Peru’s proposed terrorism denial law raises tough questions

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On Monday, Prime Minister Juan Jimenez gave a preview of the government’s long-awaited plan to fight crime, but the proposal generating the most controversy had nothing to do with clearing the streets of gang members, changing the police force or increasing prison sentences.

Instead, what drew the most attention was the so-called Denial Law, which would criminalize the denial of terrorist violence during the 1980s and 1990s.

The proposed law comes in response to the emergence of MOVADEF, an organization that is pushing to have all of the former Shining Path members released from jail, arguing that what happened in the 1980s and 1990s was a civil war. The fact that so many of MOVADEF’s members are college-aged reflects the fact those without first-hand recollection of what happened during the 1980s and early 1990s are most susceptible to MOVDAEF’s revisionist history.

The new law raises some thorny issues for Congress to navigate, however. First, there is a question of free speech. Peru’s Constitution guarantees all citizens the right to free expression, in oral, written and visual forms. A constitutional court may find a ban on promoting one view of history- mistaken as that view may be- would violate this clause.

There is precedent for Jimenez’s law in foreign jurisprudence, however. 17 countries, mostly in Europe, have laws against Holocaust denial. In most cases, the laws have been accepted on the grounds that Holocaust denial can lead to anti-Semitic violence.

Nevertheless, the courts have not always upheld these laws. In 2007, Spain’s top court ruled that a Holocaust denial law was unconstitutional. A French law passed recently to ban the denial of the Armenian genocide was struck down by the country’s Supreme Court.

If Congress can wade through that potential minefield, there is also a question of what consequences the new law would have. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s various convictions for Holocaust denial did not quiet the Frenchman or marginalize him, and instead increased his public profile, helping to lead him to a second-place finish in France’s presidential elections. Could such a law have similar effects for MOVADEF?

Finally, there is a question of what kinds of denial the law will apply to, and who will be prosecuted under the new law. While the denial of the extent and nature of the Shining Path’s crimes is principally the work of MOVADEF, an organization with a few hundred militants whose petition to participate in elections as a political party was rejected, efforts to deny or minimize the state’s crimes during the same period are common in Peru’s corridors of power.

The second-largest party in the Congress has made the defense of a man imprisoned for human rights violations a central part of its ideology. A prominent politician who served as defense minister, then as a vice presidential candidate, and who is now one of Peru’s representatives in the Andean Parliament, has said that much of the Truth and Reconciliation Report was untrue, and that the armed forces had not violated human rights. It was less than a year ago when the then-prime minister said that many of the victims’ testimony was staged or exaggerated.

In this context, it’s hard to imagine that the new law will concern itself with those who deny the role of state agents in crimes against civilians, and indeed, Jimenez’s statements have suggested that the law will just apply to the crimes of the Shining Path and the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement.

But should the denial of one type of atrocity be forbidden, while denial of another be allowed? Is it worse to deny or minimize the Shining Path’s massacre of villagers in Lucanamarca than to deny the army’s massacre of villagers in Accomarca? Is it worse to distort what happened on Tarata Street in Miraflores than to distort what happened on Huanta Street in Barrios Altos? These are questions which the Congress will have to resolve.

It is a shame that the media and the education system have done so poorly in teaching young people about what happened in the 1980s and 1990s that the government feels that such a law is necessary. Nevertheless, there are some very complicated issues that will have to be resolved before Congress passes this piece of legislation.

While the intention to prevent Peru from forgetting the atrocities of the 80s and 90s is admirable, there are many difficult questions that must be asked about the law.

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