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Accountability in Hostile Times: the Case of the Peruvian Human Rights Ombudsman 1996–2001*


This article examines the record of the Peruvian human rights ombudsman between 1996 and 2001, seeking to explain its relative effectiveness under conditions of semi-authoritarian government. It suggests that this can be attributed to three factors: (1) the robustness of the institution's foundations; (2) the capacity of the first appointee and personnel, and; (3) the ability of the institution to build alliances which were able to enhance accountability. Drawing on O'Donnell's theory of a new generation of horizontal accountability mechanisms – that is, appointed, as opposed to elected, institutions – it argues that the human rights ombudsman occupied a distinct position in the Peruvian political system during this period that allowed it to interconnect different actors and arenas of accountability.

<span class='italic'>Resumen:</span>

Este artículo examina el récord del relator de derechos humanos en Perú entre 1996 y 2001, para tratar de explicar su relativa efectividad en condiciones de trabajo bajo un gobierno semi-autoritario. El material sugiere que lo anterior se puede atribuir a tres factores: (1) la fortaleza de los fundamentos institucionales; (2) la capacidad personal del primer designado y su personal y; (3) la habilidad de la institución para construir alianzas capaces de aumentar la rendición de cuentas. Basándose en la teoría de O'Donnell sobre una nueva generación de mecanismos horizontales de rendición de cuentas (instituciones nombradas en vez de electas) el autor señala que el relator de los derechos humanos ocupó una posición distintiva en el sistema político peruano durante este periodo que le permitió interconectar a diferentes actores y áreas para la rendición de cuentas.

Palabras clave: relator, rendición de cuentas, Perú, democratización, instituciones de derechos humanos

<span class='italic'>Resumo:</span>

Esse artigo examina o desempenho do ouvidor de direitos humanos do Peru entre 1996 e 2001. O texto procura explicar sua relativa eficácia, mesmo num governo com inclinações autoritárias. Ele sugere que esse desempenho pode ser atribuído a três fatores: (1) o vigor das fundações da instituição; (2) a capacidade do primeiro nomeado e de seus funcionários, e; (3) a habilidade da instituição em construir alianças que puderam realçar a responsabilidade perante a sociedade. Conforme a teoria de O'Donnel sobre uma nova geração de mecanismos de responsabilidade horizontais – ou seja, instituições nomeadas e não eleitas – ele argumenta que o ouvidor de direitos humanos ocupou uma posição distinta no sistema político peruano durante esse período, o que permitiu com que se interligasse com diferentes atores e áreas de responsabilidade.

Palavras-chave: ouvidor, responsabilidade, Peru, democratização, direitos humanos, instituições

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1 Ombudsmen offices can be found in all Latin American democracies apart from Chile and Uruguay.

2 See Linda Reif, The Ombudsman, Good Governance and the International Human Rights System (Boston, 2004).

3 Uggla Fredrik, ‘The Ombudsman in Latin America,Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 36, no. 3 (2004), p. 448.

4 See Collier David and Levitsky Steven, ‘Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research’, World Politics, vol. 49, no. 3 (1997), pp. 430–51.

5 The Peruvian ombudsman translates into Spanish as the Defensoría del Pueblo.

6 Coletta Youngers, ‘Promoting Human Rights: NGOs and the State in Peru’, in John Crabtree (ed.), Making Institutions Work in Peru (London 2006), p. 170.

7 Andreas Schedler et al. (eds.), The Self-Restraining State: Power and Accountability in New Democracies (Boulder 1999), p. 14.

8 Richard Mulgan, Holding Power to Account (Basingstoke 2003), p. 10.

9 International Council on Human Rights, Assessing the Effectiveness of National Human Rights Institutions, UNHCR (Geneva 2005).

10 Guillermo O'Donnell, ‘Horizontal Accountability in New Democracies’, in Schedler et al., The Self-Restraining State, pp. 29–52. Enrique Peruzzotti and Catalina Smulovitz (eds.), Enforcing the Rule of Law: Social Accountability in the New Latin American Democracies (Pittsburgh 2006).

11 Mark Ungar, Elusive Reform: Democracy and the Rule of Law in Latin America (Boulder 2002), p. 37.

12 O'Donnell defines appointed institutions as: (1) proactive and continuous in their respective tasks; (2) able to invoke professional or ‘apolitical’ criteria and thus diminish conflict; and (3) specialised where necessary to investigate the political bureaucracy. Guillermo O'Donnell, ‘Notes on Various Accountabilities and Their Interrelations’, in Enrique Peruzzotti and Catalina Smulovitz (eds.), Enforcing the Rule of Law: Social Accountability in the New Latin American Democracies (Pittsburgh 2006), p. 338.

