Challenges to the Sustainability of the Human Rights Agenda in Brazil

Ana Valéria Araújo



Providing an overview of the role of organized civil society in Brazil since the end of the dictatorship, this article examines fundamental issues in the debate on the country’s social problems, such as the connection between violence and inequality. By pointing out that, although the Brazilian economy has been performing well in recent years, we are a long way from eliminating the causes of social, racial and gender inequality, the article exposes the contradictions of a country that is growing at the same time that its human rights situation is deteriorating. It also includes an analysis of the growing responsibility of human rights organizations as a result of the commitments made by the country on the international stage and how the strengthening and sustainability of these organizations is essential for the consolidation of democracy.


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The year 2014 marks the passage of 50 years since the establishment of the military dictatorship in Brazil on March 31, 1964. It could be said that the legal landmark that ended this period was the promulgation of the Federal Constitution on October 5, 1988, or just over 25 years later. While the military dictatorship was characterized by the suppression of individual guarantees, such as freedom of expression and the brutal repression of anyone who opposed government acts, the new Constitution not only re-established these classic democratic rights, but also embraced a range of new possibilities, by recognizing the rights of collective subjects, such as social movements, indigenous peoples and quilombo communities.

However, like in many emerging democracies, the end of the dictatorship did not put a stop to the human rights violations that mainly affect the most vulnerable sectors of the population. Indeed, these groups have never really been considered and recognized as rights holders. They are invisible. And while respect for fundamental rights forms the bedrock of the Constitution of 1988, the State has not been effective in preventing the violation of the interests of these groups, who also suffer the consequences of the impunity that still exists in the country to this day.

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1.  Disrespect for human rights, a constant feature of our democracy

One might ask why this situation has remained constant throughout Brazil’s transition to democracy, and why it endures despite the advances made. The answer is quite simple: Brazilian society has not changed as quickly as the country’s economy. Brazil’s growth in recent years has placed it among the world’s 10 largest economies, causing it, for example, to assume a more prominent role in agriculture, where it is already the world’s leading producer of animal protein. Given the abundance of arable land and water, the country is considered the breadbasket of the world.

Meanwhile, corruption, violence and inequality still persist as major problems. In particular, there is no recognition that inequality goes beyond the purely economic aspect, with structural causes grounded in a legacy of social, racial and gender discrimination.

Broad income distribution policies have lifted millions of people out of poverty and contributed to Brazil’s image as a country that can quickly overcome social injustice using democratic channels. Nevertheless, despite all the positive indicators, Brazil is still one of the world’s most unequal countries, where the economic and social divide is supported by political and cultural factors. The richest 10% of the population earn half the total income, while the poorest 10% receive just 1.1%. Even though more than half the population owns less than 3% of the farms in Brazil, indigenous peoples and traditional communities, when they claim land to assure their survival, are often seen as obstacles to progress.

For Oscar Vilhena Vieira, the fragility of our rule of law is related to the inequality “that shapes our identities and structures our social relations”, distorting “the perception that we are all equally subjects of the same rights and obligations” (VIEIRA, 2014). In practice, however, the perception is that some people are greater subjects of rights than others. According to Vieira, another aspect is of institutional nature and has to do with the corporatist and patrimonial culture of “our law enforcement agents, who appear to be more concerned with the advancement of their own interests and group privileges than with achieving the mission of the institutions they serve” (VIEIRA, 2014).


2.  New dimensions of intolerance to human rights

Thus the country’s current economic and social situation poses new challenges for the debate on human rights in Brazil. Firstly, there is a growing hostility towards people who defend human rights on account of the escalation of urban violence in the country, precisely when the Brazilian economy is not doing too badly. Coupled with an ongoing crisis in public security, the combination—still not properly analysed and understood—of increased violence and robust economic indicators has unleashed a new wave of intolerance against human rights defenders and their organizations.

Indeed, there has been a rise in conservative voices seeking to use low unemployment figures and high crime rates, and shallow arguments on how to solve the problem of violence, to justify a push for harsher laws and punishments. Unfortunately, this type of attitude has led some to support the actions of vigilantes, such as the incident in January 2014 in the city of Rio de Janeiro, when a 15-year-old alleged thief was tied to a street light after being severely beaten. What’s more, this episode actually served as encouragement for other similar vigilante acts across the country in an absurd and alarming series of events.

