Brazil: Secret Review of Key Human Rights Policy

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The Brazil Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights, Damares Alves, at an official event in Brasilia, on August 18, 2021.
© Fabio Rodrigues-Pozzebom /Agência Brasil

(São Paulo, Brazil) – The administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has refused to disclose basic information about its review of the most important statement of human rights policy in Brazil. A change in the rules on October 29, 2021 maintains the requirement to keep discussions secret.

A working group made up solely of officials from the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights started the review in February and was scheduled to complete it on November 1, 2021, but on October 29 the ministry postponed it till June 30, 2022.

Under rules issued in February, the working group could invite members of civil society to meetings, but in an October 29 news release, the ministry admitted that it had not. In the October 29 revisions, the ministry established that the working group “will invite” members of civil society and government bodies working on human rights issues. However, the ministry did not change the composition of the working group, which will continue to be made up exclusively of government officials, and the prohibition on those officials releasing any information about their discussions until they complete their work.

“The National Human Rights Program was the product of ample consultation, but the Bolsonaro administration is now reviewing it in secret, through a working group that does not include anyone who disagrees with the government,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Independent civil society representatives should be part of the working group. A promise to invite them to some meetings with no guarantee that their positions will be reflected in the final document sounds like a fig leaf to try to legitimize a process that continues to be shrouded in secrecy.”

The current National Human Rights Program, a policy that was put in place in 2010, establishes a roadmap of principles and measures to improve the protection of rights and liberties. It has served as the basis for adopting of other rights-respecting policies in Brazil.  

The ministry established the working group on February 10, with 14 members, all of them ministry officials. In response to criticism from Human Rights Watch and other organizations about the secrecy and lack of civil society participation in the working group, Damares Alves, the women, family, and human rights minister, said in a video released in March that the review would be “transparent” and that the working group would create a “mechanism” to ensure “broad popular participation.”

Human Rights Watch filed a freedom of information request asking what mechanism the working group had created to ensure transparency and participation by civil society. Human Rights Watch also asked for the meeting agendas, the issues discussed, and a list of civil society members, experts, organizations, or government bodies the working group had heard from or consulted. In responses on September 21 and September 30, the ministry said that the working group had held 19 meetings but declined to supply the requested information, asserting that the discussions were secret.

The ministry has also refused to provide basic information to the National Human Rights Council, its president, Yuri Costa, a federal public defender, told Human Rights Watch on October 14. The council, created by legislation, includes members from civil society, the judicial system, and the government, including a representative from the Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights. Although the council’s mission is to monitor human rights policies in Brazil, including the National Human Rights Program, the ministry did not make the council a member of the working group that is reviewing that program.

Brazil has established three National Human Rights Programs since the end of the dictatorship (1964-1985). All were drafted after ample, transparent public consultation. For the last revision, in 2008, the federal government under then-President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva established a working group consisting of representatives of civil society, Congress’s human rights commissions, prosecutors, judges, and public defenders, in addition to the executive branch. The working group organized a national conference that examined and updated the previous National Human Rights Program, which dated from 2002. It held additional regional meetings.

The Lula administration estimated that 14,000 people participated in the discussions.

The current program, adopted in 2010, resulted in the creation of a Truth Commission to investigate human rights abuses during Brazil’s dictatorship. It also calls for measures to protect people with disabilities from discrimination, reduce police killings, provide education on sexual and reproductive rights, and uphold freedom of speech, among other critically important initiatives.

The Bolsonaro administration has tried to undermine all those policies. It has opened the door to denying inclusive education to children with disabilities and establishing segregated schools for them. It has encouraged more police violence through public statements and legislative proposals. It has created new obstacles to accessing sexual and reproductive health services. The administration has sought criminal investigations into at least 17 critics, and President Jair Bolsonaro routinely blocks social media followers who criticize him, violating their free speech.

International human rights law requires governments to give the public access to information, including by placing information of public interest in the public domain. Whenever a decision-making process may substantially affect the way of life and culture of a minority group, governments are obligated to consult with affected communities. More broadly, transparency is a critically important element of public accountability and democratic governance, Human Rights Watch said.

The Vienna Declaration and Program of Action, adopted by the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights, affirms the vital contribution of civil society to the realization of human rights and says that countries should draft national action plans to achieve that goal. Brazil’s first National Human Rights Program, created in 1993 under then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, was the country’s response.

In 2002, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released a Handbook on National Human Rights Plans of Action that highlights the importance of consultative mechanisms and notes that a human rights action plan “will be much more effective if it is produced as a result of partnership between government and civil society rather than as a government-driven exercise.”

“By conducting a secret review of the country’s human rights policies, the Bolsonaro administration is violating the rights to access to information and to consultation with affected communities,” Canineu said. “This opaque process is particularly worrisome because the Bolsonaro administration has promoted policies that violate human rights, undermining many protections at the heart of the current program.”

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