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President Jair Bolsonaro arrives at Ministry of Defence, January, 2020. © 2020 Marcelo Camargo/Agência Brasil
A year ago, the outlook for human rights in Brazil was bleak. Jair Bolsonaro, a pro-torture and openly intolerant, misogynistic and homophobic, member of Congress, won a clear victory in the October elections. And as soon as he was sworn in, he took steps to deliver on his anti-rights agenda.

He sought to secure the authority to supervise nongovernmental organizations and to restrict their participation in public policy. He harassed independent media, tried to restrict access to government information, and put forward measures that would have led to greater impunity for police abuses. 

Other populist leaders around the world have undertaken similar policies, with disastrous consequences for democracy and the rule of law in their countries. Yet the lesson from Brazil is that its justice system and Congress have been resilient. With help from open debate fostered by independent media and a vibrant civil society, they have been able to rein in some of the worst anti-rights proposals from the Planalto palace, though not all.

That tension can easily be seen in the area of public security. Despite a nationwide drop in murder rates in recent years – that is, well before Bolsonaro took office –, violent and other serious crime remains a frightening problem in many communities. Our research has shown again and again that the reckless and illegal use of lethal force by police in poor communities makes crime-fighting harder. When police break the law, they promote a cycle of violence that endangers even the lives of their fellow officers. Each year more than 300 police officers are killed in Brazil, most of them off-duty.

The path to effectively tackling crime involves consistent progress toward stronger institutions of law and justice. This includes better investigative tools and a well-trained, professional police force. President Bolsonaro, though, appears to be marching in the opposite direction. He sent a bill to Congress, for example, that would most likely have led to greater impunity for police killings. Fortunately, after great debate and pressure from organized groups, Congress defeated it.

That was not enough to stop Bolsonaro, though. He issued a decree using the traditional Christmas pardon to release police officers convicted of illegal use of lethal force and other abuses.

He also sent a bill to Congress that would automatically treat police or military killings as acts of self-defense if carried out against anyone who openly carries a gun or engages in other criminal acts. That measure which is still pending, would violate international law on the use of force. These initiatives run counter to efforts to build an effective, law abiding, and professional police force.

The Bolsonaro administration has also tried to undermine the monitoring necessary to improve prison conditions. After Brazil’s own National Mechanism to Prevent and Combat Torture found evidence of “widespread torture” in a facility in Ceará State, President Bolsonaro fired the experts by decree and abolished salaries for whoever will replace them. A judge has, for the time being, suspended the decree. Once again, Bolsonaro was stopped, this time by a judge.

But there are some areas where the courts and legislators were not able to stop Bolsonaro. One of the most significant is the environment, where he has been able to do substantial damage.

The Bolsonaro administration has slashed the budgets and programs of environmental agencies with protection mandates and minimized the consequences for those caught logging illegally. This allows criminal networks to log unlawfully and without consequences, threatening and killing forest defenders, including law enforcement agents. Three indigenous people were killed in Maranhão State in November and December alone.

Preliminary data based on deforestation alerts show that from January through mid-December, deforestation in the Amazon went up by more than 80 percent, compared with the same months in 2018.

The Bolsonaro administration is also approving new pesticides at a breathtaking rate, many of them restricted or banned as toxic in the United States and Europe. And the government does not adequately monitor pesticide exposure, especially in rural communities, or pesticide residues in drinking water and food.

Many Brazilians are hurting because of the president´s policies, from Indigenous people trying to defend the Amazon, to LGBT people who have to withstand the president’s homophobic comments, to residents of poor communities who fear police violence.

Democratic institutions are putting the brakes on Bolsonaro´s anti-rights agenda, but there is no room for complacency. In the coming year we’ll see how the struggle between the president’s authoritarian tendencies and the strength of independent institutions that protect the rule of law plays out.

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