WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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24 Jan 2019 | Commentary

Bolsonaro Acts on Promises to Dismantle Human Rights Protections in Brazil

On January 1, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing member of the Brazilian Congress with a reputation for hardline positions, was inaugurated as president of Brazil. Even though economic and political turmoil, as well as a backlash against the left has been brewing in Brazil for years, Bolsonaro’s unexpected rise to power still sent shockwaves throughout the world.

(For background on the campaign, and on Bolsonaro’s positions as a candidate, see here)

On December 6, WOLA, in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, organized a panel with Camila Asano of Conectas Direitos Humanos, a prominent Brazilian human rights group, to discuss the political dynamics taking hold in Brazil. According to Asano, the Bolsonaro presidency presents a major setback for Brazil in terms of human rights and democracy. When it comes to public security, police lethality and violence is already a severe problem: Brazilian police kill more civilians than do police in almost any other country in the world, regardless of size. In this context, it is troubling that Bolsonaro has backed officials in both Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro who have publicly defended extrajudicial killings. This includes the newly-elected governor of Rio de Janeiro, who has stated he’ll grant snipers the authority to shoot anyone with a gun.

Early signs about what the new president will do are not encouraging.

Positions that condone and even encourage such repressive tactics are likely to increase the disproportionate use of force and violence against marginalized groups, including Afro-Brazilians and the poor. Already, Afro-Brazilians have a 23 percent higher chance of being killed than other Brazilians. The combination of racist rhetoric by Bolsonaro, popular demands for security at any cost, and the militarization of the Brazilian government could put Afro-Brazilians at much higher risk. According to a WOLA interview with Douglas Belchior, an organizer with grassroots Afro-descendant network Uneafro Brasil, without international monitoring and pressure to defend Afro-Brazilian’s rights and to guarantee that civil society can do its oversight and advocacy unimpeded, disturbing violations that already take place are likely to occur more frequently.

This hardline approach to addressing Brazil’s security challenges raises the possibility that Bolsonaro will use military forces to carry out public security roles. It is also of concern that he has advocated for Brazil to cut back on arms control regulations and to follow the “U.S. model” when it comes to gun ownership. In other words, Bolsonaro would have no problem with civilians arming themselves and taking matters into their own hands when it comes to crime and security.

Bolsonaro’s campaign rhetoric already prompted members of the U.S. Congress to ask Secretary Pompeo to press Brazil’s new president on his stance on human rights, LGBTQ treatment, and protection of indigenous lands.

Early signs about what the new president will do are not encouraging. In office, Bolsonaro has taken first steps to implement some of the anti-democratic, racist, and intolerant campaign promises he made. Here are some of the actions taken by Bolsonaro thus far:

Deals Serious Blow to Indigenous Land Rights

Immediately in office, the Bolsonaro administration transferred responsibility for certifying indigenous territories as protected lands to the Ministry of Agriculture. Previously, the certification process was overseen by the National Indian Foundation, a government agency that protected the rights and welfare of the indigenous population.

This is a big win for the agriculture industry, which has lobbied for greater access to land for agricultural use, and has objected to protecting land for indigenous territories. Notably, the new Minister of Agriculture, Tereza Cristina Corrêa da Costa Dias, is perceived as part of the “ruralist” movement, a grouping of large farmers and ranchers often involved in land conflicts.

By empowering the Ministry of Agriculture, Bolsonaro has officially begun to roll back gains obtained over the past three decades by the 305 indigenous communities formally registered in Brazil. While the demarcation of territorial boundaries is complete for some 486 protected indigenous land areas, there are 235 other areas still in the process of being demarcated. The concern is that with these changes, those lands that aren’t yet demarcated and certified won’t be, and there will be efforts to undo the land protections gained thus far. There are already reports that loggers, emboldened by the Bolsonaro administration, are moving to take over the Arara people’s lands near Belo Monte.

If implemented, Bolsonaro’s plans concerning indigenous rights could cause irreparable harm.

Bolsonaro’s move is not terribly surprising, given his hateful campaign rhetoric that stated that not a “centimeter of land” would go to the indigenous and quilombo communities. Other campaign rhetoric framed indigenous communities as an obstacle to the country’s development. Bolsonaro has also espoused an ideology that seeks to forcibly assimilate indigenous persons into mainstream Brazilian society, thus forcing them to end their traditional way of life and abandon their identity.

If implemented, Bolsonaro’s plans concerning indigenous rights could cause irreparable harm. This is also the case when it comes to protecting and preserving the Amazon, where Bolsonaro’s proposals will put land and environmental protections at risk for the sake of political and short-term economic gain. During his campaign, Bolsonaro made it clear that he intends to ramp up deforestation of the Amazon and award contracts to some of his fervent campaign supporters. The most recent numbers indicate that the rate of deforestation of the Amazon rapidly grew by 48.8 percent during the presidential campaign, which some activists dubbed “the Bolsonaro affect.”

