In 1948, ravaged by the horrors of two world wars in a relatively short space of time, several countries came together to form the UN (United Nations). With the brutality of Nazism still in recent memory, the idea was to guarantee an environment of peace in which no human being would have their rights violated. This was the context in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was born.
Containing 30 concise articles, the declaration to this day inspires international treaties and domestic legislation in several countries. “The document is important because, for the first time, it was recognized that human rights and fundamental freedoms apply to all people, regardless of nationality,” said Gustavo Huppes, international advocacy advisor at Conectas.
Despite its importance, the limited scope of its articles increased the need for treaties to flesh out the two sets of rights outlined in the document: civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights. As such, 1966 saw the creation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – which has been in effect since 1976, when the minimum number of 35 accessions was achieved.
Brazil only ratified the document in 1992, after which it assumed responsibility for protecting the fundamental rights contained therein.
This year, the implementation of the Covenant in Brazil is undergoing a review process, which includes the participation of the members of the Human Rights Committee – responsible for supervising the implementation at the global level – and civil society. Conectas is participating in this process and has submitted reports to the Committee on Brazil’s review.
To understand the relevance of the Covenant and the review process, we have prepared some questions and answers.
The ICCPR is an international treaty that offers a number of protections of civil and political rights. Its signatories agree to commit to preserving basic human rights, such as: the right to life and human dignity; equality before the law; freedom of expression, assembly and association; religious freedom and privacy; freedom from torture, mistreatment and arbitrary detention; gender equality; the right to a fair trial; family life and the family unit; and rights of minorities.
It is a committee formed by 18 independent and recognized experts in the field of human rights. It was set up to monitor the implementation of the ICCPR. Its members are elected for four-year terms from among the countries that have ratified the treaty. Current members, elected in 2019, are from Albania, Canada, Chile, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Guyana, Israel, Japan, Latvia, Mauritania, Paraguay, Portugal, Slovenia, South Africa, Tunisia and Uganda.
States that are party to the Covenant must periodically report to the Committee with their own assessment of the implementation of the treaty at the national level. Once the report is submitted, a review cycle begins wherein the Committee members evaluate the document sent by the country and consultations are then held with civil society, which submit their own reports. After an initial assessment of the report submitted by the State, the Committee issues a list of topics it considers most important to address in the review process. After the publication of the list of topics, the State must send a new report responding to the questions and requests for detailed information on the topics listed as priority. The reports are then discussed in a dialogue between State representatives and Committee members, who also meet with civil society. Finally, once the process is complete, the Committee submits its conclusions and recommendations to the State, which should implement them over the course of the next review cycle.
The Committee meets three times per year for a three-week session at the Office of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. Every four years, the countries that have ratified the ICCPR are required to submit reports, in accordance with the guidelines of the treaty. The documents are evaluated by the Committee in public meetings, where concerns and recommendations are expressed.
There are six documents, which, based on the articles of the ICDCP, raise questions about violations in the following areas: 1) slave labor; 2) migration; 3) institutional violence; 4) indigenous peoples; 5) human rights defenders; 6) civic space. What follows is a sample of what appears in the reports.
Slave labor: according to Brazil’s Labor Inspection Information and Statistics Panel, 4,773 workers were rescued from slave labor conditions between 2017 and 2021. Nearly 80% were black men born in the Northeast of the country. In 2021 alone, 1,937 workers were rescued, exceeding the total number of people released in 2020 (936), which demonstrates a worsening of the situation that was also exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since 2014, public bodies such as the Labor Inspection Department have faced severe budget and personnel cuts, impacting the number of inspections and leaving workers in remote regions more vulnerable. Additionally, using the pandemic as an excuse, bills have been presented to Congress that propose to change the concept of slave labor and reduce the fundamental rights of the working class.
One of the suggestions in the report is to discourage the Brazilian State from presenting bills that aim to weaken its policy to combat contemporary slavery, while also recommending the adoption of measures to enforce the existing legislation on the subject.
Migration: during the pandemic, the Brazilian government issued 37 decrees that place restrictions on entry into the country, under the pretext of containing the spread of COVID-19. However, the decrees are illegal, unconstitutional and violate both national legislation and international human rights treaties ratified by Brazil.
As the report points out, among other matters, the Brazilian government should be questioned about why it has kept these illegal penalties in place for so long (almost two years), perpetuating fear and insecurity among vulnerable migrants and asylum seekers.
Institutional Violence: the ICCPR recognizes that equality of rights and respect for human dignity are foundations of freedom, justice and peace. This is why the document suggests that Brazil should be questioned specifically about how the treaty’s provisions have been applied in the country to overcome, redress and account for the period of slavery in the country. It is necessary to enforce the rights recognized by the ICCPR, by tackling structural racism and adopting concrete measures that range from reparations for discriminated peoples and communities, to accountability and the adoption of concrete and symbolic measures to guarantee the protection and promotion of human life.
Indigenous peoples: a number of bills that violate the rights of indigenous peoples are pending in the National Congress. The legislation proposes to strengthen the obstacles to land demarcation and threatens existing indigenous territories, by removing constitutional rights – for example the so-called “time frame” thesis, which states that indigenous peoples will only have a right to the lands that were in their possession on October 5, 1988, the date of promulgation of the Brazilian Constitution, ignoring the historical violations suffered by these peoples over the years. These are the most serious contemporary threats to indigenous peoples in Brazil.
Considering also that few and insufficient measures have been taken by the federal government to combat the novel coronavirus among indigenous peoples, the report argues that the Committee should question the Brazilian State about the measures adopted to comply with the precautionary measures of the IACHR and the rulings of the Supreme Court.
Human rights defenders: intrusions into indigenous territories increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, compounding violence against communities, environmental degradation and outbreaks of diseases. On the Yanomami Land, for example, threats and armed attacks are part of life. Against this backdrop, indigenous leaders and environmental activists have suffered successive attacks. According to a report from the NGO Global Witness, Brazil is one of the countries that most frequently kills, persecutes and intimidates activists.
On account of this, the document argues that the Committee should ask the Brazilian State to explain these attempts at intimidation and also find out what measures the Brazilian government has taken to protect environmental activists and indigenous leaders in recent years.
Civic space: the democratic space is contracting in Brazil, as the Executive Branch has employed the mechanisms at its disposal to fuel animosities and promote real attacks against social movements, advocacy groups and specific populations.
Records show, for example, that the average number of people investigated for crimes against national security was 9.3 per year between 2000 and 2017. In 2020, this number more than quadrupled. According to human rights organizations, this shows that the legislation created during the military dictatorship has been used as a political weapon for ideological persecution, creating an environment of widespread fear with serious consequences for individual rights and freedoms.
The document points out that the government of Brazil must answer for these violations, as well as for other issues that weaken the functioning of the democratic space.