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Brazil: Ensure Justice for Attack on Democratic Institutions

President Lula Should Defend and Promote Rights

The word “democracy” on a pedestrian bridge in São Paulo, Brazil, October 26, 2022. © AP Photo/Matias Delacroix 2022

(São Paulo) – Brazilian authorities should thoroughly investigate all those who have incited, financed, or committed acts of violence in an attempt to negate election results, Human Rights Watch said today when releasing its World Report 2023. The effort to negate election results culminated in the January 8, 2023 attack on democratic institutions in Brasilia.

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva should respond to the unprecedented assault on January 8 by strengthening democratic principles, upholding the rule of law, and tackling chronic human rights problems that were made worse during the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.

“The January 8 assault on Brazilian democratic institutions is not an isolated incident, but the result of a series attacks on the democratic system during the four years that Jair Bolsonaro was president,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “In response, the authorities should strengthen the democratic system and defend the rule of law by holding to account all those responsible for carrying out or enabling the violence.”

In the 712-page World Report 2023, its 33rd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. In her introductory essay, acting Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that in a world in which power has shifted, it is no longer possible to rely on a few Western democracies to defend human rights. As the Ukraine conflict has demonstrated, there are new and significant opportunities for human rights leadership from countries large and small around the world. The responsibility is on individual countries to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights.

Brazil offers an example of the consequences of failing to defend human rights. During his four years in office, then-President Bolsonaro, an apologist for Brazil’s abusive military dictatorship, threatened democratic rule. He engaged in a campaign of insults and intimidation of Supreme Court justices and attempted to undermine trust in the electoral system by spreading baseless claims of electoral fraud.

Flawed policies and weak enforcement of rules by social media platforms permitted the spread of electoral disinformation before and during the presidential campaign.

Attempts to undermine institutions can have serious consequences. On December 12, 2022, Bolsonaro supporters tried to storm the headquarters of the federal police, who are investigating Bolsonaro’s conduct. On December 24, the police detained a Bolsonaro supporter who had allegedly placed an explosive device in a fuel tanker near the Brasilia airport.

On January 8, Bolsonaro supporters who were calling for the military to take over the government broke into Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace. They threw furniture through windows, damaged valuable works of art, and stole weapons, computers, documents, and other items. Several reporters said that Bolsonaro supporters assaulted them and destroyed their equipment. Some police officers were injured. More than 60 other people were injured, hospitals said.

On January 8, President Lula announced that the federal government would take over security in the Federal District, where Brasilia is located, until January 31. A Supreme Court justice temporarily removed the District’s governor, who supported Bolsonaro in the elections, saying that local authorities had failed to ensure security. The police had arrested about 1,500 people as of January 9, including people who had been camping in front of the army headquarters in Brasilia calling for a military intervention, according to the Justice Ministry.

President Lula should reinforce democratic principles such as judicial independence, transparency, free speech, and other basic freedoms and show that democracy can deliver results in education, health, safety, and other human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

His administration also needs to tackle human rights problems that were made worse during the Bolsonaro presidency, including food insecurity and inequality, environmental destruction, abuse by the police, restrictions on sexual and reproductive rights, and structural racism.

Brazil is among the countries with the world’s highest income inequality. Improving access to high-quality public education is a means to reduce that inequality. Brazil’s new education minister should lead a national effort to reverse significant learning losses during the Covid-19 pandemic, particularly for Black and Indigenous children and those from lower-income households.

The new government needs to immediately implement a comprehensive plan to reverse the rampant destruction of the Amazon, including by rebuilding the capacity of environmental and Indigenous rights agencies, increasing the traceability of the supply chains, and resuming titling Indigenous territories.

The Lula administration will also need to strengthen the national program to protect human rights and environmental defenders, and work with officials in Brazil’s states and the Attorney General’s Office to ensure that those responsible for intimidation and violence against defenders are held accountable.

The very high level of gender-based violence, including against LGBT people, is another key chronic human rights challenge. The Lula administration should adequately fund services for survivors and reduce barriers to justice, including by improving police training and protocols for responding to gender-based violence. The Education Ministry should also promote comprehensive sexuality education, which can prevent gender-based violence, gender inequity, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies.

The Lula administration should develop a plan to curb killings by police nationwide in consultation with affected communities and also involving the Attorney General´s Office, which needs to improve police oversight and accountability.

President Lula should strengthen the fight against corruption, after significant setbacks during the previous administration, Human Rights Watch said.

President Lula should ensure the independence of the Attorney General’s Office, which in Brazil had been protected by a tradition of selecting an attorney general from a list of three candidates elected by prosecutors across the country. Former President Bolsonaro broke with that tradition by selecting a prosecutor not on the list who has been widely criticized for appearing to make decisions favoring President Bolsonaro and weakening the fight against corruption.

On foreign policy, the Lula administration should defend human rights consistently, including condemning abuses by governments, regardless of their ideology.

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