Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won the presidential elections in October at a critical time for Brazil’s democracy.
Throughout his term, former President Jair Bolsonaro harassed and insulted Supreme Court justices and journalists. He tried to undermine trust in the electoral system, making unproven claims of electoral fraud. Political violence rose during the campaign season.
Eighty-four percent of the 6,145 people police killed in 2021 were Black, the latest available data show.
Deforestation and human-caused fires ravaged the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous people, community leaders, and others who defended it suffered threats and attacks.
Lula won the October election by a narrow margin. Bolsonaro did not explicitly recognize defeat but allowed the transition, as of November.
Ahead of the October elections, then-President Bolsonaro insulted and tried to intimidate Supreme Court justices and repeated unproven claims of electoral fraud. He said it “appears” that election winners would be those “who have friends” in the Superior Electoral Court. He told dozens of ambassadors in July that Brazil’s electoral system was unreliable. In September, he said that if he did not get 60 percent of the vote, “something wrong would have happened” at the electoral court.
In August, more than one million Brazilians, including prominent businesspeople, former Supreme Court justices, politicians, and artists, co-signed a manifesto defending democracy and the rule of law.
Political violence marred the electoral contest. Four people were killed during the electoral campaign season in circumstances suggesting they were targeted for their political views.
The Observatory of Political and Electoral Violence at Rio de Janeiro’s Federal University compiled 426 cases of threats and violence against individuals engaged in politics—or their relatives—from January through September 2022. Women candidates, especially Black and trans women, were particularly targeted for threats and online harassment, civil society organizations reported.
The Superior Electoral Court prohibited carrying guns in a 100-meter area around polling places on and immediately before and after election day. The Supreme Court also temporarily suspended portions of presidential decrees that had made it easier to buy and carry guns.
Despite running on an anti-corruption platform, the Bolsonaro government faced corruption investigations, including into misuse of public resources in the Education Ministry and in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In 2019, then-President Bolsonaro broke with the tradition of selecting an attorney general from a list of three candidates elected by prosecutors across the country and appointed one not on the list. Transparency International said that former President Bolsonaro weakened the fight against corruption by also supporting the creation of the so-called secret budget, a special budgetary provision that redirected billions of dollars to congressional spending projects with virtually no transparency, among other factors.
Freedom of Expression, Access to Information
The nongovernmental organization Reporters without Borders and the Federal University of Espírito Santo identified more than 2.8 million social media posts with insults, threats, and other offensive content against journalists and the media during the first month of the election season, which officially started August 16. The study found that supporters of former President Bolsonaro targeted reporters, particularly women, after he publicly insulted them.
A court in São Paulo, in June, ordered Bolsonaro to pay 100,000 Brazilian reais (US$18,760), in collective damages to Brazilian media for harassing it.
The former president routinely blocked critics on social media accounts he used to discuss matters of public interest, violating their free speech rights. As of August, he had blocked 95 journalists and 10 media outlets, the Brazilian Association of Investigative Journalism reported.
During 2021 and 2022, a working group of government officials—created without participation of Congress, the justice system, or civil society—reviewed national human rights policy. Authorities refused to share information about the discussions.
More than 679,500 people were incarcerated in Brazil as of December 2021, exceeding prison capacity by 45 percent, the Justice Ministry reported. Another 156,000 were under house arrest.
The number of children and young adults in juvenile detention—13,684 in 2021—has significantly decreased in recent years, the organization Brazilian Public Security Forum (FBSP) reported. Yet Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul states retained occupation rates above capacity, according to official data.
In July, a court found personnel at a detention center in São Paulo had tortured and mistreated children between 2013 and 2015 and ordered the state government to pay 3 million reais (about US$570,000) in damages to a municipal fund supporting projects advancing children’s rights in São Paulo.
Public Security and Police Conduct
Homicides fell 5 percent from January through June 2022, compared to the same period a year earlier. Fewer than 40 percent of homicides result in criminal charges, the group Sou da Paz reported.
Police killed 6,145 people nationwide in 2021—a 4 percent drop from 2020, driven by declining killings in São Paulo state, FBSP 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 2021, 190 police were killed—77 percent while off duty, the FBSP reported.
Rio state police killed 1,011 people from January through October 2022.
Police conducted three of the five deadliest operations in Rio state’s history in 2021 and 2022, despite a Supreme Court ruling prohibiting raids in low-income Rio neighborhoods during the Covid-19 pandemic, except in “absolutely exceptional cases.” The deadliest raid ever left an officer and 27 residents dead in the Jacarezinho neighborhood of Rio city in May 2021. Prosecutors charged two alleged drug dealers with the killing of the officer and filed evidence tampering and, in some cases, homicide charges against four police officers in connection with three other killings. They closed all other cases. Removal of bodies by police to destroy evidence, inadequate forensic analysis, and failure to interview witnesses contributed to botched investigations. Prosecutors never opened an investigation into command responsibility for the deadly raid.
