Skip to main content


Events of 2021

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro watches a military parade in front of the presidential palace in Brasilia on August 10, 2021.

© Matheus W Alves/Futura Press

President Jair Bolsonaro has threatened democratic rule in Brazil by attempting to undermine trust in the electoral system, free speech, and judicial independence. In a forceful response, the Supreme Court in 2021 rejected “threats to its independence and intimidation.”

President Bolsonaro continued to flout scientific recommendations to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 virus. A congressional investigation uncovered evidence of corruption in the purchase of vaccines.  

Police killings reached the highest number on record in 2020. About 80 percent of the victims were Black.

Deforestation continued to ravage the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous people and others who defended it suffered threats and attacks.

Threats to Democratic Rule

President Bolsonaro has harassed and tried to intimidate the Supreme Court, which is overseeing four criminal investigations into his conduct, including whether he interfered with federal police appointments to further his personal interests and whether he committed malfeasance in a corruption case involving the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines.

In August 2021, he threatened to respond to the investigations with actions “not within the bounds of the constitution” and asked the Senate to impeach Justice Alexandre de Moraes, who is overseeing most of them. The Senate president rejected the petition.

In September, President Bolsonaro said he would not obey Justice Moraes’ decisions. The Supreme Court responded that insulting justices and encouraging non-compliance with judicial decisions “are anti-democratic, illegal, and intolerable practices.” President Bolsonaro later retracted his statement about Justice Moraes.

President Bolsonaro has sought to discredit Brazil’s electoral system, making unproven claims of electoral fraud. Congress rejected changes he promoted to the system. He later signaled that he might try to cancel elections unless his proposals are implemented.

Freedom of Expression and Access to Information

The Bolsonaro administration has pursued prison sentences against at least 17 critics, including by using a military-era National Security Law. Although many of the cases have been closed, such actions send the message that criticizing the president can lead to persecution.

In August 2021, Congress revoked the National Security Law, but it has not revoked similar penal code provisions that punish defamation with prison terms and can be used to stifle free speech.

President Bolsonaro harassed and insulted the media and individual reporters 87 times during the first half of 2021, Reporters without Borders, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), reported.

He routinely blocks critics on the social media accounts he uses to discuss matters of public interest, violating their free speech rights. In September 2021, he issued a decree that would have impeded social media platforms from eliminating harmful misinformation. After the Senate rejected the decree and the Supreme Court suspended it, he sent a bill with similar provisions to Congress.

In February 2021, the Bolsonaro administration created a working group—without participation from Congress, judicial authorities, or civil society—to propose changes to the National Human Rights Program, the most important instrument of human rights policy in Brazil. The government told Human Rights Watch it could not provide information about these discussions because they were secret.


Brazil had 21 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 609,447 deaths as of November 7—the second largest death toll in the world in absolute numbers.

President Bolsonaro continued to flout World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations and to promote ineffective drugs against Covid-19. The Supreme Court rejected two petitions he had filed to strike down decrees by governors that established social distancing measures. At an event in June 2021, the president, who frequently joins crowds without a mask, asked a child to remove her mask, and took off another child’s mask.

A congressional inquiry into the Covid-19 response found that the federal government and local officials had failed to ensure provision of oxygen to hospitals in Amazonas state, leading to dozens of deaths in January 2021. It also found evidence of corruption in the purchase of vaccines and other failures in the government response.

The Brazilian government has failed to address the huge impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education. Brazilian schools were mostly closed for 69 weeks between March 2020 and August 2021 due to Covid-19, UNESCO reported. Lack of access to adequate devices and internet connectivity necessary for online education excluded millions of children from schooling, particularly Black and Indigenous children, and those from low-income households.

Detention Conditions

The cramped quarters, poor ventilation, and inadequate health care services prevalent in Brazil’s detention centers created an increased risk of Covid-19 outbreaks. As of December 2020, about 670,000 adults were being held in jails and prisons, exceeding maximum capacity by 47 percent, and another 139,000 were under house arrest, the Justice Ministry reported. In February 2021, the National Mechanism for the Prevention and Combat of Torture (MNPCT, in Portuguese) reported up to 13 people were being held in cells designed for one person in a prison in Acre state.

