On June 28, 2016, Peru’s public prosecutor announced that former president Alberto Fujimori and his health ministers bear no responsibility for the forced sterilizations of thousands of women in the 1990s, effectively closing a high profile and politically influential human rights case.
Women’s rights NGOs charged the Peruvian state with human rights violations for the forced sterilizations of numerous poor, rural, Quechua-speaking women under a government family planning program. The program had the reported goal of alleviating poverty, and in total it resulted in between 260,000 and 350,000 people being surgically sterilized between 1996 and 2000. To date, 2,074 women have come forward to testify that they were sterilized against their will, and eighteen women are known to have died from complications of the procedure. The stories of women who have come forward include being forcibly anesthetized and sterilized after giving birth, being lured to the hospital with food or medicine and then physically restrained, and being threatened with jail or fines for not undergoing sterilization. Despite evidence that doctors and clinics were pressured to meet government quotas for sterilization, the prosecutor declared that the forced sterilizations were not part of a state policy, but rather isolated acts by individual doctors. The verdict came as a major disappointment to Peruvian and international human rights organizations that had been organizing around the case since it was filed at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) more than a decade ago. Since that time, victims and advocates have watched with frustration as the case has gone back and forth between the IACHR and the Peruvian authorities without any resolution.
In June 1999, a number of women’s rights organizations filed a petition with the IACHR on behalf of Ms. Maria Mamerita Mestanza Chavez, who died in 1996 after undergoing a tubal ligation surgery. Ms. Mestanza was the mother of seven children and was under constant pressure to undergo the procedure from authorities who threatened to jail her if she had more children. She was not warned of the risks of the surgery and when she experienced complications following the surgery she was refused treatment. The petition alleged that the Peruvian state, in its treatment of Ms. Mestanza, violated rights to life, humane treatment, and equality before the law set forth in Articles 1, 4, 5, and 24 of the American Convention on Human Rights as well as rights equal protections and freedom for women, especially protections for vulnerable populations and freedom from violence set forth in Articles 3, 4, 7, 8, and 9 of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women. The petition additionally alleged violations of states’ obligations to non-discrimination and assurance of women’s health rights as set forth in Articles 3 and 10 of the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and violation of states’ obligations to provision of women’s health care including family planning, and non-discrimination against rural women as set forth in Articles 12 and 14(2) of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Peru is party to all four of the named treaties.
In August 2003, Peru reached a friendly settlement with the IACHR in which it agreed to indemnify Ms. Mestanza’s family, investigate all other alleged human rights violations under the family planning program, and punish all deemed to be responsible, including, if necessary, the state. In 2009, the IACHR expressed concern to Peru regarding the government’s failure to investigate the its involvement in human rights violations, which caused Peru to open investigations in 2011. However, the Peruvian prosecutor closed the investigations in January 2014 for lack of evidence to support the claims. Peruvian organizations filed another complaint with the IACHR within a number of days, and in April 2014 the IACHR ordered the public prosecutor of Peru to conduct an exhaustive investigation into the alleged systematic and compulsory nature of the sterilizations. The Peruvian government did reopen the investigation in July 2015, ending with the most recent closure on June 28, 2016.
Even in the absence of convictions, news and protests surrounding the case have had major political implications in Peru and forced sterilizations were a major theme in the most recent election. The accused former president, Alberto Fujimori, was convicted of crimes against humanity by a domestic tribunal in 2009. He is currently serving jail time for authorizing the use of death squads, the massacres of civilians, and the disappearances of students during a war between the government and leftist insurgents which killed 70,000 people during the 1990s. However, many Peruvians still admire him for bringing stability to the country in a violent time. Fujimori’s daughter Keiko Fujimori ran for president in Peru’s most recent election and narrowly lost to Pedro Pablo Kuczynski after thousands marched against her. Protesters sought to remind Peruvians of the indignities they suffered under Alberto Fujimori, holding signs which read “Fujimori never again” and chanting “we are the children of the villagers who you couldn’t sterilize” as they marched.