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PERU: IACHR Calls for Justice for Victims of Forced Sterilisation

Ángel Páez

LIMA, Nov 26 2009 (IPS) - The Peruvian government is once again being called on to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Voluntary Surgical Contraception (VSC) programme carried out by the Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000) regime, under which tens of thousands of women were forcibly sterilised. This time, the demand comes from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR).

Forced sterilisation victim Victoria Vigo continues to seek justice. Credit: Virgilio Grajeda/IPS

Forced sterilisation victim Victoria Vigo continues to seek justice. Credit: Virgilio Grajeda/IPS

During the IACHR’s 137th period of sessions held in Washington, D.C., from Oct. 28 to Nov. 13, which included hearings on proceedings related to severe human rights violations, chairwoman Luz Patricia Mejía did not mince words when she demanded that the Peruvian government meet its commitment to prosecute those responsible for the compulsory sterilisation programme.

The VSC programme, which was applied by the Fujimori regime as a reproductive health policy with the aim of drastically lowering the birth rate in Peru’s most impoverished areas, has been condemned by several international bodies.

Mejía pointed out that, in the framework of the IACHR, Peru signed a friendly settlement agreement in 2003, whereby it undertook to compensate the relatives of María Mestanza, one of the victims of forced sterilisation, and to investigate and bring to trial the government officials who devised and implemented the campaign.

The Peruvian State is complying with the first part of the agreement, providing aid to Mestanza’s husband and children. Mestanza died in 1998 as a result of a poorly performed surgical sterilisation procedure done without her consent.

But the legal case, which would set an important precedent for reparations for other victims of coerced sterilisation, is still pending.

In May, Jaime Schwartz, the public prosecutor in charge of investigating the case against four former health ministers of the Fujimori administration and other former government officials, decided to shelve the investigation, claiming that the statute of limitations had expired. The defendants are charged with crimes against the victim’s life, body and health, and with manslaughter.

The prosecutor further argued that there was no evidence of human rights violations and that forced sterilisation is not a crime against humanity as claimed by the attorneys who represent the victims, women who died or suffered serious harm as a result of tubal ligation procedures practiced in public health facilities without their consent.

Rossy Salazar, the lawyer representing Mestanza’s family, brought a lawsuit against Schwartz and has now filed a report with the IACHR denouncing the Peruvian State’s failure to meet its commitment to prosecute those responsible for the practice of forced sterilisation.

Salazar, a member of the non-governmental legal aid organisation DEMUS (Organisation for the Defence of Women’s Rights), filed the report along with a number of petitions against forced sterilisations drafted by the Latin American and Caribbean Committee for the Defence of Women’s Rights (CLADEM), the Association in Favour of Human Rights, the Centre for Reproductive Rights, and the Centre for Justice and International Law.

“The Peruvian State undertook to conduct administrative and criminal investigations, and to punish those directly and indirectly responsible for the human rights violations committed against María Mestanza,” Salazar told IPS, and “by shelving the case the State is violating the friendly settlement agreement.”

At the IACHR session, the representative of the Peruvian State, Delia Muñoz, argued that the public prosecutor’s office is an autonomous body and that the executive branch cannot interfere in its decisions. In any case, Muñoz said, the executive has also filed a complaint against the prosecutor’s decision to shelve the case.

However, IACHR chair Mejía, who is also the Commission’s Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women, replied that to the Commission the State is a single entity and that the executive must endeavour to meet its commitment to investigate and punish those responsible for forced sterilisations.

Commissioner Mejía’s response was “categorical and clear,” Salazar said. “Peru is breaching its commitment. It cannot excuse itself by claiming that each branch of the State is free to do what it wants. Peru is a single State and it must respond as such,” Mejía told Muñoz.

The IACHR is part of the legal system of the Organisation of American States (OAS), but it operates as an autonomous body, and its seven Commissioners act in their personal capacity, with the mandate of guaranteeing the observance of human rights by the member States.

The IACHR can refer cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the breached friendly settlement agreement of 2003 was, in fact, reached in a proceeding under the Court.

The office of the ombudsman in Peru managed to formally document 2,074 women who were sterilised without their consent between 1996 and 2000, under the so-called National Reproductive Health and Family Planning Programme. However, human rights groups put the real number at over 300,000.

Sixteen of the women died from post-surgery complications, while most of the others suffered physical and psychological damages, and their work and family life have been affected.

Lives torn apart

“When I heard that the prosecutor had shelved the case, my heart sank; I was so angry, I wept,” said Yonny Quellop, president of the Association of Sterilisation Victims of Anta, in the Andean province of Cuzco in southern Peru.

“We’ve been struggling for years, demanding justice, and once again, justice has turned its back on us. I myself was a victim of sterilisation. I never asked to have my tubes tied. After the surgery, my husband left me. I’ve never fully recovered physically, and because of that I can’t get a job. They think I’m useless,” Quellop told IPS.

Quellop was 23 when she checked into a public hospital to give birth to her fourth child. After she delivered the baby, they put her under anaesthesia and performed the surgery.