Since 2020, the National Council of Justice (CNJ, in Portuguese), which regulates the judicial system, has recommended that judges reduce pretrial detention during the pandemic and consider house arrest or early release for certain detainees.

Yet a study by the NGO Institute for the Defense of the Right to a Defense (IDDD, in Portuguese) showed that São Paulo state judges only released 1 out of 4 detainees who met the CNJ’s conditions in 2020.

The state of São Paulo told Human Rights Watch that about 9,800 detainees had been released in response to the pandemic up to September 2021.

More than 92,800 detainees and staff had contracted Covid-19 and 582 had died as of October 31, the CNJ reported. The MNPCT said the number of deaths is likely an underestimate.

The government told Human Rights Watch that about 10,500 children and young adults were being held in juvenile detention centers as of September 2021, but the figure excludes five states for which it did not have data. More than 2,900 children and about 8,400 staff had been infected with Covid-19 as of October 31, the CNJ reported. The virus had killed 113 staff but no children.

Public Security and Police Conduct

After two years in decline, the number of homicides rose almost 5 percent in 2020.

Police killed more than 6,400 people in 2020—the last year for which data is available—the highest number of any year on record, the NGO Brazilian Forum for Public Security (FBSP in Portuguese) reported.

While some police killings are in self-defense, many result from illegal use of force. Police abuses contribute to a cycle of violence that undermines public security and endangers the lives of civilians and police alike. In 2020, 194 police officers were killed, 72 percent while off duty, the FBSP reported.

In March 2021, Rio de Janeiro’s new attorney general dissolved the prosecutor unit specialized in police abuse. Despite a Supreme Court ruling that only allowed raids in Rio’s impoverished neighborhoods during the pandemic in “exceptional cases,” police conducted the deadliest raid in the state’s history on May 6, leaving an officer and 27 residents dead. Witnesses said police executed at least three suspects and destroyed crime scene evidence. Police classified the report and other important information about the raid as secret for five years. Media reported that police refused to provide the victims’ clothing to prosecutors, forcing them to seek a judicial order to search police facilities. In October, prosecutors charged two officers with tampering with crime scene evidence, and one of them with homicide.

Rio police killed 1,096 people from January through September 2021, a 17 percent increase from the same period in 2020.

On-duty police in São Paulo killed 353 people from January through September, a 39 percent decrease. In June, the Superior Court of Justice reinstated the convictions against 73 police for the 1991 killing of 111 inmates in Carandiru prison, which a São Paulo court had overturned in 2018.

Military-Era Abuses

President Bolsonaro and members of his cabinet have repeatedly praised the military dictatorship of 1964-1985, which was marked by widespread torture and killings.

A 1979 amnesty law has shielded perpetrators from justice. The Supreme Court upheld the law in 2010, but the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that it violated Brazil’s international legal obligations.

Since 2010, federal prosecutors have brought charges against about 60 former agents of the dictatorship. Courts have dismissed most cases, citing either the amnesty law or the statute of limitations. But in June 2021, in a case involving the enforced disappearance of a naval officer who opposed the 1964 coup, a judge issued the first criminal conviction of an agent of the dictatorship, ruling that kidnapping is not subject to the amnesty law.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

About 30 trans people were elected to office in the 2020 local elections—up from only 8 in 2016. Several reported threats after taking office in 2021, including a Rio de Janeiro councilwoman who had to leave the country temporarily.

The national Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office received about 1,100 complaints of violence, discrimination, and other crimes against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons between January and October 2021. In Ceará state, two trans girls, aged 13 and 16, were brutally killed in January and April.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

The adoption of the 2006 “Maria da Penha” law against gender-based violence was an important step, but implementation has lagged.

In 2020, more than one million cases of domestic violence and about 5,500 cases of femicide—defined under Brazilian law as the killing of women “on account of being persons of the female sex”—were pending before the courts.

