By Joe Bateman*
Today, after an installation ceremony in Brasilia, the seven-member Brazilian Truth Commission will meet to outline the two-year process of compiling a history of human rights violations committed during the years of the military regime. The Commission will investigate cases of torture, forced disappearance, secret graves, and murders committed by members of the State from 1946-1988, and will not be limited to those occurring on Brazilian soil. The body will have the power to subpoena testimony, hold public and private hearings, and access all government documents from the time period. Upon finishing its mandate in 2014, the Commission will issue a report to the President detailing its findings, including the names of those who were responsible for the abuses. Its scope is limited to investigating and revealing the truth about what happened during the military rule and the surrounding years. In order for the information to be used for criminal prosecutions, the Brazilian Congress or Supreme Court would have to revisit the 1979 Amnesty Law that has so far prevented human rights abuse cases from the period from moving forward.
The immediate role of the Truth Commission is clear: to establish an honest account of human rights abuses committed from 1946-1988 and officially end the culture of silence and secrecy surrounding the military dictatorship. Although the Truth Commission does not include provisions for prosecutions, there are some that hope, and others that fear, that the information revealed by the two-year investigation will create the momentum necessary to overturn the Amnesty Law, which currently makes prosecutions for human rights violations during the military dictatorship impossible.
Ricardo Veiga Cabral, president of the Clube Naval, a group of retired Navy personnel, announced on Monday that they would establish a “parallel truth commission” that would advise and accompany former members of the military who are required to testify. On Thursday, they will meet with the other clubs of retired members of the armed forces to discuss their concerns with the Truth Commission and how to respond to subpoenas.
Although the law creating the Commission was signed last November, appointing its members took nearly six months, with President Dilma Rousseff announcing the Commission’s make-up last Friday. The members chosen are widely recognized for their distinguished work in the fields of justice and human rights. Their experience in government spans the terms of three former presidents. Members include: Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, former Secretary of Human Rights under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso; Cláudio Fonteles, Attorney General under President Lula; José Paulo Cavalcanti Filho, Justice Ministry Secretary General under President José Sarney; José Carlos Dias, former Justice Minister under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso; Rosa Maria Cardoso da Cunha, a lawyer who defended Dilma when she was a political prisoner; Maria Rita Kehl, a psychologist, essayist, and political commentator; and Gilson Dipp, currently a Minister of the Superior Court of Justice. Dipp will serve as the Commission’s first rotating coordinator, with each of the seven members presiding at some point during the two years.
The first step in reconciling the past will be revealing what actually happened and who was responsible. Investigating such a large time period in only two years will be no small task for the Commission’s seven members and fourteen additional staff. In order to successfully fulfill its mandate, the Commission will need the full cooperation of all levels of the government, including the military and justice systems.
Brazil is behind other countries in the region in officially dealing with its past, yet the Truth Commission remains controversial in Brazil. Some claim that exposing those responsible for the crimes will be a form of punishment in and of itself, while others, like former President Cardoso, stress that the Truth Commission’s purpose is not punishment, but reconciliation. While the Commission’s mandate is clear, it will be up to the Brazilian government and its citizens to decide in two years whether simply knowing what happened is enough for healing, or if punishing those responsible will be the necessary next step in the process.
*Joe Bateman is WOLA's Program Officer for Brazil and Citizen Security.