It is essential to reflect on this situation and its outcome to assure the legitimate continuity of human rights organizations’ work. These new challenges require innovative and alternative approaches to the problem of violence, beyond invoking the basic and universal principles of protection of the human person. A huge effort is needed to change the public perception of what human rights are, a perception that becomes even more distorted in times of worsening violence.

We need to face up to the fact that, regardless of how well the economy fares, we are still a long way from eliminating the causes of our social ills, which were also the spark that ignited the wave protests that began in June 2013 and threaten to go on indefinitely. Quality public services in the areas of health, housing and transport cannot be accessed in the private market.

For an idea of what the drama of poor quality public services really means for low-income populations and how it impacts a number of aspects of their lives, it is worth noting what Aline Kátia Melo and Bianca Pedrina have to say in an article entitled “Os direitos avançam para todas as mulheres? Não” (Have rights advanced for all women? No), on the struggle for home ownership in the outskirts of Brazil’s cities:

The right to adequate housing is essential for the realization of all the other rights afforded to women. For women who live in the outskirts of cities, the distance makes transport an ordeal. Traveling along unlit streets makes the journey frightening. Not having a home in your own name is like being hostage to an abusive husband or, in this case, to high rents.
(MELO; PEDRINA, 2014).


3.  Perpetuation of inequalities and violence

There is no way of delaying the debate over whether it is possible to solve the problem of epidemic violence without first eliminating the roots of social, racial and gender inequality that exist in the country. And, in this discussion, it will be necessary to affirm and reaffirm that this inequality is also a form of violence as serious as any other, in that it institutionalizes and perpetuates the enormous disparity between the different segments of the population.

One question we shall have to ask is whether we want to drastically reduce violence across the board, or whether we are only talking about keeping it away from the more privileged pockets of society. The answer will reveal to us the type of development we shall have, as well as the quality of the civilizing process that will guide our country’s future projects.

When answering this question, we should remind ourselves what happened in South Africa under apartheid, when the neighbourhoods occupied by whites were like an island of tranquillity while the bantustans, where the blacks lived, were hellholes of unending violence. We need to realize that we are facing a similar situation, if we compare police actions in wealthy areas of the city of São Paulo to what happens in distant neighbourhoods like Jardim Ângela, at the city’s impoverished southern tip.

We should also consider the economic impacts of the slaughter of black youth in the outskirts of Brazil’s major cities, which, aside from the pain and suffering inflicted on their families, represents a waste of human capital that is vital for the country’s future. As early as 2020, Brazil could face a sharp decline in its population replacement rate, which will lead to problems such as labour shortages and, possibly, the need for solutions that involve restoring an immigration policy to attract more foreigners.

It needs to be shown that defending human rights is also about exposing the folly of a country that is unconcerned about the extermination of a portion of its youth, causing untold economic damage. Apart from being a racist country, we are also economically short-sighted.

A study by the Applied Economic Research Institute (IPEA) conducted in 2013, entitled Vidas Perdidas e Racismo no Brasil (Lost Lives and Racism in Brazil), examined the extent to which the differences in violent death rates are related to economic and demographic disparities and even racism. The study revealed that:

Considering only the range of individuals who suffered violent deaths in the country between 1996 and 2010, we find that, in addition to socioeconomic characteristics–such as education, gender, age and marital status–the skin colour of the victim, when black or brown, makes increase the likelihood of this victim to be killed by about eight percentage points.
(CERQUEIRA; MOURA, 2013, p. 14).

Considering only those individuals who died a violent death between 1996 and 2010, the IPEA found that, besides socioeconomic characteristics such as schooling, gender, age and marital status, the skin colour of the victim, when black or brown, increased the likelihood of them being murdered by nearly eight percentage points.

In the state of Alagoas, for example, homicides reduce the life expectancy of black men by four years. Among non-blacks, the figure stands at just three-and-a-half months. The murder rate among the black population in the state, in 2010, was 80 for every 100,000 individuals. There, 17.4 blacks were killed for every one victim of a different skin colour, making Alagoas the state with the worst result anywhere in the country.

What causes an even greater impact is the study’s assertion that “life expectancy upon birth is one of the main indicators associated with the socioeconomic development of countries”. A country where being born black comes with as many life-threatening risks as living through a civil war in the Middle East still has a long way to go on its journey toward civilization. In this context, the work of human rights organizations is essential and needs to be strengthened.


