In the last year, you’d be hard-pressed to have heard or read anything negative about Brazil (with the exception of President Lula’s pesky affinity for Iran). The South American giant emerged virtually unscathed from the financial crisis and is now the media darling of the Financial Times and the Economist. Democracy has generally been very good to Brazil since the country transitioned from military to civilian governance 25 years ago.
But if you peek inside the front door, Brazil’s house is not entirely in order. Despite significant improvements over the last fifteen years, the Brazilian government still faces an uphill battle on poverty, inequality, and citizen insecurity. More than one in four Brazilians live below the poverty line. Entire swaths of the country remain beyond the reach of government and its services. These criticisms may sound familiar, or at least predictable for a country that straddles the line between the developing and developed world. But here’s one that you might not have heard: Brazil has yet to confront the disappearances and torture sanctioned and committed decades ago by its military government. Instead, Brazil shoved its skeletons in a closet and shut the door.
The country’s repressive past finds a way of creeping to the fore. A culture of impunity lingers in Brazil’s big cities and their surrounding favelas, where extrajudicial violence is rampant. As Brazil seeks a growing international role, the refusal to pursue truth and justice may well damage Brazil’s credibility, limiting its ability to act and be treated as a global power.
Last December, Paulo Vannuchi, Brazil’s Special Secretary for Human Rights, published the third National Human Rights Plan (Programa Nacional de Direitos Humanos, PNDH). The PNDH recommended the opening of military archives and the formation of an official truth commission to investigate human rights abuses committed during Brazil’s 1964-1985 dictatorship. President Lula heeded Vannuchi’s advice and signed a decree calling for such a commission; within 24 hours, Defense Minister Nelson Jobim and all three heads of the armed forces threatened to resign. Jobim and the Armed Forces feared that a truth commission would aim to revoke the 1979 Amnesty Law. Other military officials contended that they would not accept a truth commission that failed to also investigate the crimes of the Leftists during the same period. By early January, Lula buckled and the text of the PNDH was amended; in the new version, human rights violations were committed in the “context of political conflict” instead of a “context of political repression.” Human rights groups objected to the new language, to no avail, asserting that the PNDH’s more ambiguous phrasing essentially equated crimes of the armed Left with the state’s repression.
On the heels of the PNDH controversy, in April the Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal, STF) ruled that the 1979 Amnesty Law remains valid and will continue to prevent the prosecution of state agents who committed torture, murder, or forced disappearance during the 21 years of dictatorship. The STF decision ruffled some feathers internationally. Navi Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, announced that the STF had made a poor decision that perpetuates impunity. The Brazilian government now faces the judgment of the Inter-American Court for Human Rights (IACHR), having failed to comply with the Court’s earlier recommendation to investigate and punish dictatorship-era human rights violations. During the IACHR’s public hearings in May, Brazilian armed forces were accused of arbitrary detention, torture, and forced disappearance. Despite the noise generated by the UN and the IACHR, Brazil’s political leadership has not felt internal pressure to push back against the STF decision. Dilma Rousseff, formerly Lula’s chief of staff and now leading candidate for president, was reportedly tortured during her stint in jail between 1970 and 1972. But even Dilma supports the ruling, saying she is “not in favor of revenge in any form.”
So who cares about squabbles among Brazil’s human rights lawyers, the Supreme Court, and the country’s military brass (not to mention often-ineffective organizations like the IACHR and the UN)? At the very least, Brazil should. The Amnesty Law has implications for Brazil beyond the country’s small human rights constituency.
Internally, Brazil’s culture of impunity exacerbates citizen insecurity. Martha Huggins, a sociologist whose recent work has focused on police violence in Brazil, argues: “While police discourse about torture and murder has changed—as authoritarian Brazil has been replaced by a formal redemocratization and the ‘war against subversion’ by a ‘war against crime’—police autonomy continues to allow police professionals in Brazil to commit gross human rights violations. In other words, the police violence of an earlier period had not withered away even during Brazil’s redemocratization. In fact, in Brazil’s largest cities it has dramatically increased.” Between 2003 and 2009, the number of extra-judicial executions by Brazilian police is astonishing; the Rio and São Paulo police have together killed more than 11,000 people. The dictatorship’s legacy of impunity cannot be divorced from the current epidemic of extra-judicial violence. In response to the STF decision to uphold the Amnesty Law, Tim Cahill, Amnesty International’s Brazil expert, articulated as much: “In a country that sees thousands of extra-judicial killings every year at the hands of security officials and where many more are tortured in police stations and prisons, this ruling clearly signals that in Brazil nobody is held responsible when the state kills and tortures its own citizens.” If Brazil wants a professional police force that effectively fights crime and upholds the rule of law, the government must send a signal that it does not tolerate past, present, and future abuses.
Brazil does not derive its international influence from the typical “hard” currency of power: military and economic strength (despite Brazil’s celebrated growth, it still only represents 2.5% of global GDP). That means that, unlike China, Brazil typically justifies its global ambitions by what it is, not what it does. Brazil—by virtue of being a multi-racial, multi-cultural, democratic society that has begun to decrease poverty and inequality as it grows its economy—now exudes a sense of entitlement to spread this success and its influence abroad. But Brazil’s failure to adequately confront and move beyond its history of repression threatens its ability to be the global example to which it aspires. Cezar Britto, former president of the Brazilian bar association, argues that “a country that fears its own history cannot be a serious country.” If Brazil is indeed serious about its global ambitions—a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, for example—it needs to demonstrate that it’s serious about human rights too.