Healing the Past, Protecting the Future

By Alejandro Toledo

On the fiftieth anniversary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, former President of Peru Alejandro Toledo discusses the role the Commission has played in helping reconcile the region's complex past and safeguard its democratic institutions. Adapted from an article originally published in Americas Quarterly.

One of the most moving moments of my tenure as president of Peru occurred in August 2003, when our country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission presented me with its final report on the violence that had led to more than 70,000 deaths or disappearances at the hands of terrorist and paramilitary organizations during the previous decade.

It was not only a harrowing document - and a historic milestone for Peru - but also the first step in ending our long national tragedy.

Restoring trust in our democratic institutions had been among my top priorities when I was elected two years earlier. In response to the report, we created a high-level, diverse commission intended to bring about national reconciliation and to provide reparations to families and communities affected by the violence.

With growing concerns once again in our country about protecting indigenous rights and safeguarding democracy, following the recent violence in the Amazon, it is important to remember how much we, like other Latin Americans, owe to the institutions committed to the defense and protection of human rights and justice around the hemisphere.

Chief among them is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which is marking its 50th anniversary this year. Those of us with strong democratic convictions have strong faith in the Commission and Court's protection and promotion of human rights.

The relationship between the Commission and the governments that make up the Organization of American States derives strength from the democratic practices of its member states. Greater democracy and respect for democratic governance in each of our countries is crucial to the success of the Inter-American system.

The reverse is also true: The less democratic a given government, even when it has arisen legitimately from the ballot boxes, the greater the resistance to accepting the decisions of the Commission and the Court.

Nondemocratic governments often complain about ``extraterritoriality,'' which is a code word for what they consider intrusion in their national affairs. We have witnessed this tendency in recent cases in Peru and elsewhere. Governments that make alliances with sectors that have little interest in the promotion of human rights on our continent are the same ones that reject the autonomous decisions of the Commission.

Restoring trust in our democratic institutions had been among my top priorities.

But a genuine democracy should not fear being part of the effort to advance and improve the Inter-American system's institutions and to work toward expanding respect for human rights across the hemisphere.

Our region's most important struggles today are against poverty and inequality, and against corruption. Protecting human rights, which include access to healthcare and education, depends on maintaining a full respect for the democratic rule of law.

At a time when our region's democratic ideals are again under debate, as a result of the recent events in Honduras, it is worth reflecting on the challenges facing our democracies and multilateral institutions.

In principle, the lawful, democratic reelection of a head of state, when permitted by the constitution, can have a positive impact on a country; when the people reward good governance by electing a leader to a second term, they increase stability and provide an opportunity for greater long-term policy continuity.

On the other hand, we have seen a trend in a number of our Latin American countries for the executive to bypass the legislature and judiciary by calling for popular referenda that seek to constitutionally eradicate term limits. These ``legal'' circumventions of the checks and balances of power become an auto-immune-like disease of the democratic system. With unlimited term limits, even a leader who was at first democratically elected can consolidate enough power to manipulate future elections, thereby undermining the original legitimacy of democracy.

In Honduras, the Supreme Court and legislature asserted their "immune response", through the military, against an attempt at executive overreach in clear violation of the Honduran Constitution. The actions of the government to restrain its executive branch are therefore qualitatively different than a military coup.

The solution to the Honduran crisis is to immediately call for new, transparent elections that respect the term limits set by the state's current constitution. These elections should be carried out with the free-handed participation of the national institutions, such as the electoral board and other pertinent bodies, and the close supervision of the international democratic community, such as the OAS, NDI, the Carter Center, The European Union and other specialized regional institutions.

Democracy and freedom cannot be defined by the single day of an election; we must demand of our leaders that, once elected, they also govern democratically.