“When I woke up, I realised they’d operated on me and I asked the doctor what they had done. And he told me: ‘I fixed you up so you wouldn’t have any more babies. Now you won’t be like all those other women who have babies like bunnies.’ But I never asked him to operate. I didn’t sign anything. Nobody asked me if I wanted it done,” she said, still visibly affected.

“From that day on, my life has been a living hell,” she continued. “I had complications, I got sick and finally had to have my uterus removed. I felt less of a woman, humiliated, ashamed. I’m alive, but after the sterilisation, life’s just never been the same for me.”

The leading parties implicated in the forced sterilisations include former president Fujimori and his health ministers, Eduardo Yong Motta, Marino Costa Bauer, and Alejandro Aguinaga.

Earlier this year Fujimori was convicted on several counts of corruption and human rights violations – including torture, murder, kidnapping and forced disappearance – and is currently serving a 25-year sentence.

Aguinaga is Fujimori’s personal physician and in 2006 he was elected legislator under the pro-Fujimori Alliance for the Future. Also elected that year was rural activist Hilaria Supa Huamán, who denounced Aguinaga for promoting the forced sterilisation programme.

“Here in my province, hundreds of women were cheated into being sterilised. They said it was for our own good. But it was just the opposite. Now even our own families treat us badly because they think we agreed not to have any more children. They treat us like inferior beings,” Quellop said. “We’re sad, but we’ll keep on fighting for justice.”

Victoria Vigo was 32 in 1996 when she was admitted into the public hospital of Piura, a city in northern Peru. She went in to deliver her third child, who died only hours after his birth. When she came to, after a caesarean section, a nurse told her that the doctor had ordered that she be sterilised.

“But when I checked my medical history there was no record of a tubal ligation,” Vigo told IPS. “I asked the doctors and the hospital directors, but everyone denied it. I fell into a depression. I’d lost my baby and, on top of that, they had sterilised me,” she recalled.

“I had to bring a lawsuit against the hospital to get it to finally admit that my tubes had been tied without my consent. I had never asked to have it done. They had condemned me to never having children again. The name of the doctor who ruined me forever is Nicolás Angulo,” she said firmly.

Of the thousands of women affected, Vigo is one of the few who filed an action against the doctor. After a seven-year legal battle, the doctor was convicted to three years in prison and forced to pay Vigo 3,500 dollars in damages. Although his sentence was suspended, it is significant because to date it is the only conviction in a case of forced sterilisation.

“The most significant thing is that during the trial, as part of his defence, the accused doctor argued that he had merely followed orders from his superiors and that sterilisations were part of the family planning and reproductive health policy implemented by the government of Fujimori,” Vigo said.

“After denying my accusations and trying to write me off as a mentally disturbed person, he finally admitted that non-consensual sterilisations were performed as part of a government policy. That’s what led me to join a movement that is seeking justice for all the women who have been victims” of forced sterilisation, she added.

During the hearing with the parties in the Peruvian forced sterilisations case, the IACHR chair called on the government representatives to comply fully with the agreement, which entails prosecuting those responsible for Mestanza’s death in 1998.

“If we obtain a conviction in María Mestanza’s case, it will open the door for prosecuting and sentencing everyone who was responsible for forced sterilisations,” Salazar explained.

Quellop said that, after the setback they suffered with the shelving of the case in May, this observation by the IACHR gives them renewed hope to continue their battle for justice. “At the last meeting of our victims’ association, we decided that as long as at least one of us is still standing, we will continue fighting for justice. And we will,” she said.

Ignoring CEDAW

By shelving María Mestanza’s case, Peru is not only in breach of its regional commitments, it is also in violation of its international obligations, as sanctioning the practice of compulsory sterilisations and compensating its victims is a mandatory requirement of the Committee that monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW).

“The prosecutor’s decision to close the case has a lot to do with CEDAW, because it means that the Peruvian State has violated Article 12 of the Convention,” Rossy Salazar said.

Article 12 stipulates that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of health care in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, access to health care services, including those related to family planning.”

Moreover, in its reports on Peru, the CEDAW Committee has recommended “that efforts should be continued to bring before the courts the persons responsible for this violation of the right to health,” the lawyer noted, as a measure to prevent the recurrence of these severe human rights violations against women.

And the alternative report on the implementation of CEDAW, produced by a number of human rights groups, said “These sterilisations not only constitute an act of sexual violation against women (but had) characteristics of crimes against humanity in some provinces as they were systematic and planned.”

The CEDAW Committee cited the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), approved by Peru, which under its Article 7 establishes that forced sterilisation, along with any other form of sexual violence, is to be considered a crime against humanity

“However, the State has not acted on this recommendation. And not only that, but the case remains closed, thus guaranteeing that those responsible will continue to go unpunished,” Salazar said, pointing out that this comes on the eve of CEDAW’s 30th anniversary.

The Convention – adopted by the United Nations on Dec. 18, 1979 and ratified by Peru in 1982 – is often referred to as the bill of rights for women, and it is the standard that has shaped national and international laws and policies aimed at closing the gender gap and ending inequality.

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