BdONU :: Brazil’s potential as a champion for human rights defenders

Only Brazil can claim to be taking a principled positions in favour of human rights defenders and civil society Only Brazil can claim to be taking a principled positions in favour of human rights defenders and civil society

By Conectas Human Rights

Brazil, India and South Africa all share a proud history of fighting against oppression, and struggling for human rights. Today, these countries all position themselves as democratic leaders in the global South. However, looking at their foreign policy positions in relation to human rights defenders and civil society space shows a mixed picture. An analysis of positions and statements in intergovernmental discussions such as at the Human Rights Council (the Council) and the General Assembly shows that in particular India and South Africa are not committed to creating and protecting the kind of space which human rights defenders historically fought for in their own countries elsewhere.

Looking across a series of resolutions at the Council, such as those on the protection of human rights defenders, the expansion of space for civil society, the protection of human rights in the context of protest or the prevention of attacks and reprisals against those cooperating with UN human rights experts, only Brazil can claim to be taking a principled positions in favour of human rights defenders and civil society.

During the last two years, Brazil generally took a pro civil society position through voting in favour or actively supporting roughly two thirds of the initiatives in this regard, while South Africa and India took a restrictive position in roughly 80% of the cases. This was visible both in these countries’ respective participation in informal processes leading up to voting on resolutions, as well as in the actual voting records.

For instance, during the negotiations on a resolution on protecting human rights in the context of peaceful protest India and South Africa voted in favour of amendments aimed at increasing the responsibility and obligations of civil society and pushed for supporting the prerogative of governments to restrict civil society during peaceful protest. Brazil abstained in the votes on some of the less restrictive amendments, but importantly rejected the clearly restrictive ones.

Interestingly, India and South Africa, while seeking to limit or weaken resolutions on civil society, sometimes reverted to a pro civil society position on the final resolution, such as by joining consensus on the resolutions on human rights defenders and on protecting civil society space, and on reprisals after amendments to weaken the text were defeated. This seems to be an attempt at ‘hiding their hand’ so as not to be seen to outrightly opposing resolutions supportive of human rights defenders and civil society. However, it does indicate that these States feel uncomfortable with the idea of free and vibrant human rights movements.

Much has been said about the alignments of new political blocks of IBSA (India, Brazil and South) and BRICS (China, Russia together with IBSA). To date, however, no clear pattern BRICS-alignment is visible in Human Rights Council positions, owing primarily to Brazil’s more principled positions on key civil society issues.

For instance, there is no alignment when it comes to limiting participation of civil society and lowering expectations on States to protect human rights defenders. While India and South Africa often join Russia and China on positions critical of civil society and its engagement at the UN, Brazil should be commended for its positions to date. Of approximately 28 ‘opportunities’ to side with Russia and China in relation to civil society protection, Brazil never went along, while India and South Africa joined China and Russia in more than 80% of the cases. There is little evidence that India or South Africa – contrary to their historic heritage – take principled positions in favour of civil society and human rights defenders, and instead they tend to only vote pro-civil-society when there is already overwhelming support in the Human Rights Council.

In explaining their positions, India and South Africa generally refer to what they see as the primacy of national law over international law, the ‘responsibility’ of civil society actors, and express a vague fear that human rights defenders flout international and domestic law (such as India’s position on Human Rights Council resolution on civil society space), and the failure of Human Rights Council resolutions to place restrictions on civil society and hold civil society actors accountable.

So far, therefore, Brazil has by and large defended space for civil society and human rights defenders, both within international forums themselves, and in calling for the protection of this space at national levels.

More recent trends, however, such as Brazil’s positioning during most recent session of the Human Rights Council in March 2015, as well as some of Brazil’s actions in the more political environment of the General Assembly’s Third Committee, may indicate as slight weakening of Brazil’s principled support for civil society, and a rebalancing in favour of not offending important allies such as China and Russia. The newly announced mega-trade-deal between China and Brazil sheds an interesting light on these moves.

In relation to a China-led amendment during the March 2015 Human Rights Council, Brazil abstained on an amendment seeking to undermine the participation of civil society in a newly created UN Democracy Forum. The amendment sought to give States a veto on the participation of specific civil society groups, which would damage free expression and active participation of civil society at the UN. By abstaining, Brazil avoided clearly oppose the Chinese attempts to export it’s own limiting environment for civil society to the UN. As indicated above, the positions by India and South Africa were worse, as both supported the Chinese position. Beyond staining its own voting record through such positions, Brazil’s leadership role within the region had a regrettable knock-on effect on Argentina vote, which also abstained following Brazil’s negative lead.

Similarly, Brazil avoided taking a clear stand in the Third Committee of the General Assembly on the issue of reprisals. In 2013, a coalition of African States together with several States that are opposed to strong civil society participation in the work of the UN (including Russia, China, Egypt, Cuba, Sri Lanka, North Korea and Iran) voted against large parts of Latin America, North America and Europe to suspend the creation of a new focal point seeking to protect individuals from reprisals for their cooperation with the UN. Brazil’s abstention, while accompanied with an explanation calling for more discussion on the subject, called into question the country’s otherwise reliable support to civil society questions at the UN. It was a particularly significant abstention because many other Latin American States such as Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay and Mexico had voted in favour of the focal point, and because the vote was lost by a margin of only three votes.

In conclusion, while South Africa and India have consistently invoked arguments of sovereignty, the importance of national law and the need to control and limit civil society to block progress in the protection of civil society and human rights defenders at home and at the UN, Brazil has by and large worked towards better protection of these actors. Mostly, Brazil’s voting record matches it’s positive statements and rhetorical commitment to civil society, but there have been some notable recent exceptions.

Looking ahead, it is therefore critical that Brazil as a reliable actor return to clearly and consistently supporting civil society participation at the UN, and the agenda of expanding space for human rights defenders around the world. This would be in keeping with it’s own democratic and human rights principles, its history of overcoming dictatorship, and its own national policy to protect defenders. In doing so, Brazil should use its privileged relations with India and South Africa to seek to shift the IBSA block towards more supportive positions, while vigorously resisting the negative influence of BRICS solidarity on civil society space issues.

Michael Ineichen, works at the International Service for Human Rights’. He heads ISHR’s Human Rights Council Advocacy and you can reach him at @ineichenM.

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