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Burt Honored for Work Exposing Human Rights Violations in Peru

February 16, 2012

By Rashad Mulla

Jo-Marie Burt. Creative Services photo

October 25, 2011, marked a crowning achievement in the academic career of Jo-Marie Burt, Mason faculty member in the Department of Public and International Affairs. On that day, Salomon Lerner Ghitis, the prime minister of Peru, recognized Burt “for her work on the behalf of the restoration of democracy to Peru and in favor of the promotion of human rights,” according to an official press release.

Burt, who was recently named director of the Latin American Studies Program and is also the co-director of the Center for Global Studies at Mason, has conducted research in Peru since the mid-1980s. Her research has focused on political violence and human rights, and she has studied, in great detail, the decade-long presidency of Alberto Fujimori, who in 2009 was convicted of human rights violations and sentenced to 25 years in prison. According to the Peruvian government, Burt’s research played a role in bringing his crimes out into the open and returning democracy to Peru.

“This award was a huge surprise, and of course a major honor. It shows that academic research can have real-life impact,” Burt says. “Through our research and writing, I and other colleagues helped unmask the authoritarian nature of the Fujimori regime and bring to light the terrible abuses that were occurring.”

In addition to her research on the Fujimori government violations, Burt helped to monitor the 2011 electoral process in Peru through the Washington Office on Latin America.

Burt became aware of the problem of human rights violations in Latin America through political science and history courses she took as an undergraduate. But her first direct experience with the region came in 1986, when she traveled to Peru, and later to Chile and Brazil, as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. Her project focused on community organizing in urban shantytowns in the region. She went to Peru to study Spanish intensively, and she fell in love with the country.

“The politics are interesting, and the people are amazing,” she says. “It’s a very magical place, and it captured me.”

The Ambassador of Peru to the United States Harold A. Forsyth, left, and the Prime Minister of Peru Salomón Lerner presented Jo-Marie Burt and Coletta A. Youngers, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, with the Order of Merit for Distinguished Service from the Peruvian government. Photo courtesy of Jo-Marie Burt

Burt was drawn to the country not only by its beauty, but because it was the epicenter of some of the world’s most widespread human rights violations of the late 1980s. On the one hand was the violence unleashed by the Shining Path insurgency, and on the other, the massacres and disappearances carried on by the armed forces in their attempts to control the insurgency.

Burt met and kept in contact with various human rights groups in Peru. She structured graduate school around her work in Peru because she felt the need to report on and understand the underlying dynamics of violence, she says.

In the 1990s, she began working as a researcher, writer and journalist and covered the Fujimori government, publishing articles focused on human rights issues. She worked as a researcher for the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2002 and 2003. She returned in 2006 as a Fulbright scholar and visiting researcher at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, where she returned again in 2010 with the “Alberto Flores Galindo” Visiting Professorship.

Between 2007 and 2009, Burt monitored and reported on the Fujimori trial. “This was one of the most important trials for human rights around the world,” she says. “It was the first time in the world a former head of state was extradited to his home country and put on trial for human rights violations. It is an extraordinary achievement that not only establishes a new precedent for global justice, but also, and most important, provides meaningful repair to the thousands of victims of the Fujimori regime’s policies.”

Nowadays, Burt lectures on the Fujimori government and trial around the world. But her interest in and commitment to human rights in Peru doesn’t stop there.

A number of trials, in which hundreds of military and police officers are implicated for their role in grave human rights violations, are still taking place in Peru. These trials come with brand-new obstacles.

“Initially, people thought that the Fujimori trial would make the prosecutions more dynamic and transparent, but so far, it’s been the opposite,” Burt says. “The complex nature of these trials varies from case to case. In some cases, there is no evidence or witness testimony since some cases date back to events 25 years ago. Other cases are being closed because government authorities refuse to provide information to investigators so they can identify perpetrators. Justice is being denied to the victims.”

She adds, “I’m now trying to understand the obstacles to achieving justice in these other cases and why these trials have become so much more complicated.”

Burt is now working on a book about the Fujimori trial, and she is also beginning to curate a database of Peruvian trials that will be available online.