Retrospective 2022: the defense of human rights in the most important year since redemocratization

In the year that democracy suffered its greatest attacks, civil society needed to be more vigilant than ever; read the highlights

In a year marked by general elections, 2022 required intense action from civil society in defense of the electoral system and to stop further setbacks in the field of human rights. Unfounded attacks on the electoral system, false or misleading statements aimed at disrupting the process, and constant threats to human rights have sounded alarm bells for civil society organizations on numerous occasions. Added to this picture are a series of attacks on rights guaranteed by the Constitution, a recurring practice of the Jair Bolsonaro government over the past 4 years. Over the course of the year, there have been victories for those of us who defend human rights and democratic values, as well as challenges to be addressed in the year ahead. 

Below, Conectas recalls the main events of the year:

In defense of the electoral system 

With no evidence, Jair Bolsonaro began to question the efficiency and transparency of the electoral system in 2018, when he stated that he should have won the elections in the first round. But the attacks intensified in 2022, when on several occasions the then-candidate for re-election made waves to upset the voting process. Among the many examples is the meeting with ambassadors and diplomatic representatives in Brazil to repeat to the international public, with no evidence, lies about the security of the country’s electronic voting machines.

In May, the Pact for Democracy Network, a coalition of 200 Brazilian civil society organizations, among them Conectas, published a manifesto condemning the anti-democratic attacks. In September, Conectas and another nine Brazilian organizations also denounced the attacks and the escalation of political violence to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. “Democracy and the electoral system are under grave threat in Brazil. We are living in unprecedented times in Brazilian democracy,” the organizations warned the international community gathered at the UN.

The local group Civil Vigilance, made up of dozens of civil society organizations, based at the São Paulo Bar Association, closely monitored the whole election process. When the result was announced, on October 31, the organizations stressed the importance of investigating allegations of abuse of political power, including the actions of the Federal Highway Police, and they celebrated the conclusion of another clean and transparent election. 

Furthermore, several international institutions and organizations that monitored the Brazilian elections as observers confirmed the security and efficiency of the electronic voting machines, as well as the competence of the electoral authorities responsible for the ballot.

In July, U.S. politicians received a Brazilian delegation in Washington formed by 19 civil society organizations, including Conectas, to hear about the attacks on the electoral system and on democracy in Brazil. The group asked the lawmakers to ensure that the U.S. immediately recognized the result of the October presidential election. The intention was to prevent the threats made by President Jair Bolsonaro against the electoral system and against Brazilian democracy from materializing.

In September, part of the delegation also visited Europe. In meetings with members of the European Commission and the European Parliament and at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council, the group of Brazilians also asked the international community to promptly recognize the outcome of the elections.

The President of the United States, Joe Biden, recognized President Lula’s victory a little more than half an hour after the announcement of the result by the Superior Electoral Court, as did Antony Blinken, head of U.S. diplomacy. On Twitter, the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the European Union’s head of diplomacy, Josep Borrell, also congratulated the new president on the same evening. 

Green Package and progress in climate litigation

In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court in March began its judgment of seven cases related to environmental protection and climate change, an agenda known as the “Green Package”. “We have noticed that the ‘greening’ of human rights has created new opportunities for setbacks previously considered sectorial to be integrated into a broader agenda of respect for human dignity and tackling structural racism,” said Julia Neiva, coordinator of the Defense of Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas. 

On the same day that the judgment began, five civil society organizations, among them Conectas, filed a report with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regarding the status of non-compliance with commitments to reduce deforestation in the Amazon. Among the recommendations, the document asks not to “support legislative changes that facilitate or encourage deforestation, particularly in the Amazon and the Cerrado” and not to reduce “the limits of indigenous lands that have been demarcated”.

In April, an adjournment requested by Justice André Mendonça halted the analysis of two of the Green Package’s seven cases after Justice Cármen Lúcia had ordered, as part of ADPF Case No. 760, that the federal government resume the PPCDAm (Action Plan for Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon). As a result of the adjournment, both ADPF Case 760 and ADO Case 54 – which accuses the federal government of inaction in the combat of deforestation and was being judged together with the former case – were halted.

Nevertheless, progress was made on other cases. In July, by 10 votes to 1, the Supreme Court ordered the federal government to reinstate funding for the National Fund on Climate Change, better known as the Climate Fund, which has existed since 2009 and is one of the country’s main bodies in the fight against the climate crisis. Furthermore, in October, the court formed a majority to require the government to reactivate the Amazon Fund

Migration and asylum

After a visit to Boa Vista and Pacaraima in the northern state of Roraima in November 2021, in which Conectas took part, the National Human Rights Council published a report, in March 2022, with recommendations for bodies responsible for receiving migrants, especially Venezuelans, in the region. In general, the recommendations call on the public authorities for effective measures to guarantee the rights of Venezuelans who cross the border, while also considering the specific characteristics of these people, such as the case of indigenous migrants. 

In another initiative for the defense of migrants and refugees, Conectas and other organizations asked the Ministry of Foreign Relations why it had suspended the scheduling of visas for Afghans wanting to come to Brazil. The organizations argued that the obstacles in the way of granting humanitarian visas created by the Brazilian government for Afghan refugees make it impossible for people fleeing the country controlled by the Taliban to obtain the document.

ADPF Favelas Case

The Supreme Court approved in February a proposal that required the creation of a plan to reduce police lethality during operations in Rio de Janeiro state favelas. The votes were cast during the resumption of the judgment of an appeal of ADPF (Allegation of Violation of a Fundamental Precept) Case No. 635, better known as the ADPF Favelas Case. At the time, the justices also approved the creation of a Citizen Police Judicial Observatory, the priority to investigate operations in which children or adolescents are killed, the requirement for ambulances to be present when there is armed confrontation and the recognition that the use of lethal force by officers is only justified in extreme cases, with priority always given to the protection of life.

One of the points of disagreement, however, was in regard to the installation of recording systems in police vehicles and on officers’ uniforms. In August, human rights organizations and favela movements asked the court to require the state of Rio de Janeiro to introduce these systems. According to the lawyer Gabriel Sampaio, coordinator of the program to Combat Institutional Violence at Conectas, the use of technology to reduce police abuse and lethality is welcome, and the measure has already contributed to reducing deaths among police officers.

Therapeutic communities

In March, Conectas presented the flaws of the so-called Therapeutic Communities (TCs) – private institutions that provide treatment to people with drug abuse problems – at the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland. These institutions represent a concern for human rights organizations because there is no transparency about the work that they do and no evidence of the effectiveness of their treatment methods, nor are there any transparent control and assessment mechanisms. In its statement, Conectas also noted that, as investments in healthcare equipment and the Psychosocial Care Network have been cut, funding for therapeutic communities – which are not part of the healthcare or social services system – has increased.

“We are calling on the Brazilian government to adopt a human rights approach in the definition of drug policies. There is an urgent need for a profound democratic discussion on public funding for these Communities and on their role in Brazil’s policy to support people with drug use issues,” said Gustavo Huppes, international advocacy advisor at Conectas, in his statement to the Human Rights Council.

In April, Conectas and Cebrap (Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning) released a new study showing that, among other things, Therapeutic Communities received a total of R$560 million in public funding between 2017 and 2020 and that this figure is likely to increase in the years ahead. 

According to the lawyer Carolina Diniz, an advisor for the program to Combat Institutional Violence at Conectas and coordinator of the project that gave rise to the report, the expansion of these organizations is a setback in mental health policy from the anti-asylum perspective. “Public money is being allocated to private institutions, many of which are religious in nature, with no state or social control”.

Spyware under surveillance

The use of illegal spying tools by the federal government, especially against social movements and organized civil society, has been the subject of complaints made by Conectas and partners in recent years. As a result, an injunction issued by the Federal Audit Court in 2021 and upheld in January 2022 prohibited the Ministry of Justice and Public Security from acquiring the Harpia spyware system that is capable of monitoring and profiling citizens without any prior justification. At the time, the judges ruled that, despite the fact that the contract with the company has been concluded, the federal government must avoid “signing any service order or making any payment until the Court rules on the merits of the matter under consideration”. However, in May, the same court overturned the injunction and authorized the resumption of the contract between the federal government and the digital surveillance company. 

This was not the only case of investment by the federal government in technological spying tools. In February, four civil society organizations, among them Conectas, filed a representation petition with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office requesting a Civil Inquiry to investigate the use of the “Integrated Platform of Public Security Monitoring and Operations”, known as Cortex, by federal bodies and law enforcement agencies.

“We have identified that Cortex has the potential to infringe on freedom of expression and opinion, and violate privacy and other fundamental rights of the Brazilian population,” said Raissa Belintani, coordinator of the Strengthening Democratic Space program at Conectas. “The situation is particularly serious in this government that attacks democratic values on a recurring basis”.

In June, Conectas, Data Privacy, Transparency International, Article 19 and the Brazilian Public Security Forum filed a representation petition with the Federal Prosecutor’s Office calling for an investigation into a project of the federal government to store and share data on police investigations obtained through the Excel Project – and for it to destroy the databases that are in its possession. The petition by the NGOs prompted the Federal Prosecutor’s Office, in December, to propose a public civil action to investigate the case. 

Global environmental governance and COP27 in Egypt

In 2022, against a backdrop of an escalation of the climate crisis due to setbacks in the energy transition process resulting from the war in Ukraine, the world witnessed two important conferences aimed at guaranteeing social and environmental rights. The Stockholm+50 conference, held in June, celebrated 50 years of global environmental governance. The celebration considered the role of the UN Conference of 1972, when, for example, the UNEP (United Nations Environment Program) was created. The indigenous leader Txai Suruí was present at the event. In an interview with Conectas, she said that indigenous peoples can contribute to the climate and environmental debate on a global level. 

The UN also staged the 27th Climate Conference, COP27, in Egypt. The event drew special attention to Brazil due to the presence of the president-elect Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The former environment minister Izabella Teixeira, co-chair of the International Resource Panel, the science-policy platform of UNEP, told Conectas that the presence of Lula at the COP takes the conversation to a whole other level. “It is important for Brazil to view the Amazon as a catalyst for national interests and for the common vision of cooperation on the climate issue, not only for mitigation, but also for adaptation. This is reflected in the bilateral, trilateral and regional relations.” 

For an end to torture

The dismantling of the system to combat torture in Brazil was denounced by Conectas and Justiça Global at the UN Human Rights Council in March. In their statement, the organizations asked the Council to pay attention to the worsening human rights situation in Brazil and they called on the Brazilian government to adopt concrete policies for the combat and prevention of torture. The same request had already been made in February, when the SPT (Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture) visited the country and asked the authorities to respect international human rights commitments. It was the third time in 10 years that the SPT visited Brazil to assess the agenda for combating torture.

Also in March, the Supreme Court unanimously suspended the effects of decree 9,831/19, of President Jair Bolsonaro, which discharged the 11 experts who worked on the MNPCT (National Mechanism to Combat and Prevent Torture), transforming their activities into unpaid work. Several organizations that work on fighting torture in Brazil, including Conectas, are participating in the judgment as amici curiae.

Criminalization of activism

A series of legislative bills to change and expand the scope of anti-terrorist policy in Brazil raised concerns among civil society in 2022. Among them were bills 732/2022, 733/2022, 1595/2019 and 272/2016. During a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, in March, Conectas and Article 19 denounced Bills 1595/2019 and 272/2016, both of which proposed to change and expand the scope of anti-terrorist actions in Brazil. In their statement, the organizations asked the Council to question the Brazilian State about the fulfillment of international obligations and commitments assumed by the country. 

In a visit to Brazil in March, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Clément Voule, expressed concern over the same bills. According to his observations, these bills “have been able to advance in the legislative process and are based on broad conceptions of terrorism that will make legislation an easy instrument for criminalizing activism”.

The abuses of the Military Justice system

In March, the situation of the Military Justice system was the topic of a public hearing at the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), a body of the OAS (Organization of American States). The hearing was requested by Conectas, Justiça Global, IBAHRI (International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute), Terra de Direitos and IDDD (Defense of the Right to a Defense Institute).

According to experts in public security and combating institutional violence, the problems of the Military Justice system are related to the fact that these courts have overstepped their constitutional bounds and international standards, by going beyond strictly military activity.

In October, Conectas and the Diversity Committee of the Getúlio Vargas Foundation (FGV Diversidade) released a Technical Report on the Military Justice system. The document reinforces the need for investigation, systematization and exposure of the Brazilian Military Justice system. By conducting a historical, technical and practical analysis of the Military Justice system, Conectas and FGV Diversidade drew attention to the cases of abuse and highlighted the importance of vigilance by civil society with regard to accountability for people who have the training and legitimacy to use force on behalf of the State.

Eyeing the OECD 

Over the course of the year, Conectas, OECD Watch and FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) published a series of reports (available in English and Portuguese) showing how Brazil is deficient in issues such as combating climate change and deforestation; protecting the environment, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders; and workers’ rights. According to the organizations, the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) should not approve Brazil’s membership until the country presents legislative changes, policies and good practices of environmental protection and human rights that are in line with the organization’s standards and values. 

In October, the NGOs also sent a letter to the OECD requesting that the institution demand high standards from Brazil in terms of safeguarding the environment, the climate and indigenous peoples. “As we have seen in recent years and as we explain in the letter, the government of President Jair Bolsonaro has presided over record levels of deforestation and increased human rights violations for the sake of agricultural expansion,” reads the document. “We urge the OECD to demand that, in order to gain membership, Brazil must carry out significant policy reforms in these areas and show signs of progress as a precondition to join the OECD.” The country is still in the process of joining the organization. 

Rampant disinformation

During the election process, it was not uncommon to hear people repeating lies about electronic voting machines and engaging in incitement against the democratic order. According to a survey by the journalism platform “Aos Fatos”, President Jair Bolsonaro made 5,588 false or misleading statements in his 1,270 days as president.

In June, Conectas and Article 19 denounced the disinformation promoted by public authorities in the UN Human Rights Council. “Among the waves of misleading information that we see in Brazil is the questioning of the integrity of the Brazilian electoral system, including by public authorities and President Jair Bolsonaro himself,” said the organizations. “Casting doubt on the electoral system is an attack against its functioning and against the Democratic State, and it dangerously encourages actions against its institutions”.

Civil society also called for accountability from large technology companies. In July, a group of 115 organizations and academics researchers released a document asking for more effective measures from digital media platforms during the election period. After the second-round runoff, given the increase in calls for uprising and military intervention, the pressure was maintained. “This transparency is essential for society and the authorities to identify what is being done at this dangerous time of uprising against the democratic order,” said the organizations in a statement submitted to the companies. 

Agenda for the first 100 days of government

The Criminal Justice Network, a group of civil society organizations of which Conectas is a member, released in September its agenda of proposals for the 2022 elections. The document, called “It’s for Justice”, presents five urgent topics to be addressed in the first 100 days of government related to criminal justice and public security. The agenda claims that the criminal policy adopted in Brazil has actually increased crime, making it the country with the highest absolute number of murders on the planet and the eighth most violent country in the world, according to the ranking of the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). The items on the agenda are: the prison system, criminal justice, drug policy, combat and prevention of torture, gun control and police lethality. 

Murder of Bruno Pereira and Dom Phillips

The deaths of the Brazilian indigenist Bruno Pereira and the British journalist Dom Phillips shocked the world in June. The two men were murdered during an expedition to the Javari Valley in the Amazon, the stage of conflicts involving drug trafficking, illegal logging and wildcat mining. In the same month, Conectas and the Arns Commission denounced, at the UN, the delay in investigations into the case.

“The murders of Bruno and Dom demonstrate the growing risks faced by those who dare to defend the environment in Brazil and indigenous communities, which are facing a historic setback under the government of Jair Bolsonaro,” said the organizations in their statement.

Despite calls for the arrest of some suspects, the case remains unresolved. “It’s been 5 months since the death of Bruno and Dom. Authorities responsible for resolving the case have been so slow! It seems that the investigations are being carried out in an ineffective way or have simply been stopped,” said Univaja (Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley) in a statement released in December.

Society calls on BNDES for more climate commitment 

In June, Conectas filed with the Federal Courts of Brasilia a climate litigation case that is unprecedented in the world. For the first time ever, a non-governmental organization called on a development bank, in this case the BNDESPar – the subsidiary of the BNDES (Brazilian Development Bank) responsible for managing the shareholder interests in companies held by the bank – to publish a plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions that will guide its investments according to the targets of the Paris Agreement and the PNMC (National Policy on Climate Change). 

“BNDESPar has significant shareholdings in the oil and gas, meat production and electricity sectors, and, until recently, in mining. These are all sectors with sizable environmental and social impacts and greenhouse gas emissions,” said Júlia Neiva, coordinator of the Defense of Socioenvironmental Rights program at Conectas. “What we want is for the bank’s investment portfolio to be aligned with the Paris Agreement and to start contributing to the reduction of emissions in accordance with the National Climate Change Policy.”

Gun-free elections

Episodes of political violence involving firearms – such as the death of the municipal guard Marcelo Arruda, a member of the Workers Party (PT), by a Bolsonaro supporter – have reignited the debate on gun control in Brazil. In September, by nine votes to two, the Supreme Court suspended excerpts of federal decrees from 2019 that amended the Disarmament Act (Law 10,826/2003) to facilitate the bearing of arms. The Court’s ruling was given as part of ADI (Direct Action of Unconstitutionality) No. 6139 and was in line with an injunction granted by the rapporteur of the case, Justice Edson Fachin. Only the justices André Mendonça and Nunes Marques voted against the rapporteur.

Also in September, the Superior Electoral Court unanimously passed a resolution banning the transport of guns and ammunition anywhere in the country by so-called CACs (collectors, sports shooters and hunters), both on election day and also 24 hours before and afterwards.

In a statement about the case, Conectas and nine other civil society organizations expressed concern over CACs because “the increase in licenses in this category has not been accompanied by the development of control and inspection mechanisms to reduce the potential impact on public order and security from hundreds of thousands of people in the country bearing arms”. 

The ruling by the Superior Electoral Court, however, did not prevent the occurrence of violent episodes, such as the pursuit of a black man by an armed pro-Bolsonaro member of Congress, Carla Zambelli, the day before the second-round runoff. 

Crimes of May all year

Sixteen years since the occurrence of the Crimes of May, the Superior Court of Justice decided to federalize the investigation into a shooting that took place within the context of these crimes in 2006, which remains unpunished to this day. The request to federalize the case was filed with the Office of the Prosecutor-General in 2009 by the families of the victims and by Conectas, a concerned party in the legal case. The Office only processed the request in 2016 and was it accepted by the Superior Court of Justice in August of 2022. As a result, the Court recognizes the failings of state government bodies in the handling of the case. 

At the time of the crime, death squads killed more than 500 people and injured 110 – the majority residents of the urban outskirts of São Paulo, many of whom had no connection to crime – in response to a series of prison riots and attacks on government agents organized by a criminal gang. The case was one of the examples submitted by Conectas to the UN in September, when it demanded concrete measures from Brazil against enforced disappearance, at the 51st session of the Human Rights Council. The organization stated that “the complacency of the highest level of the police contributes to the State’s lack of accountability” and pointed out that these disappearances mostly affect black people.

The complaint submitted by the São Paulo Public Defender’s Office, Conectas and the Mothers of May Movement to the IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights), of the OAS (Organization of American States), to investigate cases of enforced disappearances that occurred during the Crimes of May is now in the admissibility stage. There are three cases in the Commission on the Crimes of May. 

Also in 2022, Conectas, together with the Mothers of May Movement, the Forensic Archeology and Anthropology Center of the Federal University of São Paulo and Harvard University, released a technical statement to guide the implementation of specialized centers for providing comprehensive care for victims of state violence.

UPR and CERD: accountability

In November 2022, Brazil underwent its fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a form of accountability in the field of human rights to which UN Member States are submitted approximately every four years. The process analyzes the problems identified by civil society; what the country says about itself; and the compilation of reports from UN agencies on human rights in the country.

In 2022, Conectas sent contributions to the UN on twelve different topics: defense of civil society; migration and asylum; gender and equality issues; deforestation, environment and indigenous peoples; combating slave labor; racial affirmative action; mining and affected people; combating torture; military justice; police lethality; the right to vote; and homeless people. 

During the review, which occurred in Geneva, Switzerland, respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, in particular the need for the recognition and demarcation of their territories, and the protection of environmental and human rights defenders were among the recommendations made repeatedly by Member States. Moreover, unlike in previous years, when public security was more prominent, this time the fight against racism and violence against the black population were highlighted. 

In an article on the UN website, the Resident Coordinator in Brazil, Sílvia Rucks, and the representative for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in South America, Jan Jarab, noted that “the recommendations of the fourth cycle of the UPR are an opportunity for Brazil to strengthen its work on human rights and must be appropriated by the three branches of the Brazilian State, and also guide the actions of the new administration.”

At the same time, Brazil was subjected to an analysis by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. According to the Committee, the public policies to combat racial inequalities adopted by Brazil over the last two decades – mainly based on demands from social movements and civil society organizations – have still not been sufficient to overcome structural and institutional racism in the country, while the dismantling of these policies by the federal administration that is now ending made their implementation, consolidation and expansion even more difficult.

This assessment was made by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) of the United Nations. Based in Geneva, Switzerland, the Committee analyzed, in November and December of this year, the actions taken since 2004 by Brazil to implement the provisions contained in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, of 1965.

Indigenous and traditional peoples on the front line

The Bolsonaro government and the National Congress, in multiple attempts to weaken legislation and the protection of indigenous peoples, have demonstrated a lack of commitment to defending the rights of indigenous and traditional peoples in Brazil. Over the course of 2022, the many complaints lodged with the international human rights system made this clear. During the year, civil society organizations, including Conectas, denounced the situation facing native peoples in Brazil in different international forums, such as in March at the UN Human Rights Council, when Conectas exposed the risks of Bill 191/2020, which sought to permit mining, including wildcat mining, electricity generation and oil and natural gas exploration and production on indigenous lands. In September, the UN Human Rights Council received two more complaints from Brazilian indigenous women against environmental and human rights crimes that are taking place in the Brazilian Amazon. 

People from quilombola communities also participated in environmental and social struggles in response to the dismantling of public policies by the federal government. During the Covid-19 pandemic, quilombola communities had to go to court to get protection. In this process, they were able to raise the first numbers referring to their communities, with the support of partners. “These partnerships are essential in fostering, strengthening and providing help and support during the process of raising awareness about the importance of quilombos,” said Antônio Crioulo, an anthropologist and quilombola person from the state of Pernambuco who is executive coordinator of the National Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities.

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