Retrospective 2021: the defense of human rights and democracy

In another year marked by the pandemic, civil society had to fight for the defense of basic rights and against anti-democratic offensives by the Bolsonaro government

The federal government’s anti-science stance and negligence in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic continued in 2021. Despite the fact that the vaccines have been a preferred target of attacks by President Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil has become one of the countries in the world with the highest vaccination rates to combat the pandemic. 

Other targets of the systematic attacks by Bolsonaro and his allies were again democracy and human rights: speeches discrediting the election system without any evidence and anti-democratic public demonstrations gained prominence in the government at a time of serious social crisis, together with attacks against mechanisms for social and environmental protection and for combating torture, for example. This situation required active engagement by civil society organizations, which worked reactively and purposefully to confront the anti-democratic offensives and the attempts to remove rights. At Conectas, the dissatisfaction with injustices and the broad smile of our dear colleague Christiane Cese were and will continue to be an inspiration in the fight for rights. 

See below the topics that marked our work in defense of rights in 2021: 


Health crisis and the Covid Inquiry in the Senate

In January, Cepedisa (Center for Studies and Research on Health Law of the University of São Paulo) and Conectas published the 10th issue of the Rights in the Pandemic Bulletin, a study that showed how federal government regulations constituted an intentional boycott of the measures to combat and contain the novel coronavirus. The study was cited by Conectas at a hearing in the European Parliament and widely reported in the press. 

The study also served to inform the lawmakers involved in the Covid Inquiry Commission in the Senate. On several occasions, the bulletin was mentioned to demonstrate how the Bolsonaro government violated the right to life of Brazilians. After the Commission’s final report was released, Conectas called on the President of the Republic to be held liable for his actions during the pandemic, which by mid-December had killed more than 615,000 people.

ADPF Favelas Case: disrespect for the Supreme Court and resumption of the judgment

Ignoring an order by the Supreme Court to suspend police operations in Rio de Janeiro during the pandemic, two violent police actions aroused public indignation: first, the Jacarezinho massacre, the deadliest in Rio de Janeiro’s history, and, more recently, the Salgueiro massacre, when police left bodies in a mangrove swap after a deadly operation.  

The rights violations and the illegalities that occurred in these two massacres were submitted by Conectas and other organizations to national protection bodies, such as Brazil’s Human Rights Council, and international bodies, such as the UN and the IACHR. In the Jacarezinho case, UN rapporteurs called for an “independent, thorough and impartial investigation into the murders”. In early December, the IACHR also condemned the massacre in Salgueiro. 

The violence and racism involved in these deadly police operations have been denounced by NGOs and social movements in the ADPF (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) Case No. 635, also known as the ADPF Favelas Case. Pending in the Supreme Court since 2019, the case calls on the state government of Rio de Janeiro to, among other things, prepare a plan to reduce police lethality. 

In 2020, the Supreme Court, through the ADPF Favelas Case, placed restrictions on police violence in the favelas and urban outskirts of the state of Rio de Janeiro: it banned the police from firing guns from armored helicopters and restricted police operations around schools and hospitals. In 2021, the justices started to analyze the appeals of the organizations involving the court’s precautionary measures from the previous year. A session of the court was held in December, but the judgment was halted after the votes of Justices Edson Fachin and Alexandre de Moraes, and no date was set the resume the case.  

Repeal of the National Security Law

Enacted by the military dictatorship in 1983, the National Security Law was repealed by the National Congress in August. In its place, lawmakers added to the Criminal Code crimes against the Democratic State.

The Bill on the Defense of the Democratic State passed through Congress this year after criticisms, by experts and members of civil society, of the indiscriminate use of the authoritarian law to persecute critics of the federal government. According to a survey by LAUT (Center for the Analysis of Freedom and Authoritarianism), in the first two years of the Bolsonaro government, there was a 285% increase in the number of investigations opened based on the National Security Law compared to the same period under the government of Dilma Rousseff and Michel Temer.

Attempts to relax environmental legislation 

In the National Congress, the government base and its allies sponsored bills that showed no concern for environmental protection or climate change, in an attempt to create loopholes to reduce protected areas and expand illegal mining and agriculture. 

One such piece of legislation is Bill 2159/2021, which creates the General Environmental Licensing Law and is highly problematic because it weakens important procedures for the authorization and control of economic projects that have significant environmental and social impacts. Bill 490/2007, which changes the rules for the demarcation of indigenous lands, and Bill 2633/2020, which facilitates the illegal occupation of public land, are other examples of proposed legislation that undermine environmental and social protection. 

