CIVICUS speaks with Pedro Strozenberg, Ombudsman of Rio de Janeiro, about the situation of human rights and the regression of space for civil society in Brazil. The Ombudsman's Office is a public body that functions as a link between the state and civil society. Pedro Strozenberg is a lawyer specialising in conflict mediation who defines himself as an activist in matters of public safety, an area in which his office works to defend the rights of citizens against police abuse and brutality.
You come from civil society. How did you become the Ombudsman, and what kind of work do you do?
All my career has been in civil society. I am a lawyer specialising in conflict mediation within the framework of public security. I consider myself an activist in the field of security. For 15 years I worked in a civil society organisation (CSO), Viva Río, on issues of youth, rights, public safety, drugs and police. And for the past 10 years I have worked with the Institute for Religion Studies, an organisation more focused on research and with a strong component of public policy advocacy.
My role at the head of the Ombudsman's Office is a temporary function that derives from my work in civil society. Under a federal law passed in 2009, the Ombudsman’s position must be occupied by someone coming from civil society. In each state, the office holder is picked by the members of the Superior Council of the Public Defender's Office out of a list of three names submitted by civil society. This federal law has been in force for 10 years, but the system is being established at variable paces and with a lot of delays. To date, only 14 offices have been created; there seems to be strong resistance by the justice system to this element of external control. In Rio de Janeiro the mechanism was established in 2015 and I was elected in 2016. In 2017 I was re-elected, and as soon as my term ends, I will go back to civil society.
What are the main human rights challenges that you have faced at the Ombudsman’s Office?
Rio is a very complex city and experiences pronounced oscillations. When I started getting involved in these issues, in the second half of the 1990s, we were going through a situation similar to today’s: a context of high insecurity, economic crisis and very high levels of police violence. Between the decades of 2000 and 2010 there was an important innovative agenda, with a focus on prevention, which produced a temporary reduction in the levels of lethal violence in Rio. Unfortunately, over the past 30 years Brazil has maintained very high levels of lethal violence, which certainly vary from one place to the next, but overall present unacceptable patterns of violence. While for a decade the numbers of victims of lethal violence decreased in Rio, in other cities - especially in the northeast and the north of Brazil - the levels rose a lot, and the baseline remained between 50,000 and 60,000 people killed every year. Today we have surpassed 60,000. The widespread presence of firearms and disputes over the control of territories are important causes of this lethality.
In recent years, Rio experienced a frightening growth in deaths caused by state security forces, and more precisely by the police. This is the most emblematic trademark of the last period. In places like Rio and São Paulo, almost a third of the deaths are the result of police intervention.
We have a police force that is absolutely lethal, and what is most dramatic is that this is provided legitimacy by the political orientation of the state and federal governments, which is based on the logic of confrontation and the exchange of bullets. We are living through a dramatic period marked by narrative disputes. These police practices are not based on the law, which is much more restrictive, but on the political discourse of the incumbent rulers.
My role in the Ombudsman's Office includes upholding the pre-eminence of the law and acting as guarantor of people’s rights, in such a way that the law embodies protection for the people, rather than a threat to the poorest part of the population. It is necessary to follow legal processes, comply with legal requirements and guarantee everybody their right to defence, to freedom of expression, to the protection of life. Unfortunately, in many cases the understanding that institutions should be guided by the principles of the democratic rule of law does not prevail, and interpretation and scope vary according to territorial, ethnic and gender criteria. We all live in the same society, but not under the same legal guarantees. Today, we experience a time of legal instability, where the irresponsible and prejudiced discourse of Brazil’s rulers and of an important section of the legal system disrespects the National Constitution on a daily basis, introducing legal setbacks that in the near future will increase even more the number of deaths and the prison population. We need a narrative that takes the law as a point of reference, rather than the will of a punitive and exclusionary elite.
Do you think that the strong-arm discourse against crime disseminated from the top has resonated in Rio?
This discourse has indeed resonated, and that is because we live in a time of hopelessness in terms of public security policies, and unfortunately it is only natural for people to seek radical and immediate solutions, becoming vulnerable to emotional appeals that rarely entail genuine solutions. Electoral discourses rely heavily on emotional and inconsequential appeals. Many people want to hear something that, although not true, might create expectations that the situation will improve. And what’s dramatic is that many times it is the poorest population - the most affected by strong-arm discourse, in the sense that it is the part of the population where most of the victims come from - that most easily accepts the logic that the harshest the state action, the safer we will be. We believe the exact opposite: that the more rights we have, the more capable we will be of producing a culture of nonviolence.
Unfortunately, the electoral manipulation of fear and insecurity is part of the world that we live in. It is only one phase of the cycle, but a phase in which the poorest people are indeed supporting strong-arm policies, even if they are applied against them. The situation is quite surprising, not to say frustrating
Do you think that the dominant narrative has encouraged further police violence?
I would rather say that the logic of the election emboldened people who believe in violence as a way to confront violence. In Brazil there is a strong culture that encourages people to follow a reference of brutality rather than a reference of legality. The more brutal an effort to build a security policy, the more recognition it will gain.
