Proposed inquiry in São Paulo Municipal Legislature criminalizes social organizations; understand why

The use of legal tools to persecute NGOs, activists and political opponents shifts the focus away from the country’s real problem: human rights violations

A woman and her children walk in A woman and her children walk in "Cracolandia" (Crackland), a rundown area in the center of Sao Paulo, home to drug dealers and addicts, on May 10, 2019. (Photo by NELSON ALMEIDA / AFP)

Over the past few days, a city councilor from the São Paulo Municipal Legislature began collecting signatures from his fellow lawmakers to set up a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission for the purpose of investigating alleged irregularities in the activities of civil society organizations that provide assistance to vulnerable people in downtown São Paulo.

The proposal had the support of 23 city councilors and gained national attention when the city councilor said that the commission could summon Father Júlio Lancellotti to testify as an accused. Vicar of the Archdiocese of São Paulo for the homeless population, Father Júlio has worked for decades in the defense of human rights. 

The pressure for Father Júlio not to be investigated prompted at least eight city councilors to withdraw their signatures from the petition calling for the inquiry. Now, it is uncertain whether or not the proposal will go ahead. The matter will be analyzed by party leaders in the Municipal Legislature after the parliamentary recess. 

Attacks on social organizations

Father Júlio Lancelloti is not the only one in the crosshairs of São Paulo’s city councilors. The inquiry intends to target several organizations that do harm reduction work, in what would be a broad investigation focusing on organizations, groups and movements that work to assist and defend homeless drug users. The political group proposing the inquiry commission has been persecuting groups that work in the Cracolândia region of São Paulo for some years now.

“There is a political game behind this proposal, which involves the intimidation of homeless people and human rights defenders, who are often the only ones denouncing the institutional violence and the distortion of public policy in the city: a policy of segregation and not policies of care, health and treatment. The inquiry targets people and groups that provide social assistance and harm reduction services, when it should focus on questioning public investment in policies without proven efficiency and not provided for in the Psychosocial Care Network (RAPS),” said the lawyer Carolina Diniz, coordinator of the program to Combat Institutional Violence at Conectas. 

Criminalization of civil society

There are concerns about the use of legal means to criminalize organizations, social movements, activists and people who defend human rights. As demonstrated in a report by IDDD (Institute for the Defense of the Right to a Defense), this criminalization does not only manifest itself explicitly; it includes “tacit threats that occur through processes and procedures in areas of law other than criminal – namely administrative law”.

The IDDD report also points out that the work of social groups in the Cracolândia region – the specific focus of the proposed inquiry – “is marked by strong persecution from political groups and lawmakers that defend repression and violence as a way of dealing with the social conflicts that exist in Cracolândia and the surrounding area”.

National Congress

Within the National Congress, other recent inquiries have also been used in an attempt to criminalize the activities of social movements and NGOs. These include a Congressional Inquiry Commission on the MST (Rural Landless Workers Movement), which ended in September 2023 without a vote on the final report, and a Congressional Inquiry Commission on NGOs, which charged just one person.  

“Although these legislative investigations do not result in indictments or convictions, the persecution and attempts at criminalization are already a major problem for human rights defenders in Brazil. This is because of the attacks on people’s honor, convictions in the ‘court of the internet’, in addition, of course, to the need to use financial resources to legally defend oneself against attacks,” said Diniz.

The lawyer from Conectas also noted that these unfounded accusations stigmatize the important work that civil society organizations perform defending the rights and providing assistance to vulnerable people. As a result, combating rights violations is no longer the focus of state action.

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