A new change in British law last year extends the retroactive reach of United Kingdom authorities to prosecute for war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide. Crimes can now be prosecuted for acts committed all the way back to 1991—10 years earlier than the previous cut-off point.
Given this development, a Peruvian man was recently arrested in Yorkshire, England, for allegedly participating in death squads during the Shining Path era. The charge was suspicion of involvement in state-backed death squads that targeted guerrilla movements, mainly the Shining Path. He is being accused of participating in the murder of up to 100 individuals during the period of 1989-1993 and is the first to be arrested under the new law.
The purpose of the law was to cover the actions of individuals who had become UK residents after the genocide in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It is suspected that hundreds of suspected war criminals from around the world are living in the UK with apparent impunity.
But the UK is not alone in its ability to prosecute such criminals. The United States has the Alien Tort Claims Act, which asserts that “the district courts shall have original jurisdiction of any civil action by an alien for a tort only, committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States.” Although the law remained dormant for nearly 200 years, with the increased awareness about and concern for human rights, litigants have recently begun to seek redress more frequently under the Alien Tort Claims Act—including by Paraguayans, Ethiopians, Nigerians, Libyans and Filipinos.
Civil war in Peru lasted between 1980 and 2000 and led to the death or disappearance of around 70,000 people. The Shining Path is supposedly responsible for half these killings and government security forces are accused of another third. Although the Shining Path is no longer a threat to Peruvian society, remnants of the group have reinvented themselves as an illicit drug enterprise, rebuilding on the profits of Peru’s thriving cocaine trade.
Beyond the recent UK arrest, the most prominent prosecution for crimes during the Shining Path era is that of former President Alberto Fujimori. In 2009, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for ordering abuses included the killing of 25 people by a military death squad. The ruling was controversial, given that Fujimori is still a popular figure among Peruvians and his daughter Keiko is a frontrunner in the Peruvian presidential elections next month. She is expected to pardon her father if elected.
However, this recent development in the UK shows that there is a growing international trend for the use of domestic courts to rule on international human rights law. This is a clear warning sign for those that expect to get away with human rights abuses.
*Sabrina Karim is a contributing blogger to AQ Online and is currently living in Lima, Peru as part of a Fulbright Fellowship.