Reports of attacks against women resulting in injuries filed at police stations fell 7 percent in 2020, while calls to a police hotline to report domestic violence increased 16 percent, suggesting women may have had difficulty going to police stations during the Covid-19 pandemic. In 2020, 3,913 women were reported killed, about the same number as in 2019.

Abortion is legal in Brazil only in cases of rape, to save a woman’s life, or when the fetus has anencephaly, a condition that makes survival difficult.

Only 42 hospitals were performing legal abortions in 2020, the NGO Article 19 and the news websites AzMina and Gênero e Número reported, compared to 76 in 2019.

The Health Ministry issued a regulation allowing telemedicine during the pandemic, but in a later “informative note,” it called on health providers to exclude abortion care. Some health professionals were still providing such care as of October.

Women and girls who have unsafe and illegal abortions not only risk injury and death but face up to three years in prison, while people who perform illegal abortions face up to four years in prison.

Disability Rights

Thousands of adults and children with disabilities are confined in institutions, where they may face neglect and abuse, sometimes for life. Brazil lacks a comprehensive plan to progressively deinstitutionalize adults and children with disabilities.

In April 2021, the National Council of Prosecutor’s Offices, a government body, adopted a resolution requiring prosecutors to oversee and inspect institutions for adults with disabilities yearly and take legal action in cases of abuse.

In August, the Minister of Education defended a new national policy that appeared to be aimed at establishing segregated schools for certain children with disabilities, arguing they “disturbed” other students. As of September, the Supreme Court was examining whether the policy is constitutional.

Indigenous Rights

President Bolsonaro and his allies in Congress promoted a bill to prevent Indigenous peoples from obtaining legal recognition of their traditional lands if they were not physically present on them on October 5, 1988—when Brazil’s constitution was enacted—or if they had not, by that date, initiated legal proceedings to claim them. A case similarly seeking to block Indigenous land rights was pending before the Supreme Court, as of November 2021.

Meanwhile, Indigenous territories continued to suffer illegal encroachment. The area occupied by illegal mining grew five-fold from 2010 to 2020, the NGO Map Biomas reported.

“Wildcat” miners sought to impede a law enforcement operation in Munduruku Indigenous territories and attacked a Munduruku women’s association and a leader’s home in May 2021. In the Yanomami Indigenous territory, miners fired at Indigenous people and Federal Police in several incidents. Two Yanomami children who escaped a shooting alone were found drowned in May, and a plane used by miners hit and killed an Indigenous man in July.


Since taking office in January 2019, the Bolsonaro administration has weakened environmental law enforcement, effectively encouraging criminal networks that are driving deforestation and have used threats and violence against forest defenders. The average number of fines for deforestation in the Amazon paid in 2019 and 2020 was 93 percent lower than the average number paid in the previous five years, a study by the Federal University of Minas Gerais showed. 

Between August 2020 and July 2021, 13,235 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest were clear-cut, a 22 percent increase over the same period last year and the highest number since 2006. Brazil’s space research agency had its deforestation report ready on October 27, four days before the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, but the government only released it on November 18, after the summit ended, in an apparent attempt to preclude criticism.

In deforested areas, criminal groups often set remaining vegetation ablaze after they have extracted valuable timber, in order to clear land for pasture or land speculation. A study by InfoAmazônia and other organizations said smoke from forest fires, which can cause respiratory diseases and make people vulnerable to complications from Covid-19, was linked to an 18 percent increase in serious Covid-19 cases in the Amazon during the fire season in 2020.  

The government promoted bills that would encourage deforestation by providing amnesty for land invasions, easing environmental licensing, and opening Indigenous territories to mining and other projects with high environmental impact.

In response to criticism, the government announced in September 2021 that it would hire hundreds of new staff at its federal environmental agencies. But the Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental NGOs, warned that only 157 of them would be agents with university degrees who have the mandate to lead environmental law enforcement operations.

Climate Change Policy and Impacts

As one of the world’s top 10 emitters of greenhouse gases, Brazil contributes to the mounting toll that the climate crisis is taking on human rights around the globe.