To comply with a Supreme Court order—but without consulting any civil society organization—Rio state drafted a plan to curb killings by police in March 2022. The plan lacked timelines, a budget, or proper accountability measures. The court ordered the state to draft a new plan.
The Rio attorney general, in 2021, eliminated a unit specialized in preventing and investigating police abuse. In contrast, the São Paulo attorney general created a new unit in August 2022 with a strong mandate to oversee police conduct.
In Sergipe, a Black man with a psychosocial disability choked to death, on May 25, after Federal Highway Police officers detained him in the back of a patrol vehicle and threw in what seemed to be a teargas grenade. Three officers were charged with abuse of power, torture, and homicide.
In August, the Supreme Court reversed an appeals court decision and upheld the conviction of 73 police officers in the 1991 killing of 111 inmates at Carandiru prison.
Former President Bolsonaro and members of his cabinet 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 (IACHR) ruled that it violated Brazil’s international legal obligations.
Since 2012, federal prosecutors have filed charges in more than 50 cases against former agents of the dictatorship. Courts have dismissed most, citing the amnesty law or the statute of limitations. In only one case, in June 2021, did a judge issue a criminal conviction; the ruling was overturned in February 2022.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Implementation of the 2006 “Maria da Penha” law against gender-based violence lags. Authorities told Human Rights Watch in September that, in a country of more than 215 million people, only 77 shelters for survivors were operating. The Bolsonaro administration reduced the federal budget to fight violence against women by 90 percent in 2022, compared to 2020.
Between January 2020 and May 2022, judges received almost 600,000 requests for protective orders, which typically require suspected abusers to stay away from targeted women, the National Council of Justice (CNJ) reported. Courts granted nine out of ten requests; 30 percent took longer than the 48-hour deadline established by law.
Police stations registered more than 230,000 reports of physical violence against women, in 2021, the FBSP reported, and a police hotline received 619,353 complaints of domestic violence.
More than one million cases of domestic violence and nearly 6,300 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 in 2021.
Abortion is legal in Brazil only in cases of rape, to save a woman’s life, or when the fetus has anencephaly.
The Bolsonaro administration tried to restrict access to abortions. In 2020, it required health professionals to report to police rape survivors seeking to terminate pregnancies.
The Health Ministry approved telemedicine in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, in 2020, but later clarified exclusion of abortion, because that “can cause irreversible damage to the woman.” The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends telemedicine as an option for accessing abortion.
Just 73 hospitals in the whole country carried out legal abortions, the organization Article 19 reported in September.
Women and girls who have illegal abortions not only risk injury and death but face up to three years in prison. People who perform illegal abortions face up to four years in prison.
From 2018 through 2022, trial and appeals courts heard an average of 400 criminal abortion cases a year, São Paulo University and Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute reported. Black women are more likely to face prosecution, which often happens after health professionals inform on them, in violation of their right to privacy, the report showed.
Brazilian law mandates house arrest instead of pretrial detention for pregnant women, mothers of people with disabilities, and mothers of children under 12, except for those accused of violent crimes or crimes against their dependents. Yet in 2021, judges ordered pretrial detention of more than a third of pregnant women at their first hearing after arrest, CNJ and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) showed.
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 for progressive deinstitutionalization of adults and children with disabilities.
In April 2021, the National Council of Prosecutors’ Offices, a government body, passed a resolution requiring prosecutors to oversee and inspect institutions for adults with disabilities yearly and take legal action in cases of abuse.
The federal government failed to address the huge impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on education, particularly for Black and Indigenous children and those from lower income households, resulting in significant learning losses. For instance, fifth-grade public-school math test results indicated loss of the equivalent of a whole year of learning, a government assessment showed.
The percentage of students dropping out of public high school more than doubled, from 2.3 in 2020 to 5.6 in 2021, government data show.
Minas Gerais and São Paulo states authorized unsafe online learning products during the pandemic, Human Rights Watch found. Nine products surveilled children online, outside school hours, and transmitted their data to advertising technology companies, enabling them to track and target children across the internet. As of October, neither state had acted to protect children’s privacy.
Lawmakers have introduced over 200 bills at local and federal levels, since 2014, to ban “indoctrination” or “gender ideology” in schools. The Supreme Court struck down eight of these in 2020. Several teachers told Human Rights Watch that teaching gender or sexuality issues resulted in harassment, police requests for statements, or administrative proceedings.
Environment and Indigenous Rights
The Bolsonaro administration severely weakened environmental law enforcement, effectively encouraging the criminal networks driving deforestation, which have used threats and violence against forest defenders.
The government adopted policies that facilitated encroachment and removed experienced personnel from leadership positions at the agency tasked with protecting Indigenous rights. Illegal logging, mining, poaching, and land grabbing in Indigenous territories were 180 percent higher in 2021 than in 2018, the year before former President Bolsonaro took office, the non-profit Indigenist Missionary Council reported.
