Retrospective 2023: New federal government and the challenges of enforcing public policies on human rights
After four years of intense setbacks in human rights public policies, the government that began in 2023 guarantees more stability but also poses new challenges
Documento emitido pela ONU em 1949, ano seguinte da adoção na Assembleia Geral das Nações Unidas da Declaração Universal dos Direitos Humanos. Foto: Dimitar DILKOFF / AFP
Brazil began the year 2023 witnessing the start of a new federal government. However, the extremist and anti-rights forces remained active. The attacks on the buildings of the three branches of government on January 8 are a symbolic example of this. The phenomenon is global. As such, Conectas engaged with international partners that have faced the rise of the far right in an attempt to think about ways to guarantee human rights in any context.
The defense of human rights is still an ongoing struggle, even though the new government was elected with a commitment to develop public policies capable of confronting social and economic inequalities.
The Supreme Court and other courts were frequently asked to rule in favor of these rights. Conectas participated in important judgments over the course of the year. These included the ADPF Black Lives Case, the Special Appeal on Racial Profiling, the ADPF Case on the Unconstitutional State of Affairs in the Brazilian Prison System, the ADPF Abortion Case, as well as a number of so-called Green Agenda cases.
In Congress, the battle, as always, was tough, illustrating the federal government’s difficulties with regard to the human and socio-environmental rights agendas – issues that project Brazil internationally. The approval of the “time frame” thesis for the demarcation of indigenous lands was one of the measures pushed through. The approval of criminal justice policies such as the new organic law for the military police is also a concern.
On the matter of combating racism, some measures taken by the Ministry of Racial Equality and Human Rights stand out. Civil society, however, continued to call for these programs to be more effective. The presence of mothers of victims of deadly state violence in Brasília to demand an end to violence against black people from poor neighborhoods is an example of how social movements and human rights organizations are committed to structural changes.
The country faced an alarming amount of police violence, specifically large numbers of deaths caused by police officers in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. Historical problems and the negative legacy of the previous government persisted, such as the collapse of policies to combat institutional violence, demonstrated by Operation Shield and the refusal by police to use body cameras.
The year was also marked by the murder of the Afro-Brazilian priestess Bernadete Pacífico, leader of the Pitanga dos Palmares quilombo settlement in Bahia and the National Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (Conaq), and by the death of the indigenous leader Tymbektodem Arara. Both were leading figures in the fight for the rights of native and traditional peoples.
Among the international highlights, Conectas successfully registered with the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). We accompanied the reviews of the Brazilian State in Treaty Bodies, and saw a case against Brazil accepted by the Committee against Torture (CAT) for the first time. The organization also attended international forums specializing in climate discussions, such as the Amazon Summit and COP28. On these occasions, it defended a fair energy transition without violations of social and environmental rights.
On the world stage, wars and conflicts have posed a threat to the consensus on human rights and required joint actions from human rights organizations to defend the lives of all people. Between victories and challenges, it was necessary to work hard to ensure the consolidation of inclusive policies and the strengthening of fundamental guarantees at the international and domestic level.
See the highlights of the Retrospective 2023 of Conectas:
Indigenous rights and climate policy
On January 1, on his first day in office, President Lula reestablished environmental funding programs, such as the Amazon Fund and the FNMA (National Environment Fund), the oldest environmental fund in Latin America. Furthermore, Lula also announced the banning of artisanal mining on indigenous lands.
Also in January, the president visited the Yanomami indigenous lands, one day after the Ministry of Health declared a public health emergency due to a lack of health care for the local populations. In doing so, Lula reinforced the idea that indigenous rights will be a priority in his administration.
Violence against these people, however, did not stop. In June, the São Paulo State Military Police violently repressed a peaceful protest staged by the Guarani people of the Jaraguá Indigenous Land against Bill 490/2007 (Time Frame). The Federal and São Paulo State Public Defender’s Offices, Conectas Human Rights and other organizations demanded information and measures after the repression.
In September, during the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council, in Geneva, alongside the Maíra Institute and the Indigenous Association of the Arara People of Cachoeira Seca – KOWIT, Conectas denounced the violation of indigenous rights in Brazil, in particular the situation in the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Land, in the state of Pará.
The indigenous leader Tymbektodem Arara, a notable and inspiring figure from the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Land, died shortly after returning from the mission to the UN, in October. Tymbektodem left an invaluable legacy for the recently-contacted Arara people and for the whole indigenous community of Brazil. Due to the lack of transparency surrounding the circumstances of the death, KOWIT, together with the Maíra Institute and Conectas, reinforced their request for the Federal Police in Pará to conduct a swift and full investigation into the case, which still has no answers.