4.  The urgency of now

This is why the protests of June 2013 stressed the urgency of meeting the demands placed on public and private decision-makers on a wide range of problems. The population that protested in the streets demanded immediate solutions, which brings to mind Martin Luther King’s legendary “I Have a Dream” speech, given more than 50 years ago, when he spoke of the “fierce urgency of now” to solve the racial problems of the United States, declaring that “this is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism” (KING, 1963).

This also seems to be the perception of André Singer, when he states,

New and old social movements, such as the Passe Livre (Free Transitfare) Movement on the one hand and the Homeless Movement on the other, decided not to keep waiting any longer. They realized that the centre-left government will only bow to the demands of the subjugated class under pressure. Encouraged by the results of June, they are taking to the street.
(SINGER, 2014).


5.  The impact on traditional populations and the environment

If the context above deals with the new dynamics of pressure on the human rights situation in their most common forms, we should also note that the resumption of economic growth has unleashed a new wave of pressure on traditional populations and the environment in which they live. This has been caused by the planning of large-scale infrastructure projects, particularly roads, ports and hydroelectric dams. To have an idea, of the 50 largest infrastructure projects being designed around the world, 14 are located in Brazil.

These projects include the construction of large hydroelectric dams that cause massive social and environmental damage. Since companies do not have to account for social and environmental impacts in their production costs, hydroelectric power is currently Brazil’s cheapest source of energy. As a result, industry is putting enormous pressure on the government to speed up the construction of large dams in the Amazon, particularly now that, in the first half of 2014, there is talk about the need for another round of electricity rationing as low rainfall has caused water levels to recede in reservoirs in the southeast of the country.

Since most of these projects will have significant impacts, civil society organizations are confronted with the difficult task of identifying, from among the many being planned, which ones deserve priority attention, considering the limited human and material resources that most of these organizations have to work with.

The establishment of these priorities will require a complex reading of the perceptions of Brazilian society about the need for infrastructure expansion, in order to define the best strategies for addressing the problem. It is also essential to change the impression held by many people that civil society organizations unreasonably oppose efforts to correct the shortcomings in the country’s infrastructure.

The organizations working in this field need to be prepared to present consistent criticisms of the projects developed by governments or private companies, based on studies that clearly indicate their negative effects and the alternatives available to meet the real needs of society without harming traditional populations or the environment. This serves as a powerful antidote to fend off accusations that civil society organizations are opposed to progress and the enemies of development.

It is the quality of the criticism of infrastructure projects that violate human rights that will legitimize, in the eyes of society, the role of human rights organizations, considering that exercising social control over the government and private initiatives is part of democracy. And it is also what will allow organizations to win over more allies to human rights causes. This is because the notion of progress as an absolute value has long been relativized, precisely on account of the environmental crisis generated by the accelerated development throughout the world since the industrial revolution.

For Tzvetan Todorov,

the people, freedom and progress are constitutive elements of democracy (…), but if one of them breaks free from its relationships with the others, thereby escaping any attempt at limitation and rising up alone and absolute, they turn into threats: [beginning to constitute the real] inner enemies of democracy.


6.  The paradox of a more autarkic Brazil

The growth of the Brazilian economy has also allowed the country to step up its presence in international forums. Over the past 10 years, during the governments of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, an intense diplomatic agenda strengthened the country’s influence over various different blocks of nations. This prompted Brazil to exponentially increase its leadership, exemplified by the appointment of Brazilian ambassador Roberto Azevêdo as director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

While this means that Brazil is an important enough player to influence debates in multilateral forums, it also means that the country, paradoxically, on account of the rise of its international status, is less susceptible to pressure from other countries to change practices that may violate human rights.

This requires internally stronger human rights organizations in order to seek, inside the country and in parallel to what is done on the international stage, the changes that could previously have been achieved with an expression of concern by multilateral organizations or by European countries and the United States.

There is no doubt that the greater autarky has been driven by the country’s new pattern of trade relations, which used to be concentrated in Europe and the United States, but which in recent years have been diversified. Indeed, China is now an important economic partner of Brazil, particularly for its exports of mineral and agricultural products. One consequence of this diversification has been to reduce the weight that Brazilian agricultural exports to Europe and the United States used to have on the trade balance. As a result, the pressure that European and U.S. organizations can exert on Brazil to change practices that violate human rights will also tend to diminish.

