment, or justice.

Now all of these disappeared persons were peasants, Andean people, whose main language is Quechua, not Spanish. Considered second-class citizens, there was not much attention paid to what happened to them. Not until the Shining Path started actions in Lima did the public opinion of the urban zones realize what was really happening. In 1992, eight students and one professor disappeared from La Cantuta University in Lima, and a year later their bodies were found. Later, it was revealed that a death squad within the intelligence service of the armed forces was responsible. This was the one and only case with military personnel responsibility that was brought to justice. The perpetrators were charged, but one year later, they were given amnesty by the regime.

So in the aftermath of those years of repression, there is a lot to be done to achieve truth, justice, and reparation: all related concepts, dependent on one another. There cannot be reconciliation in Peru if we do not achieve all three for victims of political violence, and the national system of justice appears incapable to respond to these needs.

So we have turned, instead, to the Inter-American Commission. Under President Fujimori, the executive branch of the government intervened with the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office, so it was impossible to hold the military and death squads related to the military responsible for human rights violations. Despite the mounting evidence of egregious human rights violations committed by this regime, it was extremely difficult to get the United Nations to respond, because the government was freely elected. The international community is tremendously resistant to intervene in a so-called democratic state. But democracy can mean many things, can’t it? And here, in Peru, the true concept of democracy has not yet taken root.

The present challenge for human rights organizations is to develop an integrated conception of human rights, defending and promoting not only the civil and political rights, but also the economic, social, and cultural rights.