Migration and asylum policy
In January, Brazil officially announced its return to the Global Compact for Migration. The country had withdrawn from the agreement at the start of the Bolsonaro government, on the claim that it posed a threat to national sovereignty. The decision was widely criticized by Conectas at the time.
In June, the conclusions were published of the new survey “Opinions on Migrations”, conducted by the polling firm Datafolha together with Conectas. According to the survey, 61% of Brazilians think the national government should have more policies and services in place for vulnerable migrants. Among the other data, most Brazilians believe that migrants are well received in Brazil, but that the quality of their reception depends mainly on their skin color, race and ethnicity.
In September, 38 organizations, including Conectas, signed a petition expressing their concern over a new government rule, Inter-Ministerial Order No. 42, which limits the right to migrate and apply for international protection. The new rule runs counter to important measures taken by the government on this matter, especially with regard to the difficult situation in Afghanistan.
In addition to restoring funding for environmental programs, on the first day of his government, Lula also abolished policies that made gun ownership easier. Data from the last Annual Security Report published by the Brazilian Public Security Forum revealed that, under the Bolsonaro government, there was an increase of 473% in the number of people with gun licenses.
In July, 30 civil society organizations, including Conectas, celebrated the publication of a decree establishing new regulations for control of guns and ammunition. Among the new rules are a reduction in the number of weapons permitted per person, a restriction on access to larger caliber guns and a return of State control over private collections.
Conectas condemned and called for accountability for the storming of the Presidential Palace, the Supreme Court and the National Congress on January 8. Besides Conectas, more than 40 foreign governments, organizations and international observers have expressed their criticism of the attacks. António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, also condemned “the assault on Brazil’s democratic institutions”. He went on to say that “the will of the Brazilian people and the country’s institutions must be respected”.
Decriminalization of abortion in Brazil
In January, the Ministry of Health repealed six ministerial orders signed by the Jair Bolsonaro government which, it claimed, conflicted with public health system guidelines. The repealed orders include one (Order No. 2,561) that required the medical team to notify the police about abortions in cases of rape. Furthermore, the Brazilian government also withdrew from the Geneva Consensus Declaration on Promoting Women’s Health and Strengthening the Family, an ultra-conservative alliance that defends a restrictive concept of family and opposes the right to abortion, including in legal cases.
In September, before retiring, Supreme Court Justice Rosa Weber included on the court’s case schedule, in a virtual session, the case that calls for the decriminalization of abortion in Brazil. The case, filed in 2017 by the Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL), with technical support from Anis – Bioethics Institute, asks that abortions performed with the consent of the pregnant person cease to be a crime until the 12th week of pregnancy. Weber voted for decriminalization, and her vote remains valid even after retirement. The current president of the Supreme Court, Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, has said, however, that he does not plan to resume the judgment. During the 54th session of the UN Human Rights Council, five civil society organizations, among them Conectas, made a statement in favor of approving the case.
Military crimes in the Civil Justice system
In February, the Supreme Court once again analyzed whether members of the Armed Forces who commit crimes against civilians when conducting public security activities should be judged by the Civil Justice system. The case, within the scope of ADI Case (Direct Action of Unconstitutionality) No. 5032, filed in 2013 by the Office of the Prosecutor General, asks the Supreme Court to rule as unconstitutional passages of legislation (Complementary Law No. 136/2010) that extends the jurisdiction of the Military Justice system, enabling military courts to judge colleagues who commit crimes against the life of civilians. Conectas, together with the Torture Never Again Group, the Federal Public Defender’s Office and the Brazilian Criminal Sciences Institute, was admitted as an amicus curiae in the case.
In February, the São Paulo State Court resumed its analysis of a public civil action, filed by Conectas in 2014, that calls for the São Paulo state government to be convicted of moral damages for conducting demeaning intimate searches of the relatives of prisoners during visits to the Pre-Trial Detention Centers I and II in Guarulhos, between 2011 and 2013. The court recognized the practice as illegal and ruled that the case return to the trial court stage for judgment.
In November, Conectas and Amparar (Association of Families and Friends of Prisoners and Inmates of Fundação Casa Youth Reform Centers) launched a booklet called “Invisible Bars”, reinforcing the criminal nature of state violence against family members and visitors of prisoners in Brazil.
Launch of the Sur Journal
“Possible futures: Is there a new normal?” was the topic of the issue of Sur – International Journal on Human Rights, published by Conectas and released in February. This 32nd issue of the journal compiles reflections on the human rights movement in the midst of a global political, economic and health crisis. In April, Conectas staged a round table conversation with the journal’s contributing authors, on the topics covered in the issue.
At the start of the year, the rescue of 207 men working in slave labor conditions in a vineyard in the state of Rio Grande do Sul shed light on the racism and precarious work conditions in Brazil. In March, during the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, Conectas, Adere-MG (Rural Workers Alliance of the State of Minas Gerais), Business Human Rights Resource Center and Oxfam Brasil called on the international community to reject production from slave labor conditions in the country, presenting data from the document “Dismantling and setbacks in the system to combat slave labor in Brazil,” drafted by the organizations in 2022.
Eradication of torture
The role of the Brazilian State in combating torture was the subject of a complaint filed by Conectas at the UN in March. At the 52nd session of the UN Human Rights Council, the organization highlighted the weakening of the National System to Combat and Prevent Torture during the government of Jair Bolsonaro.
In April, the Committee against Torture conducted a review of Brazil with regard to the measures adopted to combat the practice of torture in the country – a process carried out periodically for all signatories of the United Nations Convention Against Torture. The review consisted of an analysis of the reports submitted by the government and by Brazilian civil society organizations, including Conectas. The previous Brazilian review occurred 20 years ago on account of delays by the State submitting its reports.
In May, the Committee released its conclusions on the review, with measures that ought to be taken to combat torture in the country. The report noted that torture is still common in Brazil, especially in prisons and peripheral urban and rural areas, and that Afro-Brazilians, indigenous and quilombola people, women and the LGBTI+ community are the main victims. The Committee asked Brazil to provide, by 12 May 2024, information on the measures adopted in response to its recommendations. Conectas also accompanied the inspections carried out by the National Mechanism to Combat and Prevent Torture in detention facilities in São Paulo. During the visits, several human rights violations were found.
Brazil rejects anti-LGBTQIA+ recommendations
Brazil rejected recommendations made by other UN member states in the 4th cycle of its Universal Periodic Review, in a session held at the UN Human Rights Council in March. The recommendations limited the definition of family and discriminated against LGBTQIA+ persons. “Brazil’s national public policies are geared towards all types of family, without any type of discrimination,” said the Brazilian Ambassador to the UN, Tovar da Silva Nunes. Conectas participated in the 4th Cycle of the UPR by sending thematic reports on the human rights situation in the country. The organization is also part of the UPR Group, a coalition of civil society organizations that accompanies and influences the review process.
In March, the Supreme Court started its judgment of a case of habeas corpus with a collective dimension on police stops conducted without objective criteria or based only on skin color, otherwise known as racial profiling. To reinforce the analysis of the justices, eight human rights organizations, including Conectas, filed an amicus brief arguing that the practice, as it occurs today, is discriminatory.
In an article in the Folha de S.Paulo newspaper, the philosopher and executive coordinator of the organization Geledés and member of the Board of Trustees of Conectas, Sueli Carneiro, the director of litigation and advocacy at Conectas, Gabriel Sampaio, and the president of the Board of Trustees of Conectas, Theo Dias, wrote that this “judgment in which both male and female black lawyers denounced from the stand the racism inherent in police practices was symptomatic in a court made up of nine white male judges and two white female judges”. Also in March, Conectas denounced racial profiling in the UN, calling on Brazil to urgently combat structural and institutional racism. The judgment was suspended in the Supreme Court.
Definition of terrorism
In March, six Brazilian NGOs, including Conectas, asked the UN Human Rights Council to question Brazil about proposed legislation seeking to expand the definition of terrorism. One example is Bill 3283/2021, approved in May by the Senate and now pending in the Lower House of Congress. According to the organizations, this expansion could be used to criminalize legitimate protests and peaceful demonstrations. A document was also sent to lawmakers, stating that “the wide-ranging scope of the expression ‘civil disturbances’ [in the bill] flies in the face of international human rights standards and, essentially, implies a curbing of constitutional rights and guarantees”.
Conectas in the OAS and UNFCCC
In April, Conectas became an organization registered at the OAS (Organization of American States). This means that Conectas can now present Brazilian civil society’s position to the meetings of the Permanent Council and the Inter-American Council for Integral Development, and it can also contribute to resolutions that influence regional human rights policies at the body’s General Assembly.
Conectas was also accepted as an observer organization to the UNFCCC (Framework Convention on Climate Change). As a result, it can continue its international advocacy work in climate negotiations, including by supporting other organizations.
Torture in the Prison System
In April, together with the IBCCRIM (Brazilian Criminal Sciences Institute), Conectas filed a complaint with the UN warning of the “serious humanitarian crisis” to which persons deprived of liberty are subjected in the prison system in the state of Rio Grande do Norte. The complaint also contained reports of the systematic practice of torture and punishment, such as electric shocks to the feet, and the identification of skin lesions found on several people in the Alcaçuz prison.
At the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council, in June, Conectas drew the attention of the international community once again to the deaths that have occurred in Brazilian prisons and the violation of the right to memory, justice and truth of the families of victims of violence in the country.
In July, the São Paulo Public Defender’s Office and Conectas submitted another complaint, this time to the UN Committee against Torture (CAT). This complaint, which was accepted in September, was lodged against Brazil for torture and other human rights violations committed by police officers from the Rapid Intervention Unit against prisoners in Presidente Prudente, in the state of São Paulo. It was the first ever Brazilian case to be accepted by the CAT.
Also in September, the Supreme Court recognized the unconstitutional state of affairs in the Brazilian prison system and ordered the federal government to draw up an action plan to solve the problem of widespread fundamental rights violations in the country’s prisons.
The organization also participated in the Mission of the National Mechanism to Combat and Prevent Torture, conducted in the state of São Paulo.
Victims of deadly state violence
In partnership with the Independent Mothers of May Movement and the Center for Forensic Archeology and Anthropology at the Federal University of São Paulo (CAAF/UNIFESP), Conectas launched a project – supported by the United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) – to strengthen the fight for justice and memory of victims of state violence in Brazil.
In June, mothers from several Brazilian states who are fighting against deadly state violence traveled to Brasília in a delegation formed by various different movements and organizations. In the federal capital, they met with representatives of the federal government and other authorities. They demanded, among other things, actions to reduce violence in poor neighborhoods and against the black population, and policies to assist victims, including the relatives of victims of deadly violence.
In April, civil society organizations, including Conectas, released the document “The regulation of digital platforms in Brazil: the position of civil society and academic organizations”, which defends the need to implement a new regulatory framework for digital platforms in Brazil. One of the points defended by the organizations is the creation of a new independent and autonomous regulatory body. Furthermore, in June, the Articulation Room against Disinformation (SAD), an initiative formed by organizations like Conectas, launched a new document containing points of consensus on the Fake News Bill (Bill 2630/2020). The document argues that the bill should include responsibility for boosted content, transparency and the establishment of a regulatory body in order to achieve the best possible regulation of digital platforms in Brazil.
Vinícius Júnior case
In May, civil society organizations delivered a letter to the Delegation of the European Union in Brazil in response to another case of racism against the soccer player Vinícius Júnior, of Real Madrid, Spain – a member of the EU. More than 160 organizations, among them Conectas, urged the adoption of measures to combat racism not only in the context of soccer, but across the whole of society, particularly in the countries of the bloc.
Just energy transition
In May, the grassroots organization Construindo Poder Popular, the Rural Landless Workers Movement, the Terramar Institute and Conectas joined forces with the group Articulação Povos de Luta (ARPOLU), which is made up of coastal communities in the state of Ceará, to denounce the violation of laws by the state, in the first public hearing on the construction of offshore wind power projects – which consist of plants built on the ocean, in disregard of the concept of just energy transition. During the hearing, leaders and civil society organizations denounced violations involving disregard for environmental licensing procedures, lack of consultation and free, prior and informed consent and dynamics of environmental racism.
In defense of civil society space
In June, Conectas staged at the headquarters of the UN, in Geneva (Switzerland), a side event together with the organization Terra de Direitos to speak to Clément Voule, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and of Association. The organizations discussed the report that Voule prepared on Brazil, based on a visit made in 2022, the recommendations presented to the State and other points that should be considered for the protection of civil society.
Death of human rights defenders
In August, the country was shocked by the brutal murder of the Afro-Brazilian priestess Bernadete Pacífico, leader of both the Pitanga dos Palmares quilombo settlement and the National Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (Conaq). Together with Conaq, Conectas called on the authorities for an immediate investigation and accountability for those involved in the case. The killing of the religious leader illustrates both ongoing violence against black women and quilombola leaders, and religious racism, a reflection of the structural racism and the hegemony of Christianity in the country. The topic is discussed in an e-book launched by the organizations Criola, Conectas and Portal Catarinas, with the support of Synergia.
