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15 June 2016

Brazil: One Step Forward, Many Steps Back

By Renata Oliveira, Former Front Line Defenders Research & Training Fellow for the Americas

At the end of April, my last activity with Front Line Defenders was to accompany Brazilian human rights defender and indigenous leader Tonico Benites to Brussels. Tonico had the chance to meet with several policymakers and diplomats to discuss the challenges faced by indigenous persons in Brazil, particularly his group, the Guarani-Kaiowás. As a Brazilian who comes from a state that has practically decimated its native population, I thought I already knew how bad the situation was. However, Tonico’s first-hand testimony about the persecution of his people shocked me.

Indigenous people protest, Brazil 2016Before heading to Brussels, Tonico spent about a month in Dublin on Front Line Defenders Rest and Respite programme for HRDs. Prior to his arrival, Tonico had received a threatening text message from an unknown sender saying he would suffer terrible consequences if he continued showing “that video”. The message clearly referred to a video Tonico had presented just a few days before as evidence of the violence indigenous persons face in Brazil. He presented the video before the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry created to investigate the killings and violence against indigenous persons in Brazil.

The ongoing intimidation confirmed that this was a good time for Tonico to participate in the Rest and Respite programme abroad.

Tonico spent one month with us in Ireland recuperating from his incredibly stressful work, improving his English with classes, and broadening his support network through meetings with NGOs, journalists, and diplomats.

A few days before leaving Dublin to return home, Tonico’s fellow HRDs working on indigenous rights in Brazil told him that the situation had worsened. Following the suspension of President Rousseff, the interim president appointed Blairo Maggi – a man known as the King of Soy – as the new Minister of Agriculture. The agribusiness lobby in Brazil welcomed this appointment, as it removed many obstacles to the expansion of agricultural business. Now, indigenous and environmental rights defenders are the only major force standing in their way. Violent land recuperation operations and attacks on indigenous rights defenders continue.

Even though Tonico is a beneficiary of the Brazilian National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, he does not feel safe. The National Programme has failed to guarantee the safety of many HRDs in Brazil, who have a heightened and legitimate sense of the threats they face after three indigenous rights defenders, Gilmar Alves da Silva, Adenilson da Silva and Eusébio Ka'apor, were targeted and killed in 2015.

As Brazil faces an ongoing political and financial crisis, the country has taken many steps backwards in promoting and protecting human rights.

As a Brazilian, I have always known that indigenous people are very vulnerable in Brazil, and that those advocating for indigenous rights in my country are routinely persecuted and brutally silenced. Arriving home after completing my fellowship with Front Line Defenders this May, I found the situation had worsened.

As reported by Front Line Defenders, Brazil tops the list for killings of HRDs in 2016. In the first four months of the year, at least 24 HRDs were killed. Front Line Defenders had documented 9 killings of HRDs in Brazil for the whole of 2015.

Several hard-won rights and protection mechanisms by HRDs have been eroded or eliminated.

The Ministry for Human Rights no longer exists and the National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders lacks resources to provide adequate protection. And there is a general lack of political will from Brazilian politicians to better the human rights situation.

Since President Rousseff has been temporarily suspended and interim President Michel Temer took power, the government has adopted many decisions that have had a bad impact on the protection and promotion of human rights in the country and the work of HRDs. The Ministry of Women, Racial Equality, and Human Rights was subsumed within the Ministry of Justice as a Secretary, in a clear demonstration that human rights is no longer a priority. Afro-Brazilians and women HRDs who have been working against discrimination were outraged to see Mr. Temer’s all-white, all-male cabinet. They have been fighting for many years for equality and the interim president’s cabinet is a clear setback.

Economic, social and cultural rights have been critically affected as the government subsumed the Ministry of Culture within the Ministry of Education as a Secretary – a decision that was later overturned due to pressure from civil society. The government has also announced it will reduce the funding designated for housing, education, and fighting poverty.

The situation for indigenous rights defenders, like Tonico Benites, is particularly dangerous.

Religious extremist and far-right politician, Pastor Everaldo, is one of the rumoured names to take over the presidency of the National Foundation for the Indigenous Person (Fundação Nacional do Índio – FUNAI). Pastor Everaldo supports a group of congressmen that became known as the “BBB” group – standing for “bull, bullet, bible”. This group predominantly represents religious extremist groups, powerful farmers and agribusinesses, none of whom are interested in ensuring indigenous persons’ right to self-determination and their land. Yet, these might be the people who will run FUNAI.

This BBB group is also behind many controversial bills being discussed in parliament. This includes a bill restricting access to legal abortion for rape victims and requiring them to undergo a sexual assault forensic exam before even looking for a doctor for counselling. The BBB group has also been pushing for the approval of a “Family Statute” that defines family as the union between a man and a women, in total disregard of the 2011 Supreme Court’s decision recognising civil unions for same-sex couples. A bill on cyber-crimes has also been discussed, which HRDs and organisations working on freedom of expression say will be a tool for online censorship.

Many Brazilians are watching this quick retrogression with perplexity, not knowing exactly how we got to this point. Brazil’s civil society has always been perceived as very strong and active since the redemocratisation process in the late 1980s and it has indeed played a major role in the attainment of many rights. However, Brazilian civil society underestimated the power of the conservative shift amongst politicians and several sectors of the society itself.

Brazilian human rights defenders, activists and NGOs have realised they need to fight against social regression as hard as they fight for new human rights achievements. - Renata Oliveira

In recent years, different tools have been used to push back against human rights defenders and civil society, particularly smear campaigns. Brazil is a country where being a human rights defender can be a negative thing. HRDs are usually seen as criminals, or as someone who supports criminal activity as portrayed in the most-watched soap opera that aired in 2015 which had a “HRD/criminal” as the main character. The same thing happens to feminists, who are perceived as crazy and extremists, and often called “feminazis” in social networks for speaking out for women’s rights, equality and reproductive rights. Indigenous leaders who are also human rights defenders are considered legally inept, and much of Brazilian society assumes that indigenous populations lack sufficient understanding to pursue their rights.

As Brazil prepares to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2016, struggles through an impeachment process and faces severe economic contraction, these events often overshadow the work and persecution of HRDs. More than ever, Brazilian HRDs and civil society have to fight to ensure that hard-won rights are not taken away. The international community has a major role to play in legitimising the work of HRDs, and using current events in Brazil to attract attention to issues that have been neglected locally- most specifically the assault on human rights defenders.

*Photo of Tonico Benites taken by photographer Felipe Milanez.