Civil society organizations mobilized to denounce the attempts at environmental destruction on several occasions. In March, a letter signed by 50 organizations giving visibility to the “environmental setbacks” was delivered to the UN Human Rights Council. In May, another letter signed by 61 organizations and sent to the new Secretary-General of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warned that the possibility of Brazil joining the organization should not be “a rubber stamp for the environmental and social policies and human rights policies of the current Brazilian government” and that these bills pose a threat to the climate, the environment and to human rights.

Also on the international level, Conectas, APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute) and Climate Observatory formally denounced Brazil in the UN for proposed legislation that infringes on environmental and social rights in the country. The organizations also asked the president of the Senate, Rodrigo Pacheco, for more social participation in the discussions on the environmental agenda in the Legislative. 

Venezuelan migration in Roraima 

In February, Conectas and Missão Paz filed a representation petition with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office requesting an investigation into the discriminatory closure of land borders for migrants coming from Venezuela. The petition was motivated by a response from Anvisa (National Health Regulatory Agency) to a technical opinion produced by Cepedisa (Center for Research on Health Law of the University of São Paulo) and addressed to the agency in December last year. 

The study demonstrated that the restrictions imposed by the federal government through decrees published over the course of 2020 – which established a discretionary segregation on the entry of people from countries that border with Brazil – are not based on legal or health grounds

In light of this, Conectas filed a series of complaints on the seriousness of the inconsistencies and unconstitutionalities contained in more than 30 inter-ministerial border decrees. One such complaint was submitted to the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council, in June.

In the same month, a new decree reopened the possibility for Venezuelan migrants to be accepted by Brazil, paving the way for the regularization of those who entered the country during the pandemic. However, the decree set limits by making the entry of these people conditional on “available resources”, creating legal uncertainty and possibly leading to the creation migration quotas. 

On another front in the defense of the rights of migrants and refugees, a federal court in July banned the summary deportation or repatriation of vulnerable migrants who cross the border into the Brazilian states of Roraima and Amazonas. The ruling states that the federal border decrees “have led to illegalities being committed by the federal government”.

“Time frame” case in the Supreme Court and indigenous mobilizations 

Defended by the rural lobby, the “time frame” thesis made it to the Supreme Court through Special Appeal No. 1,017,365, which contests the result of a land repossession case filed by the Santa Catarina state government against the Xokleng people regarding the Ibirama-Laklãnõ Indigenous Land, where the Guarani and Kaingang tribes also live.

The thesis ignores traditional land rights and argues that territories can only be demarcated for indigenous peoples that occupied the land on the date of the promulgation of the Constitution of 1988. 

In August of this year, a UN rapporteur and the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States) also asked the Supreme Court to reject the thesis and ensure the future of indigenous lands in the country. Not long afterwards, the IACHR also expressed concern over proposed legislation that, according to the international body, worsen deforestation and raise the threats and the violence against indigenous peoples.

In early September, the Supreme Court justices heard the parties in the case. In an oral statement in the judgment, Júlia Neiva, coordinator of the Defense of Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas, who took part in the case as an amicus curiae, stated that the “time frame” thesis violates human rights and infringes on the Constitution. According to indigenous organizations, the thesis ignores, for example, the forced removals that these people have faced over time and the efforts of indigenous peoples to have their rights included in the Constitution. 

In early November, Conectas also participated in a mission organized by the CNDH (National Human Rights Council) to the northern state of Roraima to investigate reports of human rights violations resulting from the worsening situation facing migrants and refugees in the region. 

Religious and anti-racist actions 

To mark three months since the brutal murder of Beto Freitas in a Carrefour supermarket in Porto Alegre, several religious and human rights organizations and social movements released a video, in February, in defense of the lives of black people and calling for justice for Beto’s death. The action was part of the permanent campaign “My Faith is Anti-Racist”, which mobilizes people of faith and other people in society to combat racial discrimination. 

In November, one year after Beto’s death, the group came together once again to stage the “Inter-Religious Service: “My Faith is Anti-Racist”, which was attended by Evangelicals, Buddhists, Catholics and people of Afro-Brazilian religions and other faiths.

Cases in the Supreme Court to halt expansion of Military Justice 

Three cases being heard by the Supreme Court propose to set limits on the jurisdiction of the military justice system to judge cases of police violence and even crimes committed by civilians against military personnel. ADPF Case No. 289, ADI Case No. 5901 and ADI Case No. 5032, in all of which Conectas is participating as an amicus curiae.

