By Mary Lawlor
According to the Brazilian Committee of Human Rights Defenders, at least 24 human rights defenders (HRDs) have been killed in the first four months of 2016. This places Brazil at the top of the list of killings of HRDs reported to Front Line Defenders this year. The Committee, formed by several NGOs and civil society representatives, has denounced this escalation of violence to the United Nations (UN) and the Organisation of American States (OAS), highlighting the fact that that violence against HRDs includes death threats, harassment, stigmatisation, the undue use of the judicial system against HRDs, surveillance and even murder.
The escalation of violence against HRDs is happening against the background of political instability, turmoil and social unrest surrounding the impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. This situation is of particular concern as one of the first acts of the new interim government was to dismantle the Human Rights Ministry, signalling a deprioritisation on the part of the Federal Government of the protection of human rights. In addition, the newly appointed Minister of Justice (Alexandre de Moraes), who is now responsible for overseeing human rights issues, has declared in recent statements that the Landless Movement (MST – Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra) used “guerrilla tactics” during its latest protests. This type of language can only serve to escalate the violence, while also stigmatising legitimate protest by HRDs. Furthermore, Brazil has recently enacted anti-terrorism legislation which many fear may be used to criminalise HRDs, particularly during the Olympic games when protests are likely to increase due to international attention.
Enilson Ribeiro dos Santos and Valdiro Chagas de Moura were murdered in January. Both men were married and had daughters, and Enilson’s wife was also pregnant. They were involved in the land struggle in Rondonia State and were targeted and shot down in the city of Jaru. They were members of the Poor Peasants League (LCP – Liga dos Camponeses Pobres). According to the organisation, they had previously received threats from a local landowner. Furthermore, HRDs in the region are concerned about alleged collusion between farmers and members of the State Police whom they suspect of involvement in killings and attacks on HRDs. As a matter of urgency, the Federal Government should initiate an external and independent investigation by the Federal Police into the activities of the State Police.
In one of the cases highlighted in the report delivered to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, the Military Police of Parana State carried out an ambush against families from MST on April 7, during which two people were killed, 7 people were injured and another 2 people were arrested. This is just the latest example of the excessive use of force by the Military Police. Brazil has repeatedly ignored recommendations from the international community for the demilitarisation of the State Police because of its involvement in human rights violations. In 2012 the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of Brazil’s human rights record recommended the demilitarisation of the police; nonetheless, of the 170 recommendations presented this was the only one rejected by the Brazilian government. Philip Alston, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions made the same recommendation in 2008, 2009 and 2011. It is important to note that before being appointed Minister of Justice, Alexandre de Moraes was Chief of Public Security in Sao Paulo State. It was under his command that the State Police violently repressed a protest organised by high school students against the reorganisation of the school system. This action was denounced by NGOs to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) last December.
According to information released by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT – Comissao Pastoral da Terra), most of the killings happen in the northern states of Maranhao, Rondonia and Para. Furthermore, the killings are mostly related to the activities of land, labour and indigenous rights defenders.
Edmilson Alves da Silva, father of five, was assassinated in the northern region of Brazil. He was a leader of the land and environmental rights struggle in the region of Alagoas and had organised land occupations and denounced environmental crimes by local landowners. He was also the coordinator of the Sister Daniela Settlement, a symbol of the struggle for land. The occupation began in 2002 and was officially registered by the government as part of the Agrarian Reform Programme in 2014. All of Edmilson’s children were born in the camp, where he was shot by two men on a motor bike, when he was on his way to collect supplies for the people taking part in the protest. His wife heard the shooting and went out to see her husband on the ground: “I ran to help him, but it was too late. He was dead”.
Journalists also face great risks in Brazil. Ranked 104 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, Brazil was the country with the third highest number of killings of journalists in 2015, according to the Committee for the Protection of Journalists. At least three of these journalists were killed for their work as HRDs, as highlighted by Front Line Defenders in its 2016 Annual Report. Djalma Santos da Conceicao had highlighted corruption while Gleydson Carvalho exposed criminality by local police and politicians. Gerardo Seferino Servian had been highly critical of a local politician who was up for re-election. In Brazil, to be so outspoken is enough to sign your death warrant.
The IACHR, released a statement on April 27 condemning the killings and the “generalised situation of harassment, intimidation, and threats against defenders”. In addition, the IACHR has urged Brazil “to immediately take all the necessary steps to guarantee the right to life, integrity, and safety of human rights defenders in its territory”.
Although Brazil was a pioneer in the creation of a National Protection Programme for Human Rights Defenders, it is clear that the system is not working. It is urgent that the interim Brazilian government reaffirm its commitment to promoting and protecting human rights and the work of human rights defenders.
Moreover, the international community must not tolerate this rapid escalation in violence against HRDs, and should pressure the government of Brazil to take urgent affirmative action to protect HRDs. The time to deliver this message is now, as the newly appointed Brazilian Minister of Foreign Affairs (Jose Serra) is in Europe, for negotiations on trade agreements. The EU is currently negotiating a trade agreement with Mercosur, including Brazil, as part of an overall Association Agreement which will also have a political pillar. Front Line Defenders urges EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom to communicate to Minister Serra that such severe state failures in its duty to protect HRDs could seriously compromise Brazil’s status as a strategic partner of the EU.