(Washington, DC) - Today the OAS is facing a big test of its commitment to act collectively to protect and promote democratic values and human rights. Peru has just concluded a presidential election with a single candidate, which was plagued by irregularities. In the words of the OAS electoral mission, the election was "far from free and fair," and does not represent the "authentic popular will" of the Peruvian people.
The foreign ministers meeting at the OAS General Assembly on June 5 to discuss the Peruvian situation should condemn the irregularities in the April 9 and May 28 elections in the strongest possible terms. They should agree on concrete steps to ensure that free and fair presidential and congressional elections are held in Peru as soon as possible under the supervision of the OAS.
The "Santiago Commitment to Democracy and the Renewal of the Inter-American System" - General Assembly Resolution 1080 - provides a mechanism whereby OAS members states may collectively adopt measures to promote the restoration of democracy when it is under attack. Following President Fujimori's "self-coup" in April 1992, the OAS used Resolution 1080 to press Mr. Fujimori to arrange elections the following year for a constituent assembly and a new Congress. Democratic institutions, however, were stunted by persistent government interference. Today, democracy in Peru is once more at risk. Mr. Fujimori's long maneuver to secure a third term of office, termed unconconstitutional both by Peru's Constitutional Court and by its Ombudsman, has finally been crowned with success by this year's manifestly irregular election. Rather than accept this for a fact, the OAS should invoke Resolution 1080 once more to help Peruvians return their country to a democratic path.
The Peruvian elections: an affront to the Inter-American system
Before concluding that the Peruvian elections could not be salvaged and withdrawing his observers, the head of the OAS electoral observation mission, Mr. Eduardo Stein, made every effort to persuade the Peruvian authorities to delay the vote. Many governments warned President Fujimori of the consequences of proceeding with the elections on May 28 without the approval of the OAS or the participation of the opposition candidate. He chose to disregard all of these warnings. On May 28 President Fujimori was re-elected by default for a third presidential term, in a vote that has alarmed democrats throughout the continent. The President of the European Union, and the governments of the U.S.A., Canada, Chile, Japan, Spain, France, Germany, and Belgium, among others, have made statements deploring the election.
President Fujimori invited the OAS mission to Peru presumably in the belief that its presence would help to endorse the electoral process. However, the mission was unusual in covering the pre-electoral conditions and reporting its critical findings periodically throughout the process. The mission observed and commented on conditions such as candidates' access to the mass media, media coverage of the candidates, the use of government funds and the deployment of government personnel in electioneering activities, and the investigation of irregularities committed by supporters of the re-election campaign. The mission found serious irregularities and inequities in each of these areas, as well as gross inadequacies in the vote-counting machinery and the training of election officials.
Despite persistent recommendations by Mr. Stein's team to the government and electoral authorities, they introduced only limited and superficial improvements. These were not enough to restore confidence and give credibility to the election results. Other international observers, such as the National Democratic Institute, the Carter Center, and the European Union, which also withdrew their observers before the May 28 vote, shared the OAS's conclusion that the reforms were insufficient. National election monitors such as the Peruvian Ombudsman, and the non-governmental organizations Transparencia and the Council for Peace declined to observe for the same reasons. In other words, rarely have the irregularities of a presidential election been better documented, or more clear-cut.
While a president without democratic legitimacy is to govern Peru, severe irregularities also marred the election of its Congress on April 9. They included the still-unexplained registration of more than a million votes in excess of the number of voters, an inexplicable correction to the tally of opposition votes that led to the loss of a seat held by a prominent human rights critic of the government, and the alleged alteration by official computer operators of results in the computation of the preferential vote. After almost two months, the final result of the congressional election has still to be announced, although on May 10 the OAS electoral observation team urged the National Electoral Jury (JNE) to publish it immediately.