The number of environmental fines was 33 percent lower in the first half of 2022 when compared to the same period in 2018, the non-profit Climate Observatory reported. In March, the Bolsonaro-appointed director of the main federal environmental enforcement agency published a decision that could result in the cancelation of about 60 percent of fines for environmental infractions issued between 2008 and 2019, amounting to approximately R$16.2 billion (US$3 billion), news outlet UOL reported.
Official data show 11,568 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest were cleared from August 2021 through July 2022.
After extracting valuable timber, criminal groups frequently burn remaining vegetation to prepare the land for pasture or speculation. The number of fire hotspots in the Amazon for the first nine months of 2022 surpassed those for all of 2021.
As of November, Brazil’s Congress was examining bills that would ease environmental licensing, open Indigenous territories to mining and other high-environmental-impact activities, and provide an amnesty for land grabbing,
Amazon forest defenders continued to suffer threats and attacks. A family of three environmentalists were killed in Pará in January; an Indigenous rights advocate and a British journalist were killed in Amazonas in June; and an Indigenous forest defender was killed in Maranhão in September.
More than 60 people were killed in conflicts over land and resources in the Amazon between January 2020 and early July 2022, the organization Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) reported.
Climate Change Policy and Impacts
As one of the world’s top ten emitters of greenhouse gases, Brazil contributes to the climate-crisis toll on human rights.
In the 2016 Paris Agreement, Brazil committed to scaling up greenhouse gas reductions in relation to its initial plan. The update it submitted in April 2022 failed to meet that commitment. An annex re-stated Brazil’s commitment to eliminating illegal deforestation by 2028.
The Climate Action Tracker, which provides independent scientific analysis, rated Brazil’s 2022 climate action plan as “insufficient” for meeting the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Increased deforestation in the Amazon under President Bolsonaro drove up overall emissions. If continued, it may turn vast portions of the rainforest into dry savannah in coming years, releasing billions of tons of stored carbon. Large areas of the Amazon have already been logged and degraded, reducing the forest’s capacity to regenerate, a study led by the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information showed.
Climate change may have contributed to intense rainfall that led to floods and landslides in the northeastern states in the first half of 2022, scientists from the World Weather Attribution initiative found. The events displaced an estimated 25,000 people and resulted in 133 deaths.
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 388,000 Venezuelans lived in Brazil as of October 2022.
Brazil has facilitated asylum for Venezuelans by recognizing a “serious and widespread violation of human rights” in their country. It granted refugee status to 51,618 Venezuelans, including 2,829 between January and August 2022. Venezuelans can also apply for residency. Brazil granted asylum to about 940 people of other nationalities from January through August.
The government has granted humanitarian visas to Afghans and Ukrainians.
Key International Actors
Eight UN rapporteurs, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expressed concern about political violence during the electoral season, calling on authorities to ensure peaceful elections.
The IACHR and OHCHR expressed concern, in 2022, about attacks on environmental defenders and Indigenous people. The European Parliament approved a resolution, in July, urging Brazil to “prevent human rights violations and protect environmental and indigenous defenders.”
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) granted provisional measures, in July, requiring Brazil to protect the rights of the Yanomami, Ye’kwana, and Munduruku Indigenous peoples.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) adopted a roadmap for the accession process of Brazil that required government action in halting illegal deforestation, enforcing environmental laws, investigating violence against forest defenders, and protecting Indigenous rights.
UN special rapporteurs urged Brazil’s Senate to reject a bill that would ease approval and use of dangerous pesticides. The bill was pending as of August.
In April, more than 140 international and Brazilian organizations co-signed a letter urging the government to invite a fact-finding mission from the UN’s new mechanism to advance racial justice and equality in law enforcement. The government said it would consider the visit only in 2023.
UN rapporteurs and the IACHR denounced Brazil’s “systemic” police violence. In September, the UN high commissioner for human rights praised Brazil’s Supreme Court intervention to curb police abuse in Rio de Janeiro.
The Bolsonaro administration led efforts by a group of governments, including several authoritarian regimes, seeking to restrict access to abortion worldwide.
The administration’s position regarding the war in Ukraine was inconsistent. A few days before Russia’s full-scale invasion, then President Bolsonaro said, in Moscow, that Brazil stood “in solidarity with Russia.” Over the following months, Brazil voted for a UN resolution establishing a commission to investigate war crimes in Ukraine but abstained on one suspending Russia’s membership on the UN Human Rights Council and opposed a World Trade Organization declaration on the war’s devastating impact on Ukraine's ability to export and import.
In October, Brazil abstained on a resolution that would have allowed the Human Rights Council to discuss crimes against humanity in China. It voted in favor of extending the mandate of a fact-finding mission on Venezuela.