Civic space and citizen rights still under threat in Brazil

AnaCernovCIVICUS speaks to Ana Cernov, Coordinator of the South-South Program at Conectas Human Rights, an international human rights non-governmental organisation. Based in Sao Paulo, Conectas was founded in Brazil in 2001 with the aim of promoting human rights and the democratic rule of law in the Global South. 

1. During the Olympic Games and after, we have seen the repression of several #ForaTemer and other protests. Have restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly increased after President Rousseff was impeached?

The repression of protests is not new in Brazil, however, it has indeed intensified in recent years and has become increasingly selective in the way it responds. Policing is ostensibly a military task –a regrettable heritage of the dictatorship that ruled the country for 21 years, from 1964 to 1985. Besides, it is also decentralised, as state governors each head their own military police. Therefore we cannot say that the Temer government is directly and solely responsible for the repression of the current protests. However, it is also true that there is high discretion regarding which protests are repressed depending on which side of the political spectrum they come from. The introduction of restrictions on the space for protest has steadily intensified since the protests that took place in June 2013, so in fact President Rousseff’s removal has not been a turning point in this respect.

The argument is always the same: that police take action in order to prevent acts of vandalism by demonstrators - a narrative that is also used by the media in order to shield the police's hard-line performance from criticism. We understand that the role of the police is that of singling out individual acts of vandalism and guaranteeing the exercise of constitutional rights to assemble and petition the authorities. In practice, what we see is an approach characterized by the use of disproportionate and intimidatory force to disperse protests and the violation of several international rules regarding the use of force and nonlethal weapons. No single mature democracy prevents its citizens from expressing their political views.  

2. More generally, how would you describe the context for civil society activism in Brazil? Which are the main obstacles faced by activists in general, and by women activists in particular?

The global trend toward increasing restrictions of civil society space is also apparent in Brazil. This attack on core civic space freedoms is sometimes wide open, as in the cases of police repression of protests. Other times, it is more sophisticated, and it operates through legislation that create worrying loopholes to criminalise social movements that use street protest as a tool of political pressure. Two recent laws deserve attention for their potential to restrict and/or inhibit action by these organisations: Law 12,850/13 that creates sanctions for criminal organisations and Law 13,260/16 that typifies what is terrorism under the Brazilian legislation. The latter, for example, includes a mechanism that allows for the criminalization of persons for so-called “preparatory acts”, i.e. a person can be punished for something that they have not yet done, which is a huge gap for arbitrariness to take place. Regarding gender violence, according to the World Health Organization Brazil is fifth in the world in number of women killed. Although the country has had specific legislation on violence against women for 10 years (the Maria da Penha Law), this kind of violence still has a high impact in a society that has a strong macho culture. The main challenges currently stem from the Legislative. The increasingly strong religious caucus in the National Congress, as well as in the state and municipal legislative bodies, has barred all attempts to advance a discussion on gender and hardened obstacles against abortion, even in the cases provided for by law. Due to its strong bases of support anchored in faith communities, particularly Evangelical Christian ones, this legislative caucus has high bargaining power. In alliance with others, such as the so-called Bullet and Bovine Caucus, which defend the interests of the arms industry (Brazil is the fourth exporter of weapons in the world) and of agribusiness, they are promoting setbacks. We are therefore seeing women’s rights being increasingly traded in exchange for favours and support among these three private interest groups.

3. What led to the foundation of Conectas in 2001? What was its mission, and what has changed as a result of its work?

Conectas was created in 2001 as a counterpoint to the work done by organisations based in the Northern hemisphere and dedicated to assessing the human rights situation in the South. In this sense, we are an organisation based in the South that looks at the countries in the south and works towards building a human rights movement in that part of the globe. After all we have the ability to understand what our own needs are, and to propose solutions to them. From this concept were born the International Human Rights Colloquium and Revista SUR. Fifteen years after our founding, our mission continues to be to promote and expand human rights from a perspective that combats inequalities and seeks to build a just, free and democratic society. Our main work areas are institutional violence, strengthening democratic state, and human and environmental rights violations committed by private companies. We operate through five main strategies: international action, legal action, partnerships and articulation with other civil society organisations, advocacy, and communication and engagement. What we see is that, fifteen years later, we are not the only ones focusing our gaze on the South anymore, and this fills us with pride. Looking towards the South and talk about our experiences enriches our human rights movement and strengthens our struggle for the actual realization of those rights.

4. As freedoms have been restricted, have there been any civil society reactions or self-protection initiatives?

We had a very rich experience of articulation as we tried to block the approval of Law 13,260 typifying terrorism in Brazil. The perspective that the Brazilian legislation would incorporate another discretionary instrument to criminalise social struggles fostered very interesting strategic alliances among organisations, social movements, trade unions and other groups. Technical notes, petitions, demonstrations, advocacy in Congress and other strategies were exchanged. We also see similar coalitions forming regarding the repression of protests. Brazilian civil society is very vibrant and active, and remains alert in monitoring the actual occurrence of the setbacks announced by the government that was sworn in after the impeachment process. The fact that the spaces for dialogue between government and civil society are being dismantled is a very important symbol in showing that the promotion of rights is not among the priorities of this government. We will stay alert. On that line, an initiative that Conectas is developing with CIVICUS and Fundo Brasil de Direitos Humanos will help in monitoring the state of the environment for civil society activities. We take part of the Civic Pulse initiative and we are collecting the perceptions of Brazilian civil society leaders. This will help us to strengthen our message and reinforce public opinion regarding the importance of ensuring a space for civil society action in which the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association and expression are viewed as natural rather than as threatening to society.

5. What specific steps should the government of Brazil take in the short term to safeguard civic space and citizen rights?

Mere fulfilment of constitutional provisions would be a major breakthrough in Brazil, particularly regarding the rights to peacefully assemble and demonstrate. But there are other essential guidelines as well. Controlling police action, which is currently at the service of the protection of the state rather than of its citizens, is essential to avoid violent repression as we have witnessed in the streets. In fact, reform of the military policing model was the only UPR recommendation ever refused by the Brazilian state. Looking into that terrible heritage of the dictatorship is crucial for it is required in the process of building another model of police, aimed at protecting citizens and based on citizens’ concerns and needs. Also, the laws on anti-terrorism and criminal organisations should be amended or even repealed. Additionally, Brazil is currently an extremely violent place for HRDs and WHRDs. In the first four months of 2016 alone, at least 24 defenders were assassinated in the country. It is urgent for our country to rethink its human rights defenders protection programme and widen its application.

6. How can external actors, including regional organisations and international solidarity movements, support Brazilian civil society?

Brazilian public opinion is still very conservative in what concerns human rights and minorities. There are thick layers of society that interpret government policies and human rights guidelines aimed at correcting historical distortions and protecting vulnerable populations as sheer privilege. On the other hand, our colonial history makes this very public opinion very sensitive regarding the image of Brazil abroad, and particularly in the countries of the North. That is why the amplification at the global level of the denunciations of human rights violations committed in the country is a major driver for attitudes more favourable to human rights to take roots in domestic politics. What the Brazilian media, typically conservative and elitist, do not do – that is, reporting on violations and putting pressure on the government – we can achieve by means of an international current of activism ready to give visibility to the injustices going on here.


Get in touch with Conectas Human Rights via their website or Facebook page, or follow them on Twitter @_conectas. Follow Ana Cernov @anacernov.