Takes Aim at Non-Governmental Organizations

On January 1, Bolsonaro signed a decree tightening the executive branch’s control over non-governmental organizations (NGO.). Specifically, the decree (which expires after 120 days if it isn’t ratified by Brazil’s Congress) allows the government to “supervise, coordinate, monitor, and accompany activities and actions of international organizations and non-governmental organizations in the national territory.”

According to Conectas, this unprecedented and arguably unconstitutional measure could curtail the functions of civil society organizations and place them under unreasonable government scrutiny. And given long-running concerns about civil-military relations in Brazil, it’s also troubling that Bolsonaro named a retired military general as the new government secretary in charge of “supervising” non-governmental organizations.

Brazilian civil society groups have expressed the fear to WOLA that human rights defenders and civil society will have to “defend themselves” from attacks and criminalization...

It’s worth noting that Brazil was experiencing a closing of democratic space prior to Bolsonaro taking office. The killing of 38-year-old Marielle Franco, a popular Rio politician, human rights advocate, and vocal critic of police brutality, sent shockwaves around the world. The 2016 Brazilian election cycle saw 28 political candidates assassinated. Brazilian civil society groups have expressed the fear to WOLA that human rights defenders and civil society will have to “defend themselves” from attacks and criminalization, while also describing concerns that their right to freedom of assembly will be curtailed.

Late December and early January saw additional worrying measures that concerned press freedoms. On December 31, prior to Bolsonaro’s inauguration, one of the last acts of President Michel Temer’s government was the rescinding of the licenses of 130 community radio stations. Given Bolsonaro’s extreme sensitivity to criticism, it is unlikely that these will be renewed anytime soon. Additional restrictions were placed on the press during Bolsonaro’s inauguration, prompting criticism from the Brazilian Press Association. These included making reporters arrive seven hours before the event began and forbidding them from moving freely in the premises. Reporters’ food was seized, and their access to water and bathrooms limited.

Diminishes Protections for Minorities and Places LGBT Community at Risk

Executive orders put in place by Bolsonaro seek to diminish protections and services to minorities and LGBT persons. The new Human Rights, Women, and Family Ministry’s official mandate does not include LGBT community concerns. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, the new Health Minister, alerted reporters that there are plans to make cuts in health care for indigenous persons. Additionally, newspaper the Folha de Sao Paulo has reported that there are plans to close the agency within the Ministry of Education tasked with promoting diversity in the public school and university system.

Support for the work of civil society and other groups will prove crucial to preserving democracy, human rights and environmental protections in the country.

Labor Rights Protections Demoted

The head of Bolsonaro’s transition team announced that the Labor Ministry will be abolished and that the ministry’s responsibilities will be subsumed under the Ministries of Justice, Economy, and Citizenship. Abolishing the Labor Ministry and transferring its responsibilities is likely to lead to reductions in monitoring of employers’ practices, less arbitration between employers and workers, and a rise in labor rights infractions.

The Bolsonaro government is also expected to dismiss several hundred government officials deemed to be “left wing” or who do not share his ideology. Bolsonaro justified these actions by claiming that the government needed to “do away with the communists and socialists that have led the government to chaos in the last 30 years.”

Denies Migrants Their Rights

Arguing that the decision to accept or deny migrants is one that should be made by sovereign states and not third parties (that is, under the rules of international law), Bolsonaro decided to withdraw Brazil from the UN Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. This compact prohibits collective deportations and discrimination against migrants. Following in the footsteps of President Trump, at a time when the world needs positive solutions to address the protection and assistance needs of global migration, Bolsonaro’s move reflects an anti-immigrant stance, one that is also likely to foment already existent xenophobic sentiment.

This move is especially problematic given that the Venezuelan migrant crisis facing the Americas and the Caribbean is likely to deepen in coming years. Previous to the Bolsonaro administration, the Brazilian government’s approach to Venezuelan migrants, while flawed, generally constituted a humane response. However, it is now unclear what will happen to policies meant to support Venezuelan migrants—for example, the housing set up to help Venezuelan migrants in the border state of Roraima.

Overall, the many steps taken by the Bolsonaro government to roll back human rights, protections for indigenous people and the environment, labor rights, press freedoms, and migrant rights, are highly alarming. This makes it all the more crucial for the international human rights community and governments concerned about rights issues to focus attention on Brazil. Support for the work of civil society and other groups will prove crucial to preserving democracy, human rights and environmental protections in the country. It is no exaggeration to say that the authoritarian tendencies of Brazil’s president create the risk that civil society, the press, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous people, the LGBT community, and critics of the government face irreparable harm.