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Peru, Democratic regimes, Authoritarian rule, Shining Path movement, Sendero Luminoso, Guerrilla insurgencies, Latin American politics, Regime transitions, Counterinsurgency campaigns, Human rights violations


Comparative and Foreign Law | Human Rights Law | Law and Politics | Law and Society


The wave of authoritarianism that swept over Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s focused international attention on the human rights violations committed by military dictatorships. As most Latin American nations experienced transitions to democratic rule in the 1980s, hopes were raised that human rights would be more widely respected. Nevertheless, it is questionable whether a regime change from dictatorship to democracy necessarily entails renewed respect for human rights. Does redemocratization represent a fundamental change in the exercise of political authority—that is, in relations between the state and civil society—or are there conditions under which democratic institutions and constitutional norms may fail to safeguard basic human rights?

In Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile, human rights concerns under newly established democratic regimes have been dominated by the issue of military accountability for the abuses committed under previous authoritarian rule. Although these new democratic regimes have confronted serious obstacles to the prosecution of military officers for past human rights abuses, they have significantly improved the contemporary human rights conditions in their respective nations. In contrast, in Peru there has been a sharp upsurge in the level of human rights violations since the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule in 1980. These violations have been associated with a counterinsurgency campaign launched by the democratic regime against the revolutionary movement Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), which initiated guerrilla operations in the midst of the regime transition in 1980.

The Peruvian case demonstrates that human rights violations may continue to be a concern after the succession of democratic regimes. The legal and procedural norms associated with liberal democracy may be necessary conditions for the protection of human rights, but they clearly do not constitute sufficient conditions. As explained below, constitutional safeguards for human rights have been rendered inoperative in Peru, largely due to institutional failures and the abdication of civilian political, administrative, and juridical authority over the military and its counterinsurgency campaign. This abdication of civilian authority has enabled the armed forces to violate human rights with impunity and operate virtually unfettered by the legal and political constraints of constitutional norms and democratic accountability. Consequently, the counterinsurgency campaign has eroded the foundations of Peru's constitutional order, creating a state within a state where the military exercises de facto authority insulated from civilian institutions or political control.

To place this case study of Peru within the broader, comparative context of Latin American politics, our analysis will begin with a brief discussion of the relationships between human rights, political regimes, and regime transitions. We will then proceed with an examination of the legal and institutional protections for human rights under Peru's democratic constitution and the mechanisms by which they have been rendered inoperable or ineffective. This analysis should demonstrate that the problem of human rights violations under democratic rule in Peru is not unique but is indicative of two, more general problems: the imposition of civilian control over the armed forces under new and frequently unstable democratic regimes, and the balancing of democratic norms with counterinsurgency tactics when guerrilla movements challenge state institutions.

Publication Citation

Published in: Human Rights Quarterly, vol. 12, no. 4 (1990).