The fact that we are viewed as the breadbasket of the world, at a time when food prices are rising due to growing demand, makes the country even more important and powerful in the complex game of trade and diplomatic relations. After all, it could be a long time before Brazilian organizations can rely on allies in China, for example, to denounce human rights violations by companies that export goods to that country.
On the other hand, the greater presence of Brazilian companies operating overseas, particularly in Africa and Latin America, has placed on Brazil the burden of being considered a country that violates human rights outside its borders. This further increases the responsibility of local human rights organizations, because we now need to do to African and Latin American partners what we used to get from European and U.S. organizations. To make matters worse, human rights organizations are currently facing enormous funding challenges and they have been weakened.


7.  The emerging agenda

The year 2014 will be of key importance for the promotion of human rights in Brazil, precisely on account of the escalation of tensions that began with the protests of June 2013. The so-called “June protests” swept the country into a whirlwind of events that made social movements, politicians, the media and other sectors of society embark on a tough and painful debate that is still far from reaching any consensus that would permit the formulation of an agenda of solutions.

One might say that the country is even more uneasy than usual, as if all the problems brewing under the surface, apparently forgotten on account of the improvement of the economy, had erupted at once, challenging us to address them all at the same time and, just like the Sphinx and its riddle, threatening to devour anyone who cannot decipher them.

It is against this backdrop of uncertainty and high emotions—exacerbated by the imminence of the presidential elections and renewed appeals for authoritarian solutions, like the kind that led the National Congress, for example, to discuss a law to combat terrorism—that we need to work ever more diligently so that Brazilian society does not allow human rights to be left behind, like an unwanted burden to be discarded because it holds back economic growth.

We need now more than ever to expose the contradiction that a country cannot be considered rich, developed and accepted as a member of the first world while it contends with the chilling statistic that a woman is killed every 90 minutes, whether in São Paulo or in the more remote regions of the country.

Therefore, it is our job to demonstrate that denouncing the racism manifest in income inequality is an effective way of working for the development of the country on fair and sustainable grounds. Using the safeguards of human rights to protect those who are in conflict with the law serves, for example, to revitalize the workings of the state institutions that assure the proper functioning of a democracy, such as the judicial branch, without which there can be no strong and prosperous nation.

This is the work that human rights organizations need to bring to Brazil’s attention, in order to legitimate their work and ensure that they can count on the indispensable financial support of the population, which is essential for them to operate independently. There is obviously a long way to go to build a culture of donating to civil society organizations. However, there are already some successful initiatives along these lines in Brazil that positively indicate the need for strong investment, in addition to the experiences of independent funds—the Brazil Human Rights Fund being one such example—that are committed to strengthening the rights advocacy organizations that can lead the transformation process to make Brazil a better country.

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Bibliography and other sources

CERQUEIRA, D.R.C.; MOURA, R.L. de. 2013. Vidas Perdidas e Racismo no Brasil. Brasília: Ipea, nov. (Nota Técnica, n. 10). Available at: Last accessed in: July 2014

KING, Martin Luther Jr. 1963. I have a dream. Washington, EUA: Lincoln Memorial. Aug. 28.

MELO, A.K.; PEDRINA, B. 2014. Os direitos avançam para todas as mulheres? Não. Folha de S.Paulo, São Paulo, 8 mar. Available at: Last accessed in: July 2014.

SINGER, A. 2014. Fogo cruzado e confuso. Folha de S.Paulo, São Paulo, 8 mar. Available at: Last accessed in: July 2014.

TESTEMUNHAMOS a corrosão mundial da democracia. 2014. Folha de S.Paulo, São Paulo, 21 fev. Available at: Last accessed in: July 2014.

VIEIRA, O.V. 2014. Incivilidade. Folha de S.Paulo, São Paulo, 8 fev. Available at: Last accessed in: July 2014.

Ana Valéria Araújo

Ana Valéria Araújo is a lawyer specialized in indigenous rights and the defence of human rights and a founding member of the Council of Directors of the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA). She also worked as Executive Director of the Rainforest Foundation US in New York. Since 2006, she has been the Executive Coordinator of the Brazil Human Rights Fund in São Paulo.


Original in Portuguese. Translated by Barney Whiteoak.

Received in March 2014.