Brazil is elected to the UN Human Rights Council: see the country’s commitments and challenges

Conectas explains what to expect from Brazil’s entry to the leading United Nations human rights body

37ª Sessão do Conselho de Direitos Humanos, Palais des Nation. 23 de março de 2018. Foto de Violaine Martin 37ª Sessão do Conselho de Direitos Humanos, Palais des Nation. 23 de março de 2018. Foto de Violaine Martin

In February 2023, the Brazilian government submitted its candidacy to the UN to once again become a member of the Human Rights Council, based in Geneva, Switzerland. Eight months later, on October 10, Brazil was elected for a three-year mandate on the Council, the UN’s main human rights body.

As such, the country will occupy for the sixth time one of the eight seats allocated to countries in the region, for a mandate lasting three years, with the right to reelection. Elections are scheduled for October.

In a statement, the Ministry of Foreign Relations said that in its new mandate, “Brazil will work towards the greater efficiency of the Human Rights Council and seek to strengthen the role of the body in preventing and confronting the structural causes of serious human rights violations, with an emphasis on constructive dialogue and international cooperation”.

Conectas has a long tradition of monitoring this electoral process, as well as the discussions and submissions of candidacies. The speech by Minister Silvio Almeida at the UN, also in February, highlighted this, by reinforcing Brazil’s commitment to international human rights treaties.

At the time, Camila Asano, executive director of Conectas, said that the minister’s speech marked “the commitment that Brazilian civil society wants from the authorities before the international community”. She explained that “the statement reinforces how important it is for Brazil to observe international agreements and give special attention to the UPR [UN Universal Periodic Review]”.

Voluntary commitments assumed by Brazil

In its candidacy submission to the Council, the Brazilian government suggested a possible ratification of the Inter-American Convention Against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, for example.

When applying for a seat on the Council, the Brazilian government argued that the restructuring and creation of new ministries, such as the Ministry of Human Rights, the Ministry of Indigenous Peoples and the Ministry of Racial Equality, is a sign of its realignment in the defense of rights. It is important to highlight, however, that there are no indications about the budget needed for these ministries to effectively implement their policies and fulfill their commitments.

“The election of Brazil does not constitute an endorsement of the country’s situation or the position of the current government, but instead represents a reinforcement of the importance and urgency of Brazil actively following through on the implementation of international recommendations with transparency and social participation,” said Asano. She added that “once Brazil becomes a member of the Council, it will be necessary to resume proactive engagement with UN System mechanisms, including the ratification of pending agreements and the organization of visits by special procedures”. 

Rights of women and LGBTQIA+ persons

According to the candidacy submission, regarding the rights of LGBTQIA+ persons, the Brazilian government expressed an interest in “joining the Group of Friends on sexual orientation and gender identity” (Brazil has now already joined the group) in Geneva and in participating in the Equal Rights Coalition initiative. Furthermore, Brazil has agreed to possibly receive a visit from a person specialized in Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (an independent expert on the topic) and to support resolutions in addition to presenting similar initiatives to the Inter-American Human Rights System.

The government also pointed out that negotiations will be guided by a comprehensive approach, with a special focus on debates and resolutions related to gender and sexual orientation. In this regard, it has expressed its full support for the renewal of special procedures mandates in these areas and also committed to “increasing female representation in Brazilian diplomatic delegations, as well as in all the bodies of the Human Rights Council (HRC) and the United Nations”. However, it is public knowledge that the Ministry of Foreign Relations has not appointed female diplomats to occupy ambassadorial positions in other countries. This matter was questioned by Minister Mauro Vieira in the Senate in the first half of the year and has been criticized by the Brazilian Association of Women Diplomats.

Rights of indigenous peoples

With regard to the rights of indigenous peoples, the support for resolutions and mandates seems to reflect a policy of giving indigenous peoples a position of prominence, recognizing their importance in protecting the environment and biodiversity, as well as in combating the illegal or predatory exploration of their lands. However, these commitments lack details and defined time frames. Given the constant and current threats to indigenous rights, such as the debate surrounding the “Time Frame” thesis in the Supreme Court and in Congress, a limitation and contradiction can be observed compared to the language used in Brazil’s candidacy submission. 

This contradiction is evident when it says that it will: “Promote and support initiatives that strengthen the conditions necessary to effectively guarantee the rights of indigenous peoples, including with regard to land demarcation, territorial and environmental management, and effective consultation and participation mechanisms, in full compliance with the rights of indigenous peoples and in accordance with the Federal Constitution,” without, however, explicitly including a commitment to the consent of indigenous peoples to decisions that affect them.

Combating racism 

The document with the voluntary commitments assumed by the Brazilian government states that the country plans to “ensure the effective implementation of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action against racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance, on both the domestic and international levels”. It also states that Brazil should actively participate in negotiations on the United Nations Declaration for the Promotion and Full Respect of the Human Rights of People of African Descent and in “negotiations on a legally binding instrument on business and human rights”.

Civic space

Finally, some actions were presented with a view to improving the civic space and safeguarding human rights defenders. One goal of particular importance is to “strengthen the National Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Communicators and Environmentalists (PPDDH), through the reestablishment of its Board of Trustees, formed, in equal proportions, by representatives of public bodies and society civil.”

Specifically in the context of the Human Rights Council, one crucial element that needs to be included among the voluntary commitments is full support for the adoption of a hybrid participation by civil society in the Council. Such an approach would make this fundamental space more democratic. Unfortunately, Brazil has not made clear its commitment to broad civil society participation in multilateral forums.

It is essential to pay close attention to these points in order to guarantee the existence of the most vulnerable populations and to reinforce the certainty that they are truly important to us. 

Brazilian State attends hearing 

The International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) and Amnesty International held a hearing in September with Brazil and other candidate countries for a seat on the Council. At the time, the Brazilian delegation reaffirmed the commitments listed in the document. 

A question from Conectas, which participated in the hearing, was posed to the government representatives. The question addressed the commitment to “promote and protect women’s rights, including through actions related to the promotion of the right to health and of sexual and reproductive rights”. Highlighting that unsafe abortions are one of the main causes of maternal mortality in Brazil and that the main victims are black women and girls, the question wanted to know how the Brazilian government intends to guarantee compliance with the recommendations of the UN Committee against Torture, which, after reviewing the country in May this year, recommended the decriminalization of voluntary termination of pregnancy.

In response, the delegation stated that the Brazilian State already permits abortion under three conditions. It said the issue is a high priority for Brazil and recognized that black women are more affected by the structural inequalities that are related to the issue. In response to a question about the government’s efforts to combat police lethality, the Brazilian State recognized that immediate action can be taken to combat police lethality, which mainly affects black people. It said that racism needs to be viewed as a structural problem and it should, therefore, be addressed in different areas, such as health and education.

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