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Brazil: Secret Process to Change Human Rights Policy

Exclusion of Civil Society from Discussions Raises Concern

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro embraces the Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, Damares Alves, during a ceremony on August 29, 2019, in Brasilia, Brazil. © Agência Brasil / Valter Campanato

The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro should ensure that any discussions about changing the country’s human rights policies occur in a transparent manner, with meaningful consultation with and  participation by civil society and particularly affected groups, Human Rights Watch said today.

The Bolsonaro administration has established a working group to propose changes to the National Human Rights Program, the most important statement of human rights policy in Brazil. The working group does not include any representatives of civil society, Congress or the justice system, and all its discussions are secret.

“The Bolsonaro administration, which has promoted an anti-rights agenda, has announced it is planning to change the National Human Rights Program in absolute secret, and without the participation of anyone who disagrees with its policies,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Given the administration’s deplorable human rights track record, there is a real risk that the result of this secret process will be disastrous for the protection of human rights in Brazil.”

The National Human Rights Program establishes a roadmap of principles and measures to improve the protection of rights and liberties, and has been the basis for rights-respecting policies.

On February 10, 2021, the minister of women, family and human rights issued a regulation creating a working group to review the National Human Rights Program and to propose changes.

The regulation prohibits the release of any information about the group’s discussions until it ends its activities, in November. The 14 members of the group are all representatives of the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. They can invite representatives of private or public bodies to its meetings, but these guests will have no voting power.

Brazil has put in place three National Human Rights Programs since the end of the dictatorship (1964-1985). All three were drafted after ample, transparent public consultation.

For the last revision, the federal government under then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva established in 2008 a working group made up of representatives of civil society, Congress’s human rights commissions, prosecutors, judges, and public defenders, in addition to the executive branch. The working group organized a national conference that examined and updated the previous National Human Rights Program, which dated from 2002. Additional regional meetings were held.

The Lula administration estimated that 14,000 people participated in the discussions.

The current National Human Rights Program was adopted in 2010. One of its results was the creation of a Truth Commission to investigate human rights abuses during Brazil’s dictatorship. President Bolsonaro, then a member of Congress and an overt apologist for the military regime, opposed the Truth Commission. .

In addition, the 2010 National Human Rights Program calls for protecting people with disabilities against discrimination, reducing police killings, providing education on sexual and reproductive rights, and upholding freedom of speech, among other critically important initiatives.

The Bolsonaro administration has tried to undermine all those policies. It has opened the door to denying inclusive education to children with disabilities and establishing segregated schools for them. It has encouraged more police violence through public statements and legislative proposals. It has punished public servants for recommending maintaining sexual and reproductive health services during the Covid-19 pandemic. And  it has sought prosecutions of people who criticized its response to Covid-19.

The Bolsonaro administration has taken other measures to undermine transparency. In March 2020, it suspended deadlines for government agencies to respond to public information requests during the Covid-19 emergency and prevented citizens from appealing declined requests. And in June, it stopped providing complete data about number of confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths. In both cases, the Supreme Court overturned those measures.

President Bolsonaro has also shown significant hostility toward non-governmental organizations. In April 2019, he decreed the elimination of most federal councils, committees, and working groups that included representatives of civil society. The decree also eliminated the government committee in charge of coordinating the implementation of the National Human Rights Program.

On February 12, more than 200 Brazilian non-governmental organizations issued a joint statement criticizing the creation of a working group to review the National Human Rights Program made up just of representatives of the Bolsonaro administration. They pressed for revocation of the regulation that created the group.

International human rights law requires governments to provide the public with access to information, including by actively putting in the public domain information of public interest. Governments are also obligated to consult with affected communities whenever a decision-making process may substantially affect the way of life and culture of a minority group. More broadly, transparency is a critically important element of public accountability and democratic governance.

“Given its potential implications for the rights of people throughout Brazil, as well as marginalized groups, any substantive review of the country’s human rights policies should be conducted openly,  with broad participation by society, including experts and groups that may be particularly affected,” Canineu said.

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