In ADPF Case 289, the plaintiffs are asking the Supreme Court to disqualify Military Courts from judging civilians. ADI Case No. 5901 challenges the jurisdiction of the military justice system to judge members of the Armed Forces who commit crimes against the lives of civilians. ADI Case No. 5032, meanwhile, deals with the role of the military justice system judging crimes committed by members of the Armed Forces engaged in non-military activities, such as public security duties. 

In September, a report released by the UN on Brazil stated that investigations into murders and disappearances committed by public security agents and military personnel should be handled by jury trials and civilian justice systems, and not by the military justice system, as is often the case in the country.

In the request for amicus curiae status in ADI Case No. 5901, Conectas and the Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic at Yale Law School said that the lack of impartiality and independence of the military justice system “prevents access to justice and facilitates impunity in cases of human rights violations”. The organizations also said that “States that do not limit military jurisdiction to crimes of a strictly military nature often tolerate or cover up human rights violations committed by the Armed Forces”.

Confronting digital surveillance

Civil society organizations launched a campaign for the Federal Courts to halt the procurement of illegal spying software by the federal government. In May this year, the organizations filed a complaint to the Federal Audit Court pointing out irregularities in the bidding process and requesting its suspension.

“This is an illegal procurement, by inadequate means, of a system that is potentially harmful to the community, which will allow the indiscriminate and unwarranted collection of information, and which could even serve shady political interests,” warned the organizations. 

Following the repercussions of the case, NSO Group, the Israeli company that makes Pegasus, dropped out of the bidding process and, since the auction was not suspended, another company – Harpia Tecnologia Eireli – won. In another case, four civil society organizations, among them Conectas, petitioned the Federal Audit Court to prevent the Ministry of Justice and Public Security from contracting the Harpia spyware system, alleging that the bidding process took place with no transparency. The petition by the organizations was accepted and in November the Court unanimously ordered the suspension of the software acquisition auction by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. 

Attempts to weaken the National Environment Council 

Although Ricardo Salles had stepped down as Minister of the Environment in June 2021, offensives against environmental legislation and protection mechanisms were ongoing throughout the year. One example was the presidential decree that restructured Conama (National Environment Council), reducing the participation of public institutions and civil society organizations on the Council. This attempt to undermine the Council was challenged in the Supreme Court through ADPF Case (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) No. 623

According to Conectas, ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute), Climate Observatory and other organizations serving as amicus curiae in the Conama case, this decree reveals the federal government’s intention to prevent social participation in environmental policymaking. On December 17, an injunction issued by Justice Rosa Weber, the rapporteur of the case, suspended the effects of the decree until the matter is judged by a full session of the Court. This Conama case is a contribution by Conectas to the field that works with strategies to promote an intersection between climate litigation, environmental and social justice and human rights. 

Ratification of the Inter-American Convention against Racism

The fight against racism in Brazil acquired a new tool in 2021: the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance, of the OAS (Organization of American States)

According to the text of the Convention, ratifying countries undertake to prevent, eliminate, prohibit and punish all acts and manifestations of racism, racial discrimination and related forms of intolerance. The ratification of the document is a victory for the black movement and anti-racist organizations. 

Protection of indigenous and quilombola peoples 

The pandemic dealt another major blow to indigenous and quilombola peoples in Brazil. A total of 1241 indigenous and 301 quilombola people have been killed by Covid-19 until the start of December, according to data from APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) and the Quilombo Without Covid-19 platform, respectively. 

The Supreme Court ruled in February that the federal government must present, within a time frame of 30 days, a national plan to combat the pandemic among the quilombola population. The ruling was given in the ADPF Case (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) No. 742, filed by Conaq (National Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities). The Court also ordered the suspension of territorial rights cases in quilombos, such as land repossession cases. 

In June, the Supreme Court unanimously ordered the protection of the Munduruku and Yanomami indigenous peoples to prevent further massacres. The court gave its ruling in the petition filed by APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil) for the urgent removal of intruders and for guaranteeing the physical integrity of the threatened people in the territories included in ADPF Case No. 709, filed by APIB. 

Conectas is participating in both cases as an amicus curiae because it believes that the absence of public policies to protect indigenous and quilombola peoples represents a serious human rights violation and is a reflection of the institutional racism at the heart of the State. In addition, attacks on indigenous peoples were denounced several times at the UN, for example in September and in June.

