Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Int’l Trial on Dictatorship’s Atrocities Taints Brazil’s Image

Leonel Plügel

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 7 2010 (IPS) - A case against Brazil in the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for violations of human rights committed by the 1964-1985 military dictatorship, and the country’s failure to bring those responsible to trial at home, are a smear on the image of an emerging power that has taken on an increasingly prominent role on the international stage.

“How can Brazil present itself as an international leader if it is incapable of trying those who have violated the human rights of its citizens in the name of the state?” Beatriz Affonso, a lawyer with the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), asked IPS.

Affonso represents families of victims of the dictatorship who filed a complaint in 1995 with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an Organisation of American States body based in Washington.

The Julia Gomes Lund et al (Guerrilha do Araguaia) Case was referred to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, another OAS body, based in San José, Costa Rica, in March 2009.

In public hearings held May 20-21 in San José, the armed forces of Brazil were accused of the arbitrary detention, torture and forced disappearance of 70 people, including members of the Communist Party and local peasant farmers, as part of the “Guerrilla of Araguaia” operation carried out between 1972 and 1975 in the Araguaia valley in the northern Brazilian Amazon jungle state of Pará.

The operation went unacknowledged by the armed forces for many years. But what happened there was gradually pieced together by survivors, witnesses, and a few military documents that came to light.

In the hearings, “we showed that Brazil has failed to live up to international law,” said Affonso.

The parties have until Jun. 21 to present their written arguments. No date has been set for the sentence to be handed down.

Affonso said that if the Court finds against Brazil, “it will have to fulfill the sentence,” to avoid following in the footsteps of “the government of former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori (1990-2000), who refused to implement an Inter-American Court ruling.”

Speaking in a personal capacity, Wadih Damous, chair of the Rio de Janeiro branch of Brazil’s bar association, told IPS that “the Court’s decision must prevail because as a member of the Organisation of American States, the country recognised the Court’s competence in 1998, thus assuming a commitment to respect its resolutions.”

As one of the world’s top four emerging markets, along with China, India and Russia, Brazil has taken on a growing influence on the world stage.

Since President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva began his first term in 2003, Brazil has been pressing for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council

The Lula administration recently brokered, along with Turkey, an agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme that has been seen as a potential first step towards ratcheting down tensions between the West and Iran.

And in September, the Brazilian embassy gave shelter to ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya after he snuck back into his country in the wake of a Jun. 28 coup, in an attempt to be reinstated.

But William Gonçalves, a professor of international relations at the Rio de Janeiro State University, said “the case in the Inter-American Court should not present an obstacle for Brazil’s growing international leadership role, because all countries face accusations of human rights violations.”

For example, “China is constantly in the sights of the U.N. over human rights issues, and U.S. President Barack Obama promised to close down the prison at Guantanamo (in Cuba) and has not yet done so,” he pointed out to IPS.

According to Daniel Aarão Reis, a professor of modern history at the Fluminense Federal University, “all of the permanent members of the Security Council have a past of close involvement with torture.

“However, they could make use of a possible Inter-American Court ruling because Brazil’s foreign policy is held up as an alternative to the U.S.-EU line as a mediator in international conflicts,” he told IPS.

In Aarão Reis’s view, “Brazil has always been proud of its foreign policy tradition of respecting rulings and decisions by international courts, but we’ll have to see what stance it takes in this case, because the policy of the Brazilian state with respect to crimes committed during the dictatorship is to not bring those responsible to trial.”

In the same case, the Inter-American Court is studying the political interpretation that has been made of the 1979 amnesty decreed by the dictatorship, which according to the military and the political leadership of that time made the transition to democracy possible.

Since the return to democracy in 1985, successive governments have taken the position that the amnesty, which protects members of the former military government from being tried for extrajudicial killings, torture and rape, helped bring about reconciliation after 21 years of dictatorship.

The Lula administration sent 20 representatives to the May hearings, to defend its stance against investigating the crimes committed by the de facto regime.

“The amnesty law is the main legal hurdle to putting those accused of human rights violations in the dock,” Elizabeth Silvera e Silva, a leader of the Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (Torture Never Again), told IPS.

Silvera e Silva, whose brother was forcibly disappeared in Araguaia, testified as a witness in the May hearings.

The Brazilian Supreme Court upheld the amnesty law on Apr. 29, ruling that it paved the way for democratisation and that reopening the wounds of the past would not serve any useful purpose.

“The Supreme Court should have carried out a legal, rather than political, review of the amnesty law, because the 1988 constitution guarantees that no statute of limitations applies to crimes against humanity,” Affonso said.

Damous, who represented Brazil’s bar association at the hearings in San José, said that “A ruling by the Inter-American Court that the state is responsible for the crimes would undermine the validity of the amnesty law.”

Affonso said “An unfavourable ruling on this issue would leave the Brazilian state in an awkward position in the eyes of international opinion.”

For his part, Aarão Reis said “The Supreme Court already hurt Brazil’s international image when it upheld the amnesty law, by which it implicitly signaled that torture is accepted in Brazil.”

In a statement, the Brazilian Foreign Ministry said the government would not express a position on the issue until the Inter-American Court has issued a final ruling.

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