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Brazil: Mixed Rights Record for Lula’s First Year

Administration Should Defend Human Rights Abroad Consistently

Activists protest to demand the end to racism and police violence, after a series of cases in several states of excessive, often deadly, force by police, São Paulo, Brazil, August 24, 2023. © 2023 AP Photo/Andre Penner

(São Paulo) – The administration led by Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has made important progress in the protection of the Amazon, women’s rights, and other rights during 2023, but has failed to tackle the chronic problem of police abuse or defend human rights consistently abroad, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2024.

“President Lula ends his first year in office with a mixed record on human rights,” said César Myñoz, acting Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “He reversed some anti-rights policies of his predecessor, but significant challenges remain, including the use of excessive force by police, which disproportionately affects Black Brazilians, and a foreign policy that fails to promote human rights in a consistent manner.”

In the 740-page World Report 2024, its 34th edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In her introductory essay, Executive Director Tirana Hassan says that 2023 was a consequential year not only for human rights suppression and wartime atrocities but also for selective government outrage and transactional diplomacy that carried profound costs for the rights of those not in on the deal. But she says there were also signs of hope, showing the possibility of a different path, and calls on governments to consistently uphold their human rights obligations.

President Lula reversed some of the disastrous anti-environmental policies of his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, during whose term deforestation in the Amazon rose by 53 percent. From January 2023, when Lula took office, to November, Amazon deforestation dropped 50 percent, compared with the same period of 2022, according to preliminary data.

President Lula also broke with Bolsonaro’s anti-Indigenous rights stance, resuming titling of Indigenous lands and appointing the first Indigenous leaders to direct a newly created Indigenous Peoples Ministry and Brazil’s Indigenous affairs agency. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court also rejected an attempt to block Indigenous people from obtaining title to their traditional lands. Yet, Congress reacted by approving a bill—and later overturning a presidential veto of the bill— that runs counter to the ruling.

Lula’s administration also improved Brazil’s targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions and sent Congress the Escazú Agreement, a regional treaty requiring governments in Latin America and the Caribbean to protect environmental defenders and guarantee access to information and public participation in environmental matters.

But the government failed to contain the destruction of wooded savanna, known as the Cerrado – where deforestation increased by 41 percent by November, according to preliminary data – and has plans to significantly increase both oil and gas production in the coming decade. In December, President Lula announced at the annual United Nations climate conference, COP 28, that Brazil plans to join the OPEC+ group of oil-producing nations as an observer.

The Lula administration introduced a bill to ensure equal pay for women and repealed a regulation that required health professionals to report to police rape survivors seeking to terminate pregnancies. It also resumed an initiative to promote sexual and reproductive health education.

While the Lula administration created a new Racial Equality Ministry, it failed to take decisive measures to tackle the police violence that has taken a disproportionate toll on people of African descent in Brazil. Police have killed more than 6,000 people every year since 2018 – more than 80 percent of them were Black in 2022. From January through June 2023, police killings went up in 16 states, compared to the same period of 2022, data collected by the nongovernmental group Brazilian Public Security Forum show.

Over the last decade, Human Rights Watch has documented serious flaws in investigations led by state police forces known as civil police, including an inquiry in 2023 into the killing of 28 people during an operation by São Paulo police.

While governors oversee state police, the federal government has authority to coordinate the efforts of states and municipalities, develop nationwide public policies, and ensure that federal public security funding is conditioned on reductions in police killings. The Lula administration is reviewing Brazil’s national plan on public security. The plan should include targets and concrete measures to curb killings by police nationwide, Human Rights Watch said. Critically, that plan needs close coordination with the Attorney General’s Office, which should improve police oversight and ask prosecutors to lead investigations into police abuses, instead of letting police investigate themselves.

A key measure to ensure judicial independence and the protection of human rights is having an attorney general who makes decisions based on the law, instead of political interests. In Brazil, that independence has been traditionally preserved by the presidential practice of choosing from a list of three candidates elected by prosecutors across the country. But Lula followed Bolsonaro’s negative example by handpicking a name not on that list.

Brazil’s foreign policy has been inconsistent on human rights under President Lula. His administration advocated for stronger protections for the right to education, and pushed for humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza amid the escalating hostilities in Israel and Palestine.

However, President Lula called concerns about the undermining of democratic institutions in Venezuela a “constructed narrative,” despite the long list of authoritarian actions and abuses by the Nicolas Maduro government.

“President Lula promised that he would bring Brazil back to the world stage,” Muñoz said. “He should use Brazil’s new world profile, including membership in the UN Human Rights Council, the BRICS, and presidency of the G20 in 2024, to promote human rights and condemn abuses regardless of geopolitical interests or the ideology of the government responsible for violations.”

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