13 Peruzzotti and Smulovitz, Enforcing the Rule of Law, p. 351.

14 Catalina Smulovitz and Enrique Peruzzotti, ‘Societal and horizontal controls: two cases of a fruitful relationship’, in Scott Mainwaring and Christopher Welna (eds.), Democratic Accountability in Latin America, (Oxford, 2003), pp. 309–32.

15 See Robert Pastor, ‘The Third Dimension of Accountability: The International Community in National Elections’, in Schedler et al. The Self-Restraining State, pp. 123–44. International agencies refer to a variety of different actors, including national governments, IGOs, international judicial bodies and international NGOs.

16 Guillermo O'Donnell, ‘On the State, Democratization and some Conceptual Problems’, The Helen Kellogg Institute, Working Paper 192, April 1993.

17 The most prominent actor to emerge was the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Human Rights Coordinating Committee) established in 1985.

18 See Mauricio Novoa, Defensoría del Pueblo: Aproximaciones a una Institución Constitucional (Lima 2003).

19 Ellner Steve, ‘The Contrasting Variants of the Populism of Hugo Chavez and Alberto Fujimori’, Journal of Latin American Studies, vol. 35 (2003), pp. 139–62.

20 The Constitutional Tribunal is the highest legal authority in matters of constitutionality of Peruvian laws and decrees. Included in the 1993 Constitution and re-established in June 1996 it was effectively shut down by a Fujimori controlled congress in May 1997.

21 Author's interview with Deputy Defensor for Constitutional Affairs Samuel Abad, 14 July 2005.

22 Author's communication with World Bank Group, 21 February 2006.

23 Author's communication with Defensor del Pueblo Jorge Santistevan, 22 February 2006.

24 Author's interview with Magistrate of the Constitutional Tribunal César Landa, 22 July 2005.

25 The Constitution was approved by the narrowest of margins by popular referendum in 1993 – a process criticised for irregularities.

26 This legal obligation of cooperation is limited in relation to: (a) judicial secrecy (including military courts), and; (b) national security, defence and international relations.

27 Most hybrid ombudsmen have additional powers to initiate court actions in order to protect human rights.

28 Source: Accessed 12 April 2006.

29 Ungar, Elusive Reform, p. 41.

30 Foreign funding of ombudsmen varies throughout the region. Available figures for 2001 suggest that foreign funding as a percentage of total budget was 50% in Bolivia, 39% in Colombia, 40% in Honduras, 15% in Guatemala and 10% in El Salvador: Uggla, ‘The Ombudsman’, p. 436.

31 See Uggla, ‘The Ombudsman’, p. 426.

32 Santistevan was also assisted by his international credentials as a former UN official, his apparent political neutrality, and a domestic network of support which spanned government and civil society.

33 Salomón Lerner, interview by author, 10 August 2005, Lima, Peru. Salomón Lerner is the Ex-President of the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

34 See Édgar Núñez, ‘Debilidad ante la violencia’, in El Peruano, 13 July 2007.

35 La Republica, 30 September 2005.

36 Marcial Rubio, interview by author, 7 September 2005, Lima, Peru.

37 Rubio, 7 September 2005.

38 O'Donnell, ‘Horizontal Accountability’, p. 45.

39 Santistevan, 22 February 2006.

40 Expreso, 18 November 1999.

41 de Estado Cuestion, Instituto de Dialogo y Propuestas, no. 27 (Abril 1997) pp. 18–9.

42 Abad, 14 July 2005.

43 The day following the hostage taking of the Japanese Ambassador's Residence, the Defensoría called for dialogue, respect for human rights and a proportionate response on the part of the authorities.

44 See Javier De Belaunde, ‘Justice, Legality and Judicial Reform’, in John Crabtree and Jim Thomas (eds.), Fujimori's Peru: The Political Economy (London 1998), pp. 173–91.

45 Between 1998 and 1999 the Defensoría submitted only two amparo actions, one of which was a joint action. Defensoría del Pueblo, Segundo Informe del Defensor del Pueblo al Congreso de la Republica 1998–1999 (Lima 1999), pp. 339–41.

46 Expreso, 12 June 1999.

47 ‘Cooperation’ is defined as ‘the total disposition of the institution in question to the requirements and recommendations of the Defensoría’. This is not to be confused with cooperation vis-à-vis third parties. Defensoría del Pueblo, Primer Informe, p. 351.

48 O'Donnell, ‘Notes on Various Accountabilities and Their Interrelations’, in Peruzzotti and Smulovitz, Enforcing the Rule of Law, p. 342.

49 Abad, 14 July 2005.

50 Author's interview with Advisor to the Defensor del Pueblo Rolando Luque, 15 July 2005.

51 Between 1996 and 1998, 38 percent of complaints originated from central Lima, followed by the city outskirts. Defensoría del Pueblo, Primer Informe, p. 87.