In its December 2020 climate action plan, Brazil pledged a smaller reduction of its overall greenhouse gas emissions than it had in its original 2016 plan, a regression in violation of its obligations under the Paris Agreement. The Climate Action Tracker, which provides independent scientific analysis, rated that plan as “highly insufficient” to meet the Paris Agreement goal to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. If all countries’ plans fell this short, warming would reach over 4°C by the end of the century.

In November 2021, the Brazilian delegation to the global climate summit in Glasgow, COP26, announced a new plan that still does not represent an increase in ambition in relation to its initial plan submitted in 2016. The delegation also committed to ending illegal deforestation by 2028, but the federal government is yet to adopt an operational plan to deliver on this pledge.

Increased deforestation in the Amazon enabled by the Bolsonaro government has driven up overall emissions and may cause vast portions of the rainforest to turn into dry savannah in coming years, releasing billions of tons of stored carbon.

Migrants, Refugees, and Asylum Seekers

Thousands of Venezuelans, including unaccompanied children, have crossed the border into Brazil in recent years, fleeing hunger, lack of basic health care, or persecution. About 261,000 Venezuelans lived in Brazil as of October 2021.

In June 2019, Brazil issued a legal recognition of “serious and widespread violation of human rights” in Venezuela, which makes it easier for Venezuelans to obtain asylum. Brazil granted refugee status to about 50,000 Venezuelans from June 2019 to June 2021.

In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Brazil barred foreign nationals from entering the country by land or water, except for permanent residents and some other foreigners with links to Brazil, who could still enter from all countries but Venezuela. In June 2021, the government started allowing the entrance of permanent residents and some other foreigners coming from Venezuela.

The government ordered the deportation of people who entered Brazil in violation of border restrictions, even if they intended to seek asylum, an infringement of Brazil’s international obligations. Federal police told Human Rights Watch they deported 2,091 people in 2020—compared to only 36 in 2019—and 1,198 from January through July 2021.

In September 2021, Brazil announced that it would issue humanitarian visas allowing Afghans to travel to Brazil and apply for temporary residency or refugee status, but Brazilian media reported that embassies required prior proof that an organization would pay for all their expenses for at least six months. Brazil has not committed to resettling Afghan refugees on its territory or to assisting with the humanitarian response in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.

Key International Actors

In June 2021, the UN high commissioner for human rights highlighted police violence in Brazil in a landmark report to the UN Human Rights Council, urging countries to take steps toward eradicating systemic racism against people of African descent and to hold police accountable for abuses.

The high commissioner also expressed concern about threats against Brazil’s Supreme Court. In September 2021, the chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee and three other senators called on the administration of US President Joe Biden to support Brazil’s democratic institutions in response to President Bolsonaro’s threats of “a rupture with Brazil’s constitutional order.”

Also in September, the UN Committee on Enforced Disappearances asked Brazil to ensure justice for enforced disappearances during the military dictatorship and to prosecute all cases, including current ones, before civilian courts.  

Throughout 2021, the high commissioner, several UN rapporteurs, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights denounced illegal encroachment into Indigenous territories and attacks against Indigenous people.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development cancelled a discussion about upgrading Brazil’s status in its environment committee because of President Bolsonaro’s poor environmental record. Several European leaders said they would not ratify a pending trade agreement between the European Union and Mercosur unless Brazil reduced Amazon deforestation and forest fires. The European Commission is negotiating an additional instrument with Mercosur to address deforestation.

In April 2021, 15 US senators urged President Biden to condition financial assistance to Brazil on reducing deforestation and ending impunity for environmental crimes and attacks against forest defenders.

Foreign Policy

In international forums, Brazil continued to oppose references to “sexual and reproductive” rights.

At the UN Human Rights Council, Brazil abstained from a resolution to launch an investigation into crimes committed during the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Brazil also opposed a WHO resolution to provide health support to Palestinians, including Covid-19 vaccines.

At the World Trade Organization, Brazil opposed waiving certain intellectual property rights to increase Covid-19 vaccine manufacturing and allow fairer access for low-income countries; in June 2021, authorities indicated they might reassess that position.

In May 2021, Brazil ratified the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance.