It was a cold evening in 1998 when the lawyer Oscar Vilhena Vieira sketched on the back of a pizza delivery box the ambitious plan for the creation of Conectas. The improvised design came to him during a lively conversation with the journalist Gilberto Dimenstein (1956-2020) and Paul Martin, director of the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Columbia University, where Oscar had been a visiting researcher in 1991.
He ended up drawing multiple connections between different names in Angola, Colombia, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Argentina and South Africa, creating a constellation of human rights leaders in the Southern Hemisphere. “We mapped these leaders very consciously to ask them to provide names of young activists in their region,” he recalls. “It was a movement not to reaffirm who was already an authority, but to create new authorities.”
His intention to connect activists from the Global South around the world involved the creation of a network supported by an intellectual framework so that this new counter-hegemonic activism could come up with its own ideas and share them without intermediaries.
The project first took shape at the event that marked the very origin of Conectas, which was the 1st International Human Rights Colloquium, held in São Paulo, in 2001. The idea of creating a South-South network at the time was so innovative that several activists, both Brazilian and foreign, had their first email accounts of their lives created by the event’s organizers.
The realization that there was a major imbalance in the North-South axis, with less space for organizations from countries like Brazil, was already known to Oscar, but it became even more evident during his second period of research in New York. Besides studying at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, he did an internship at Human Rights Watch, among other organizations, and got to know the workings of the planet’s leading international human rights organizations from the inside. The contrast between this model and his experience at young Brazilian organizations created after redemocratization was eye-opening.
“The kind of relationship we used to have with international organizations was to send a fax with information about what was happening in Brazil. They packaged this information into a nice report on the human rights situation in Brazil and, for doing that, they received funds from this and that foundation,” he points out.
“We realized that there was something strange about this relationship. International organizations had positions of prominence, professional training and received funding, while Brazilian organizations were just information providers. As a result, they were left without internal authority, capacity and professional training to engage with the Brazilian authorities.”
The main driving force behind the creation of Conectas was the understanding that this relationship needed to change and that the countries of the Global South had more to gain from sharing experiences with each other than they did with organizations from countries in the North. This vision was developed by Oscar together with the economist Malak El-Chichini Poppovic, his main partner on this journey who he met at the Center for the Study of Violence of the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP).
“What led us to create Conectas was this realization that we needed stronger organizations in the Southern Hemisphere to voice our vision of what was happening here,” he says. “And that couldn’t be done in a self-centralized way. We didn’t want to be a new center that would galvanize all the attention and funding. The goal was to build a polycentric structure of activists around the world.”
They both came to the same conclusion from complementary perspectives. Malak, from the outside in, by moving to Brazil after a solid international career at the United Nations. Oscar, from the inside out, after experiencing first hand the workings of one of the international organizations that received the information that he himself sent, via fax, when he was executive secretary of the Teotônio Vilela Human Rights Commission.
It was during his time on the Commission that Oscar began his work in the field of human rights and was able to develop a sophisticated assessment of the main obstacles in the way of advancing this agenda in Brazil. The Commission was created in 1983 to investigate and combat human rights violations committed by agents of the State inside detention facilities. It was founded by a group of notables that included Fernando Gabeira, Eduardo Suplicy, Margarida Genevois, Emir Sader, Marilena Chauí, José Gregori, Maria Helena Gregori, Severo Gomes and Father Agostinho de Duarte de Oliveira, under the command of Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro.
“It was an exceptional group of people. They realized that the end of the military regime did not necessarily mean the beginning of the Democratic Rule of Law. And that the authoritarianism socially installed in Brazil would not be overcome merely because we had elections,” explains Oscar.
“I joke that my profession was fixing grand pianos,” he laughs. “Everyone had big aspirations. And I was a young man trying to organize everything: I visited prisons, asked the police for information and drafted reports. It was my baptism of fire.”
At the Commission, Oscar participated in symbolic cases such as the discovery of the bones of those killed by the dictatorship in the Perus cemetery, in 1990, and the Carandiru prison massacre, in 1992. The circumstances that led the young Oscar to encounter this group of notables are consistent with the values of his family upbringing. A tragic episode involving one of his brothers, however, could have undone everything. But, instead, it brought him even closer to this field and enabled him to acquire a more complex vision of the importance of these ideas and their social function in an unequal country like Brazil.
Born in 1966 in the region of Serra do Mar, in the state of São Paulo, Oscar grew up in an environment that he describes as “moderately left-wing Christian Democrat”. The son of a police chief and an educationist and university professor, he is the youngest of four brothers, all raised on a farm on the outskirts of Paraibuna.
His father was the chief of police of São Paulo, during which time he created the Women’s Police Stations when Franco Montoro (1916-1999) was governor. Together with the lawyer José Carlos Dias, he participated in the group that sought to reform the police and the prison system after the end of the military dictatorship.
While studying Law at the Catholic University of São Paulo (PUC-SP), Oscar became involved in the student movement, which had human rights as one of its main platforms, and took part in the large demonstrations for direct elections that marked the end of the military dictatorship in the country. A year before he graduated, in 1987, Oscar’s enthusiasm for following the political opening and the debates of the Constituent Assembly was brought to a sudden and painful halt: his older brother was murdered while trying to break up a street fight.
Like his father, his brother was a police chief and witnessed a group of kids attack a popcorn seller. He intervened. One of them was armed, and shot him.
“This is the one very sad side of my life, which raised a paradox in the eyes of other people: how could I be a human rights lawyer after all this?” asked Oscar, who years later headed up the Latin American Institute for the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (Ilanud), where he developed projects for the defense of young offenders. “At Ilanud, I sought to combine the defense of human rights with public policies in the area of security, such as community policing, gun control and alternative penalties.”
Struck by the tragic death of the son of his chief of police and former student, Montoro asked Oscar’s father to serve as a special advisor at the Governor’s Palace, where he shared an office with the state government’s international advisor.
“That international advisor was Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, a sophisticated intellectual who began working with him, and they became friends,” says Oscar. “When I told my father that I wanted to study political science, he must have thought it was disastrous, but he told me it sounded like a very good idea and organized a lunch so I could talk about it with Paulo Sérgio.” Oscar ended up doing his Masters and Doctorate under the tutorship of his father’s colleague.
“In my Masters, I analyzed the rulings of the post-Constitution Supreme Court to see how conservative judges who had been appointed by the military regime were interpreting an extremely progressive Constitution,” he explains. “I found that the Court was reacting better than I could have expected.” And that was when Oscar’s connection with the Supreme Court began, laying the foundations for the creation, years later, of the Justice Program at Conectas and its strategic litigation and amicus curiae initiatives for important causes of the human rights agenda.
“Conectas was, at one point, the organization with the largest number of amicus curiae in the Supreme Court. As a result, the organization in a way set the ball rolling for what today is a common practice for any organization,” he says.
It was through Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro that Oscar would also embark on activism in this field during his time at the executive secretariat of the Teotônio Vilela Commission. “It was my experience at the Commission, my understanding of the workings of large organizations and the trust I had in Malak that allowed us to devise such an ambitious project,” he acknowledges.
In order to strengthen South-South relations and increase their international representativeness in this field, however, it was necessary not only to build networks of human rights activism, but also to access funding channels. This would allow countries of the Global South to address their own issues more efficiently and to share solutions.
Oscar and Malak sought out Denise Dora, at the time at the Ford Foundation in Brazil, who in addition to making an essential contribution to the formulation of the idea would become Conectas, organized a meeting between the duo and the foundation’s management in New York. “Malak and I went to New York, we described the project, excited, and the director said that we should raise funds in Brazil because we were a Brazilian organization,” he recalls.
Then a game unfurled of clarifications and persuasion about Conectas being an international organization based in Brazil and about the need to democratize the funding for organizations outside the US-Europe axis.
Oscar laid out the defining argument: “I asked the director at the time, Anthony Romero, if the definition of an international organization depended on the zip code.” The question had an immediate impact and helped redefine the concept of an international organization anywhere in the world. “Conectas was very firm in this dialogue about financing and organizations, and it changed the rules of the game not only for us, but for lots of other people,” he says. “So we joined forces with other organizations from Colombia and Argentina and transformed this action into a political movement that is at the heart of Conectas.”
The celebration of the many achievements of Conectas over these 20 years does not overshadow the recognition of the challenges that lie ahead for the organization and for the field of human rights moving forward. In Brazil’s case, notes Oscar, some of these challenges have existed “since the 18th century” and need to be combined with the issues and visions of the future.
The clash between these two agendas is once again related to funding issues. “In Brazil, we had a major funding problem. Most civil society organizations were formed from the transfer of public funds. This makes them important in the implementation of human rights services, but not for questioning things,” he says.
On the other hand, he adds, there are companies in the country that finance their own social projects. “The business community is very unlikely to be concerned about Brazil’s problems from the 18th century or be courageous enough to finance organized civil society.”
It is from the conduct of some companies that another challenge has emerged, in his view. It is associated with the growing role of corporations in people’s lives, the types of business conduct that cause human rights violations and the legislation that enables companies to evade liability.
“Each type of industry has an associated human rights issue. It’s the case with mining, it’s the case with technology, for example,” points out Oscar, who now heads up the Getúlio Vargas Foundation Law School in São Paulo, where he set up a Center for Business and Human Rights.
“A treaty has been under discussion since the 1980s with general responsibilities for the multinational business sector. But nothing has come of it and this demonstrates the inability of governments to impose limitations,” he explains. One of the crucial issues that impacts this debate, he says, is a third challenge in this field: the climate issue, which not only calls for the regulation of companies but also for an intergenerational pact. “The human rights community must be able to consider social and environmental issues in a broader way and based on the impact on new generations.