A recent case clearly illustrates the moment we live in. Two favelas were involved in a full-blown territorial dispute, creating a situation that was quite dramatic for their inhabitants. The police decided to intervene. It was what they were supposed to do, since that is their role. But while in three days of fighting no deaths had occurred, the three-hour-long police operation led to 13 deaths, to which two more were added later. An operation causing 15 deaths cannot be considered successful in any way and must be the object of an investigation. Many residents said that several of the people who ended up dead had already surrendered and were in fact executed by the police. We are monitoring the investigation of the case, and there are reasons to think that the evidence was manipulated. Despite having caused so many deaths, the police operation still received the approval of part of the population. People say: ‘they were not citizens, they were thugs’. We are losing our humanity, our capacity for empathy and compassion.
Let me provide another example of the effects of this narrative. In his eagerness to make the headlines, the governor of Rio said that if someone threatens a police officer or is armed, the police should "point to the head and shoot." A governor should not be able to say something like that. Incredible as it may seem, soon afterwards it was reported that in Manginhos, a rather violent favela in Rio that is located near a police station, five people had been killed over the course of a few months - two so far this year. Although investigations to find out where the shots came from are ongoing, residents claim - and it is very likely that this is the case - that police officers made holes for machine guns in the tower of an old factory that is now converted to police offices and shot passers-by through them. One of those killed was a worker from a nearby university, and his death caused great commotion. If the one dying is a black boy who lives in the favela and is perceived as close to drug traffickers, discourse prevails that he was just a black man from the favela. But if it is a worker with a respectable job, death becomes unacceptable. For us at Ombudsman's Office, the idea that the police can climb up a tower to shoot and kill people is dramatic.
This is the model promoted by the state government: a model that leaves a trail of dead people and indelible pain. The dispute of narratives is very important for those who live in the favelas and for those who believe in human rights.
Generally speaking, what is the state of civil society freedoms in Brazil?
While we live in a democracy, within a democratic and legal institutional setting, in practice it is difficult for CSOs to have a voice and express themselves freely, autonomously and sustainably. First of all, economic sustainability is failing us. There are no public, transparent and accessible funds for the strengthening of civil society. For reasons of funding, structure and advocacy capacity, civil society is quite weak. There are no interlocutors in the state. This is a moment of fragility for civil society, so it is important that we manage to reinforce it.
Second, although strictly speaking there is no official censorship, there is an atmosphere of fear that restricts the freedom of expression, as there are lots of investigations of human rights defenders and civil society activists. The president's discourse, which depicts activists as communists threatening the Brazilian social system, aims to eliminate activism. There are very strong signs of political control, which were clearly expressed in the decision to put a military minister in control of CSOs. We live in a democracy, but not quite.
Third, there are risks and physical threats to activists. We really do not know to what extent it is currently safe to work on rights issues in Brazil.
What risks do civil society activists and human rights defenders face, and what can be done to mitigate them?
We defenders are fewer than we should be, but even so we are enough. However, the March 2018 assassination of Marielle Franco caused fear and led to the withdrawal of many activists from the favelas, notably black and women activists. The case of Marielle was at the same time representative of the context we live often, and also very particular. Marielle was a very visible person - she was one of the representatives in Rio who received the highest numbers of votes - and her murder, which took place in the city centre, was a real attack on democracy. It was not personal; it was a reaction to her political activity. Brazil does not have a tradition of politically motivated attacks. On the other hand, the case was typical because she was a black, bisexual woman from the favela. She belonged to a whole series of categories of very vulnerable and threatened people, who are often targeted not because of their political actions, but because of their identity, their practices and ideologies.
Marielle’s murder occurred when Rio was under federal and military intervention, and now it is known who her executors were: they belong to a group of for-hire assassins linked to the militias and formed by former police officers. However, we still do not know who ordered her killing or why. The case has not been solved and meanwhile impunity and fear prevail.
What support does rights-oriented civil society need in Brazil?
First and foremost, we must be vigilant and provide visibility to situations of rights violations. For this it is very important to speak with the international media and international organisations.
Second, international cooperation between CSOs is very important. In this context it is particularly important that organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and CIVICUS put Brazil in the forefront.
Finally, it is also important to strengthen public organisations so that they liaise with civil society. In this sense, ombudspeople are particularly important, since they are, among the arms of the state, the most capable of supporting social movements in various spheres. In Rio, at least, we are trying to do so in different ways. For instance, we carry out an activity called ‘favela journey for rights’, in which we listen to the concerns of favela inhabitants on issues of rights violations. Each week a group of 15 to 20 people - public defenders, CSOs, academics, public administrators - go to a different favela and walk through it while listening to people tell their stories of rights violations. We systematise the stories and use them to try to exert influence on the police so that they pay attention to the ways they operate in the favelas. As part of the state, we work from within to turn this into a key issue and make sure the rights of the population are respected.
Civil space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.