Another death that shocked Brazil was that of the indigenous leader Tymbektodem Arara, in October. The teacher and scholar of the Arara language was president of the Kowit Association, of the Cachoeira Seca Indigenous Land, in the state of Pará. Together with other organizations, Conectas reinforced the request for the Federal Police in Pará to conduct a swift and full investigation into the case.
In August, the Pará state capital of Belém hosted the Amazon Summit, an event that preceded COP28. On the occasion, President Lula gave a preview of the tone adopted by Brazil and other countries with tropical forests in climate negotiations. “We are going to COP28 with the aim of telling the rich world that if they want to effectively preserve what is left of the forest, they need to put money not just into looking after the forest canopy, but into looking after the people who live there,” said the president.
COP28, in turn, took place in December, in the United Arab Emirates. Conectas and other Brazilian civil society organizations participated in the event. Among the demands submitted was the staging of a just energy transition that respects human and socio-environmental rights.
The year 2023 saw the historic ruling by the Supreme Court to overturn the “time frame” thesis. In September, nine of the 11 justices considered the thesis to be unconstitutional.
In October, the same subject – which was also pending as Bill 2903 and intended to transform the time frame into law — was approved by Congress. Eleven organizations, including Conectas, sent an urgent appeal to the UN against the measure. The request, which denounced the unconstitutionality of the bill, was also sent to the Presidency of the Republic and to other ministries. President Lula signed the bill into law, making it the country’s first ordinary law on the demarcation of Indigenous Lands, but he vetoed several aspects of the bill, including the time frame thesis. Despite the indigenous mobilization, the National Congress overturned the presidential veto in early December.
In September, Conectas and the Mothers of May Movement filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Council regarding the violations that occurred during Operation Shield in the Baixada Santista region of the state of São Paulo. The operation was launched in response to the death of a military police officer and resulted in the death of at least 28 people in 40 days. Also in September, the São Paulo Public Defender’s Office and Conectas filed a public civil action asking the courts to require the São Paulo state government to install body cameras on police officers involved in the operation.
Although research shows that cameras are important for preserving the lives of both officers and citizens, the São Paulo State Court ruled in December that military police officers are not required to wear cameras.
In partnership with mostly black researchers, civil society and the German Consulate, Conectas developed a series of studies on the use of cameras by agents of the State, highlighting, on the one hand, the importance of public policy for preserving life and, on the other, the many shortcomings in control and security in the use of technology.
Gender parity in the justice system
In September, by a majority vote, the National Justice Council passed a regulatory act to implement a gender rotation system for positions in appeals courts in the Brazilian justice system. The courts will have to post public notices for positions that alternate between mixed and exclusive lists until there is parity between men and women. In his oral statement, Gabriel Sampaio, director of advocacy and litigation at Conectas, said there needs to be a radical commitment to addressing equality.
Brazil in the UN Human Rights Council
In October, eight months after the Brazilian government had submitted its candidacy to once again become a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the country was elected for a three-year mandate. Conectas, which has a long tradition of monitoring this electoral process, participated in the hearing. 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 organization wanted to know how the Brazilian government intends to guarantee compliance with the recommendations of the UN Committee against Torture, which recommends the decriminalization of voluntary termination of pregnancy. The delegation responded that the 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 structural inequalities.
Quota law: 10 years
After just over 10 years, in November 2023, the Quota Law was revised and signed by President Lula. Conectas listed some of the changes that came into effect after the revision, such as the inclusion in the policy of people from quilombola communities. Moreover, socially vulnerable students who apply for quotas will have priority for receiving student aid. Another change states that federal universities will have to expand their affirmative action policies for postgraduate studies. The revision also establishes that, every 10 years, the ministries responsible for the quota program must conduct another evaluation.
War and humanitarian situation in Gaza
In October, high-ranking leaders of the United Nations called for an immediate end to the escalation of the conflict between Hamas and Israel. In speeches and statements to the press, authorities expressed concerns regarding both the scale of the violence and the multiple violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law that have intensified. Conectas backed appeals by the UN authorities to protect civilians and resolve the conflict and joined other global organizations calling for weapons to not be supplied to the Israeli army.
Ideas Fair: an encounter of civil society
Conectas and Sesc 24 de Maio staged on December 2 and 3 the 7th Ideas Fair, an event held to mark International Human Rights Day, celebrated on December 10. The Fair featured 20 projects focused on topics such as gender equity, LGBTQIA + rights, menstrual poverty and antiracism. The idea was to bring together activists, groups, researchers and journalists to share experiences and methodologies that contribute to the realization of human rights.