Protection of people in custody and mechanisms to combat torture 

In March, the National Congress overturned the vetoes by President Jair Bolsonaro to the so-called “anti-crime” package, a 2019 bill that made a series of changes to public security legislation.

One of the vetoes would have enabled pre-trial custody hearings to be held by video conference. The overturning of the vetoes came in response to demands from civil society organizations that work to combat torture. Since last year, several organizations have promoted the campaign #TorturaNãoSeVêpelaTV (#YouCantSeeTortureOnTV) against remote hearings. Custody hearings play an important role in combating torture, police violence and illegal detention.

Even when the hearings are held in-person, the study “Labyrinthine Investigations” conducted by Conectas in partnership with IDDD (Defense of the Right to a Defense Institute), released in May 2021, revealed that reports of violations committed by arresting military police officers are investigated by their own police battalions and quickly shelved. 

Against this backdrop, it should be a priority to strengthen tools to combat torture, not weaken them as has happened this year: more than 120 human rights organizations, including Conectas, warned of the suspension of the work of the CNPCT (National Committee to Combat and Prevent Torture), the federal body responsible for investigating and preventing torture and mistreatment in prisons, nursing homes and psychiatric hospitals. 

Climate justice and combating environmental and climate racism

Environment and climate protection is an important issue for Brazilian youth. The voices of young activists were heard at COP 26 (United Nations Climate Change Conference), staged in the first two weeks of November in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Brazilian social participation was prominent at the event. Attended by black, indigenous, LGBTI+, women, rural and urban activists, Brazilian civil society, unlike the government, raised issues that included denouncing environmental and climate racism, ways to deliver climate justice and the importance of climate education. At the opening of the event, the power of Brazilian activists in proposing climate solutions and promoting climate justice was represented by Txai Suruí, an indigenous woman from the Suruí tribe in the state of Rondônia, who denounced the illegal advance of agriculture into indigenous lands and called on global leaders to take action.

The issues raised by Brazilian civil society at the UN event reflects the climate situation in the country in 2021, as activists put up for debate, for example, the ways climate change and environmental destruction affect black and indigenous people. These topics were addressed in publications prepared by Conectas, such as “Climate and Human Rights – Voices and Actions” and “Climate Justice Brochure No. 1”.

Anti-democratic acts and attacks on the electoral system

The anti-democratic offensives led by Jair Bolsonaro reached their peak this year, when the president called on his supporters to stage rallies on September 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, with threatening messages against the Supreme Court. 

As a result, national and international human rights organizations such as APIB (Association of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), ISA (Socioenvironmental Institute) and Conectas came together to form an Ad Hoc Commission to observe and denounce possible human rights violations during the protests. The main concern was to guarantee the safety and integrity of the Struggle for Life Encampment, which was attended by more than 6,000 indigenous people during the month of August in mobilizations against the “time frame” thesis for land demarcation. 

The president and his allies also launched a campaign against electronic voting machines, alleging the possibility of fraud and raising doubts about the integrity of the Brazilian electoral system. In the Lower House of Congress, a Constitutional Amendment Proposal supported by the government base to introduce printed ballots was defeated in a full session of the house. In a statement, Conectas said that “there is only one course of action for anyone who is committed to the defense of the Democratic State: oppose the printed ballot and commit to respecting the 2022 election result.”

Combating slave labor and guaranteeing workplace inspections 

In 2021, given the dismantling of policies to combat slave labor, social movements and civil society organizations worked to stop setbacks in the area and guarantee labor rights. Among the actions was the mobilization against a proposed mini labor reform that made its way to the National Congress. Using political advocacy, Conectas and other organizations also worked on different fronts to urge the creation of new regulations to make all production processes, in all sectors, more transparent, thereby preventing and eliminating the risk of seeing new cases of contemporary slavery. The organization also worked with the National Congress to guarantee funding in the 2022 federal budget for actions to combat contemporary slavery. Conectas, the Rural Workers Alliance of the State of Minas Gerais, the National Confederation of Agricultural Laborers and Family Farmers, Oxfam Brasil and dozens of other organizations called for action to ensure enough funding in the budget to conduct rescue operations and inspections of degrading working conditions. 

In addition to these efforts to guarantee enough funding to combat slave labor, Conectas also took part in discussions to create mechanisms requiring companies to disclose information on their production chains and human rights and enabling them to be held liable for violations resulting from their actions.

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