Ángel Páez interviews the president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights
(IPS) – Politicians and the military in Peru are verbally attacking the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in order to “debase the concept” of fundamental human rights and implicate the Court in an “alleged defence of terrorism”, its president, Judge Diego García-Sayán, told IPS.
By order of the Court, the Peruvian government had to pay 30,000 dollars in legal costs to former guerrilla Lori Berenson, a U.S. citizen who was released on parole by the Peruvian justice system in late May after serving 15 years of a 20-year prison sentence for “collaborating with terrorism”.
Soon after, the authorities confirmed that the Inter- American Court had ordered the state to pay reparations to other people sentenced for terrorism crimes, in the context of the 1980-2000 internal war that took place in this country, because due process had not been followed in their trials.
The climate of opinion turned against the Inter-American Court, fuelled by Prime Minister Javier Velásquez who called for the partial withdrawal of Peru from the Court’s jurisdiction in cases of terrorism, and especially when indemnity payments to terrorists convicted by local courts are involved.
Berenson was initially tried by a “faceless” secret military tribunal, at which the judges wore hoods to conceal their identity. She was sentenced to life imprisonment, and only after appealing to the inter-American system was her case referred to the civil justice system.
The two decades of conflict left a toll of 70,000 civilian victims dead, according to the report produced by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Diego García-Sayán, currently visiting Lima, told IPS there is a clear intention to discredit the Court he presides, and recalled a similar episode during the government of former president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) that contributed to the international isolation of Peru.
Q: In your view, is there a similarity between Fujimori’s attempt to ignore verdicts of the Court in 1999, and Prime Minister Velásquez’s recent proposal to partially withdraw Peru from the jurisdiction of the supranational Court?
A: The arguments sound very much alike, but I do not think that the underlying aims are the same. In 1999, the dictatorial regime’s purpose was to distance itself from any international control mechanism, whereas now we are talking about a democratic government.
However, there is a worrying similarity in the reasoning behind the arguments. And it is even more alarming because President Alan García, when he welcomed the members of the Court to Lima in April this year, said that human rights were an essential component of the globalisation process, and congratulated the Court on being a shining example of a human rights institution.
Q: What Velásquez is trying to achieve is to comply in general with the Court’s verdicts, but apply the country’s own independent criteria in cases of alleged terrorist crimes, thus partially withdrawing the country from the Court’s jurisdiction. Is this legally possible?
A: No. Partial withdrawal was discussed when Fujimori made his authoritarian attempt to remove Peru in 1999. The Court ruled conclusively that it was not legally viable, and the withdrawal proposed by the government at that time has never been recognised.
Q: Velásquez also mentioned that the Peruvian state might wish to introduce a reservation with regard to decisions of the Court in the case of those convicted and sentenced for terrorist crimes.
A: Reservations are allowed under international law, but can be registered only at the time that a state becomes party to a treaty. Peru ratified (the American Convention on Human Rights) in 1981. Thirty years have gone by, and now it’s a bit late to invoke reservations.
This campaign to discredit the Court is meant to debase the concept of human rights and to make the Court out to be a supposed defender of terrorism. It is a slanderous campaign.
Q: The Court is said to have handed down a large number of rulings in favour of persons convicted of terrorist acts, compelling the justice system to reduce their sentences, acquit them or pay them large sums in compensation. Is that true?
A: That is nonsense. The average number of cases involving Peru heard by the Court has not changed. There has been no recent sentence against this country, and the Court has never issued a verdict in favour of terrorists.
What the Court does is to establish whether or not human rights have been violated, without regard to the legal situation of the victim. And it does not do this of its own volition: there is a procedure in which evidence is presented and the parties have the right to argue their case. To say that the Court is in favour of any criminal or ideological group is baseless.
Q: The case of Berenson, sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, has been particularly criticised. The Court ordered the state to pay her legal costs. The government alleges that terrorists are receiving preferential treatment compared with victims of terrorism.
A: In Berenson’s case, the Court determined that there had been a violation of her human rights. When a person is judged by a “faceless” military tribunal, as she was, her rights are infringed.
As in any legal case, the losing party pays the legal costs. The Berenson case came up at the Court because of authoritarian judicial resolutions issued under an undemocratic regime, as has happened with 90 percent of cases involving Peru that were heard by the Court.
Q: Criticism has been raised particularly by pro-Fujimori lawmakers in parliament, with whom the governing Peruvian Aprista Party bloc has reached agreements on several matters.
A: I am unable to make a political interpretation, but I do find there is marked agreement between the arguments expressed in 1999 and those we are hearing today. As a result of that campaign, Peru was led into tremendous international isolation. I hope that this is not repeated, this time.
Q: Ombudswoman Beatriz Merino has just said that payment of reparations should prioritise the victims of violence in the internal armed conflict. Do you see this as a criticism of the Court?
A: It is a criticism of the government, because a law to compensate victims of the violence was enacted five years ago, and so far none have been indemnified.
It is to be hoped that in the 2011 budget, concrete figures will be incorporated so that reparations can begin to be paid to the 70,000 individual registered victims. This is a state policy, formulated long before the rulings from the Inter-American Court.