The many faces of human rights terrorism

The level of support among young Peruvians for Movadef is an effect of the state’s campaign against historical memory.

Despite Fujimori’s efforts to preserve the human rights of Grupo Colina affiliates by passing an amnesty law, both the massacres contributed to his own eventual conviction and imprisonment in 2009 [GALLO/GETTY]

Cusco, Peru – In September 1992, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori accused Angelica Mendoza – a septuagenarian resident of the town of Ayacucho – of being the “ambassador to France for Senderista terrorism”.

Mendoza’s 19-year-old son Arquimedes Ascarza, rumoured to be collaborating with the Maoist guerrilla organisation Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), had been disappeared by the Peruvian army in 1983. In addition to being his mother, Mendoza’s terrorist credentials also included helping to found the National Association of Families of the Kidnapped, Detained and Disappeared of Peru (ANFASEP) as well as travelling briefly to Europe, in conjunction with other terrorist outfits such as Amnesty International, to publicise human rights abuses in the South American nation.

The year 1992 – the year of Fujimori’s accusation – also happened to be the year in which a professor and nine students from Lima’s National University of Education were abducted from campus and murdered by the Grupo Colina death squad, which included members of the Peruvian armed forces. In 1991, the same group assassinated an eight-year-old child and 14 other people at a social gathering in the neighbourhood of Barrios Altos.

Peruvians seek water safety amid mine plan

Despite Fujimori’s efforts to preserve the human rights of Grupo Colina affiliates by passing an amnesty law, both of these massacres contributed to his own eventual conviction and imprisonment in 2009.

Che vs Jesus

Mendoza’s daughter Maribel Ascarza, who presides over the ANFASEP office in Ayacucho, recently described to me the violent night-time kidnapping of her brother from the family’s home. According to Ascarza, the army found validation for their operation in Arquimedes’ interior decorating scheme, which involved transcriptions on his bedroom walls of poems by Pablo Neruda, as well as a portrait of Che Guevara. The even larger portrait of Jesus Christ apparently did not constitute sufficient compensation for the presence of the other two idols, and Arquimedes was removed from the premises while his mother sustained a beating.

Ascarza ruefully admitted that she sometimes wished the soldiers had simply shot Arquimedes in his bedroom rather than subjecting the family to what is now verging on three decades of uncertainty as to his fate. A former student of law and political science, she affirmed that whether or not young Peruvians belonged to Sendero was entirely irrelevant to the responsibilities of a state that advertised itself as democratic – such as to refrain from engaging in state terrorism and from assigning judicial powers to the military.

The fact that entities like ANFASEP and Peru’s post-armed conflict Truth and Reconciliation Commission also condemn the terrorism committed by Sendero and emphasise the organisation’s instigating role in the conflict has not spared them denunciation as Senderista agents.

Fujimori is of course hardly the only Latin American functionary to have detected insidious motives behind human rights-oriented institutions. Last year, the head of the Human Rights Unit of the Attorney General’s Office in Honduras was accused of facilitating gang violence when she objected to the extrajudicial execution by police of seven Honduran citizens. The accusation was levied by the Ministry of Security, the same ministry that excused the excessively high assassination rate of journalists in the country by arguing that most of the assassinated journalists did not possess proper journalistic qualifications anyway.

Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe meanwhile decreed in 2003 that human rights groups are often fronts for terrorists, though the same thing can be more credibly said with regard to the Office of the President of Colombia. Despite their alleged terroristic focus, no human rights groups have yet come out in support of the military practice – developed during Uribe’s reign – of massacring civilians and dressing the corpses in the attire of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia in order to receive bonus pay and extra holiday time.

It is perhaps thanks in part to Israel’s knack for inverting the relationship between victim and victimiser and exposing the overlap between human rights and terrorist organisations that Israeli security firms have in recent history found such willing audiences in Latin American regimes. Israel’s precise targeting of Red Cross ambulances in Lebanon further underscores the state’s refusal to be fooled by humanitarian discourse, as does the administration of controversial birth control drugs to Ethiopian residents of Israel.

The Peruvian police genocide

Fujimori’s implementation of a similar strategy for dealing with excess domestic demographics meanwhile resulted in the forced sterilisation of several hundred thousand indigenous inhabitants of rural Peru.

Peru struggles to protect indigenous tribe

Fortuitously, genocide accusations against Fujimori have since been replaced – thanks to the creativity of Peruvian officialdom – with the accusation that indigenous protesters in the Amazon region presided over a genocide of the Peruvian police force in 2009. This claim does not quite mesh with the fact that police are neither an ethnic group nor the ones who were under helicopter attack for opposing the foreign exploitation of resources.

Given current protests in Peru against mining and other forms of transnational corporate contamination of local ecosystems, it seems that further human rights violations against police and other representatives of the Peruvian state may be inevitable.

As for other potential sources of strife looming in Peru’s future, Carlos Falconi – a renowned musician and human rights advocate in Ayacucho – remarked to me the other day that the level of support among young Peruvians for the new pro-Senderista Movement for Amnesty and Fundamental Rights (Movadef), which is seeking to register as a political party, is an effect of the state’s campaign against historical memory and its refusal to adequately publicise the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or to implement its recommendations.

Since compliance with the commission would require the state to acknowledge its own crimes hailing from the period of the armed conflict, Falconi said, it instead prefers to consume itself with superficial debates over which calendar date should be assigned to the “National Day against Terrorism”. One of the proposed dates is April 22, which has already been dubbed the “Day of the Defenders of Democracy”; it was on this day in 1997 that Peruvian commandos, directed by Fujimori, liberated hostages held by militants of the communist Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) at the Japanese ambassador’s residence in Lima.

The political editor of the prominent Peruvian newspaper, El Comercio, recently blamed the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for facilitating Movadef’s infiltration of Peruvian democracy by objecting to the extrajudicial execution, at the ambassador’s residence, of MRTA militants who had already surrendered – additional evidence that April 22 should henceforth be observed as the “National Day against Human Rights Terrorism”.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, released by Verso in Nov. 2011. She is an editor at PULSE Media, and her articles have appeared in the London Review of Books blog, CounterPunch, Guernica Magazine, and many other publications.

Follow her on Twitter: @MariaBelen_Fdez