52 Enrique Peruzzotti and Catalina Smulovitz, ‘Civil society, the media, and internet as tools for creating accountability to poor and disadvantaged groups’, UNDP, Occasional Paper (2002/13), p. 10.

53 El Peruano, 29 April 1997.

54 El Peruano, 10 September 1997.

55 Comercio, 19 September 1997.

56 Expreso, 24 September 1997.

57 Conversion to US$ from Peruvian soles at XR: $1=S/.3.5.

58 Fujimori felt impelled to brief the OAS Commission after the 1992 coup to reassure them that democracy would be quickly restored to Peru.

59 OAS General Assembly: Support for International Exchanges Among Ombudsmen, OAS AG/RES 1505, XXVII-0/97 (June 5, 1997).

60 Santistevan, 22 February 2006.

61 Interview with John Hamilton (US Ambassador), Ideele, no. 127, April–May 2000, p. 18.

62 Alza, 6 July 2005.

63 See Michael Dodson, ‘The Human Rights Ombudsman in Central America: Honduras and El Salvador Case Studies’, Essex Human Rights Review, vol. 3, no. 1 (2006).

64 Coletta Youngers, ‘Promoting Human Rights’, p. 172.

65 Santistevan, 22 February 2006.

66 Jorge Santistevan, ‘Defensor que no critica, que renuncie’. Interview in Ideele, Revista del Instituto de Defensa Legal, no. 119 (June 1999), p. 22.

67 Established in 1985, the Coordinadora Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Human Rights Coordinating Committee) acts as an umbrella organisation coordinating the activities of more than 60 human rights organisations across Peru. Transparencia is a domestic NGO created in 1994 with the goal of monitoring elections.

68 Author's interview with Director of the Defensoría's Office of International Cooperation Félix Grandez, 18 July 2005.

69 Author's interview with advisor at the Instituto de Defensa Legal Gorge Farfan, 26 August 2005.

70 Author's interview with Executive Secretary of the Coordinadora Francisco Soberon, 16 August 2005.

71 See Ana-Tereza Lemos-Nelson and Jorge Zaverucha, ‘Multiple Activation as a Strategy of Citizen Accountability and the Role of Investigating Legislative Committees’, in Peruzzotti and Smulovitz, Enforcing the Rule of Law, pp. 75–114.

72 Costa Gino, ‘Dos Anos de la Comision Ad-Hoc: Resultados y Perspectives’, Debate Defensorial: Revista de la Defensoría del Pueblo, no. 1 (September 1998), pp. 127–42.

73 Youngers, ‘Promoting Human Rights’, p. 74

74 Santistevan, 22 February 2006.

75 Youngers, ‘Promoting Human Rights’, p. 74.

76 Hearing of the US Congressional Committee on International Relations, 25 February 1998.

77 Defensoría del Pueblo, Informe sobre la aplicación de la anticoncepción quirúrgica voluntaria I (Lima 1998).

78 Figures from Ministry of Health. Cited in Defensoría del Pueblo, La aplicación de la anticoncepción quirúrgica y los derechos reproductivos III. Informe Defensorial no. 69. (Lima 2002), p. 136.

79 Ungar, Elusive Reform, p. 39. On 26 November 1996 General Robles, a retired Major General of the Peruvian army, was forcibly arrested on charges of ‘insulting the Armed Forces and general mendacity.’ This followed his accusation that senior military officers had been involved in a recent attempt to bomb a TV station in Puno. Robles was already a marked man, having publicly revealed in 1993 that Peru's National Intelligence Service (SIN) had set up a ‘death squad’, the notorious Colina Group. His arrest was widely condemned within and outside Peru and he was granted amnesty in early December.

80 In ‘Bronca de Fueros’, La República, 16 February 1997.

81 ‘Defensor del Pueblo, Jorge Santistevan, Plantea: Deben Desaparecer “Jueces Sin Rostro”’, La República, 26 January 1997. Under emergency terrorist laws adopted by the Fujimori government in 1992 many individuals were subjected to arbitrary detention and military trial with few legal guarantees. The ‘faceless judges’ refers to the practice of trying the accused before a panel of judges with their faces concealed by balaclavas, ostensibly to protect their identity. Due to lapse at the end of 1997, under strong domestic and international pressure the Fujimori regime relented and did not extend this power.

82 Ungar, Elusive Reform, p. 37.

83 Defensoría del Pueblo, Primer Informe, pp. 59–84.

84 Some 33 legislative initiatives were submitted to Congress from 1996–2000; Annual Reports submitted to Congress 1996–2001, accessed at:

85 Author's interview with Director of the Catholic University Human Rights Department Javier Ciurlizza, 24 August 2005. Mediation generally occurred through government ministries, although Santistevan did hold a number of meetings with Vladimir Montesinos to discuss the details of the Ad-Hoc Commission.