Mr. Fujimori has publicly blamed his opponent, Alejandro Toledo, for withdrawing from the presidential race because (Mr. Fujimori alleges) he feared losing in a legitimate vote. He accuses him of sidestepping defeat by sabotaging the legitimacy of the elections (which Mr. Fujimori insists were constitutional and fair). This attempt to shift the blame onto the victims of the election debacle is unfair. The criticisms of the electoral process made by the OAS electoral observation mission and the other observers were independent of, and prior to, the withdrawal of Mr. Toledo, and in part motivated it. Furthermore, Mr. Toledo stated that he would participate if the OAS approved the electoral conditions as fair, which it did not.
Why the OAS must act
By proceeding with the May 28 election regardless, President Fujimori has thrown the ball into the court of world opinion, and, in particular, that of the OAS. A shrewd strategist, he knows that Peru's record on various continental concerns (such as economic policy, the elimination of terrorism, and the war on drug-trafficking) will work to his government's advantage and may counsel a cautious and diplomatic response from regional leaders.
In the past, the Peruvian government has successfully deflected international criticism for questioned actions, such as the dismissal in 1997 of three members of its Constitutional Court who opposed Mr. Fujimori's unconstitutional plans for re-election, or Peru's unilateral withdrawal from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 1999. Statements made recently by President Fujimori and his ministers show that they believe that international criticism can be deflected once again without serious consequences for their government.
If the OAS is to act consistently with its commitment to protect democracy and human rights, it must prove Mr. Fujimori's calculations wrong. The only sure way of preventing rulers from giving in to temptations to break democratic rules is firm action by peer nations. The pro-active method of observation and public comment used by Mr. Stein's team was crucial in revealing the extent of the unfairness of the electoral conditions. Yet, what purpose was served by this scrupulous observation if member states fail to back it up with action?
The defense of democratic values is an essential part of the OAS Charter. The natural reluctance of leaders to interfere in the affairs of their neighbors is not a good defense for inaction. Failure to respond actively to interruptions of the democratic process can only breed a sense of impunity which contradicts the spirit of the Charter, and facilitates authoritarian abuses in the future. The American Convention on Human Rights in its art.23 guarantees that: Every citizen shall enjoy the following rights and opportunities:
a. to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
b. to vote and to be elected in genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and by secret ballot that guarantees the free expression of the will of the voters;
Democrats should take little comfort from Mr. Fujimori's recent promises to create a more democratic climate in Peru after the elections. They seem intended to deflect the debate away from the legitimacy of his new-won mandate. During his current term of office Mr. Fujimori has severely curtailed the independence of the judiciary and the press. Political instability was no excuse for the interference of the executive branch, since during these years the threat of political violence receded notably. By contrast, the unconstitutional interference of Mr. Fujimori's intelligence apparatus, the National Intelligence Service (SIN) in the political process has steadily increased. President Fujimori's record shows clearly that, whatever his other merits, he has shown little respect for democratic values.
Resolution 1080 is not intended only for military coups
In its preamble, Resolution 1080 exhorts member states of the OAS to put into effect the principle enshrined in the Charter that "the solidarity of the American states and the high aims which it pursues require the political organization of those states to be based on effective exercise of representative democracy." Specifically, Resolution 1080 calls for action in response to:
"any occurrences giving rise to the sudden or irregular interruption of the democratic political institutional process or of the legitimate exercise of power by the democratically elected government in any of the Organization's member states."
A fraudulent election aimed at perpetuating the mandate of a sitting head of state, in our view, is tantamount to "a sudden or irregular interruption of the democratic political institutional process." Resolution 1080 is more than an exhortation for the solidarity of member states to pre-empt or respond to military coups. An equally serious, and more insidious, threat to democracy in the region is presented by elected governments that use legal subterfuge to perpetuate themselves in power behind a democratic facade.
The May 31 Permanent Council's rejection of the United States and Costa Rica's proposal for a special meeting to discuss Peru under Resolution 1080 show the caution and reticence of member states when collective action is proposed against a fellow-member. Human Rights Watch urges the OAS Assembly General to show that the organization's defense of democratic values is not just a profession of faith, but a question of mutual commitment binding on all member states. The OAS should decide collectively on specific measures to persuade President Fujimori to stand down at the end of his term on July 28, and to hold fresh presidential and parliamentary elections under OAS supervision as early as possible.