86 Ciurlizza, 24 August 2005.

87 See Catherine Conaghan, Fujimori's Peru: Deception in the Public Sphere (Pittsburgh 2005), p. 135.

88 Issues included forced sterilization (AQV), arbitrary police detention, faulty electrical installations, pollution and others. Available at

89 Annual Reports submitted to Congress 1996–2001. Data for 1998–1999 is not available.

90 Alza, 6 July 2005.

91 Abad, 6 July 2005.

92 Dante Mendoza (Deputy Defensor for State Administration) in interview with Fredrik Uggla, November 29, 2001. Quoted in Uggla, ‘The Ombudsman’, p. 438.

93 ‘Organizaciones que cumplen un papel importante en el fortalecimiento de la democracia’. Survey conducted by DATUM Internacional, August 2000.

94 Rubio, 7 September 2005.

95 “Defensoría del Pueblo Resolvio 71 Por Ciento de las Quejas y Denuncias Durante Periodo 1998–1999.” El Comercio, 11 June 1999.

96 See Caretas, no. 1623, 15 June 2000, p. 32; Ideele, No. 127, Apr–May 2000, p. 13.

97 La Fortaleza del Defensor, in QUEHACER, DESCO 112 (March–April 1998), pp. 4–13.

98 In the 1998 municipal elections the Defensoría fielded 25 people to supervise in the cities of Huamanga, Huancavelica, Huancayo and Andahuaylas.

99 The Defensoría, with evidence provided by Transparencia, successfully petitioned the JNE to annul the 1998 municipal election in Vinchos, Ayacucho due to voting irregularities.

100 100 people were fielded by the Defensoría in the departments of Ayacucho, Apurimac, Huancavelica, Huanaco, Junin y Pasco.

101 Resolucion Defensorial, no. 63–99/DP, published 23 December 1999.

102 Author's interview with APRODEH advisor, Wilfredo Ardito, 16 July 2005.

103 Abad, 14 July 2005.

104 Defensoría del Pueblo, Elecciones 2000: Informe de supervisión de la Defensoría del Pueblo (Lima 2000), pp. 37–8.

105 Gestión, 7 March 2000.

106 Gestión, 9 March 2000.

107 El Comercio, 26 March 2000.

108 Eduardo Stein in repost to the ONPE chief's suggestion that observers be barred from making declarations before the elections. El Comercio, 29 March 2000.

109 El Comercio, 5 March 2000.

110 When a special prosecutor was appointed to bury the issue, Santistevan requested that the ONPE and JNE be given access to the petitions seized to conduct a parallel investigation. Expreso, 10 March 2000.

111 Santistevan was included in the telaraña roja reports, where he was cast as dedicated to toppling the government through false propaganda.

112 La República, 6 March 2000.

113 Gestión, 8 March 2000; El Comercio, 8 March 2000.

114 Defensoría del Pueblo, Elecciones 2000, p. 104.

115 See Carter Center-NDI, Peru Elections 2000: Final Report (Atlanta 2000).

116 The final vote tally gave Fujimori 49.84% to Toledo's 40.39%. Victory in the first round requires 50% plus one.

117 Defensoría del Pueblo, Elecciones 2000, p. 100.

118 See ‘Control de daños o daños sin control’, Ideele, no. 128, June 2000.

119 The Marcha de los Cuatro Suyos was organised by Toledo in protest at Fujimori's reelection. Los Cuatro Suyos refers to the four corners of the Incan kingdom. Incan imagery would subsequently become a common feature of Toledo's presidential campaign.

120 One poll in November 2000 placed Santistevan fifth most popular potential presidential candidate nationwide, though far behind Toledo. Datum International, poll conducted 4–7 November 2000.

121 See Ideele, no. 132, April–May 2000, p. 5–18, Caretas, no. 1623, p. 31.

122 The so-called ‘Vladi-videos’ showed Montesinos bribing everyone from media executives and congressman to election officials.

123 Other non-democratic states with ombudsmen include Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in Eurasia; Pakistan in Asia; Rwanda, Sudan, Tunisia and Zimbabwe in Africa. No reliable data exists to evaluate the effectiveness of these institutions.

124 Ciurlizza, 24 August 2005.

125 46.4% public approval ratings in poll conducted by Universidad de Lima on 2–3 December 2006.

126 Only 40% of Peruvians polled in the 2005 Latinobarómetro agreed that democracy is preferable to any other kind of government.

* I am grateful for the assistance of the University of Oxford's Latin American Centre, the Peruvian Defensoría del Pueblo and the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Lima. I particularly wish to thank Laurence Whitehead, Alan Angell, John Crabtree, Fredrik Uggla and several anonymous JLAS reviewers for their helpful comments on previous drafts of this paper.

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