Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro watches a military parade in front of the presidential palace in Brasilia on August 10, 2021.
© Matheus W Alves/Futura Press
(São Paulo) – Brazil’s democratic institutions should protect voting and speech rights leading to the October 2022 presidential elections from any attempt by President Jair Bolsonaro to subvert the electoral system or undermine the rule of law and fundamental freedoms, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2022.
In 2021, President Bolsonaro continued to spread false information about Covid-19 vaccines, and his government failed to address the huge impact of the pandemic on education. In October, a congressional inquiry reported other gaping failures in the government’s response to the pandemic and evidence of corruption in purchasing vaccines.
The Bolsonaro administration promoted anti-human rights policies in other areas, including Indigenous rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and free speech. Killings by the police have reached a record number, while Amazon deforestation soared to the highest level since 2006.
“President Bolsonaro has tried to undermine the foundations of democracy by attacking the judiciary and repeating baseless claims of electoral fraud,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “As the October presidential elections approach, the Supreme Court, the Superior Electoral Court, the Attorney General’s Office, Congress, and other democratic institutions should remain vigilant and resist any attempt by President Bolsonaro to deny Brazilians the right to elect their leaders.”
In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent.
The presidential and congressional elections will test the strength of Brazil’s democracy in the face of threats by President Bolsonaro, an ardent defender of Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship (1964-1985), Human Rights Watch said. In September, he pursued his latest campaign to intimidate the Supreme Court, which is overseeing criminal investigations into his conduct. He made false claims that appear designed to undermine respect for democratic election outcomes. The Supreme Court has forcefully rejected “threats to its independence and intimidation,” while the Superior Electoral Court refuted the president’s baseless claims of electoral fraud.
The Bolsonaro administration has also pursued prison sentences against at least 17 critics, including under a military-era National Security Law. Although many of the cases have been closed, such actions send the message that criticizing the president can lead to persecution. In August, Congress revoked the National Security Law, but it has not revoked similar penal code provisions that punish defamation with prison terms and can be used to stifle free speech.
President Bolsonaro has also blocked news organizations, civil society groups, and other users from social media accounts that he uses to share information of public interest or to discuss public affairs.
A congressional investigation showed that the government’s disastrous response to the pandemic has endangered Brazilians’ health and lives, including by disregarding scientific measures to contain the virus, promoting unproven drugs, and national and local failures to prevent oxygen shortages that likely contributed to deaths. The Attorney General’s Office should examine the report very seriously and file charges when the evidence warrants it, Human Rights Watch said.
Police killings reached their highest level on record in 2020, the latest figures. About 80 percent of victims were Black. In Rio de Janeiro, police flouted a Supreme Court order suspending raids in low-income neighborhoods during the pandemic except for “absolutely exceptional cases.” President Bolsonaro has encouraged police violence and introduced a bill to make it harder to hold abusive officers accountable.
While the administration promised in international forums to protect the Amazon, it pursued policies to accelerate its destruction. President Bolsonaro has promoted bills to deny many Indigenous peoples’ right to traditional lands and another bill to effectively legalize illegal mining operations in those lands. The government’s own data show Amazon deforestation reached its highest rate in 15 years.
“In response to outrage inside and outside Brazil, the Bolsonaro administration pledged to protect the forest, but the official data show that those promises are hollow,” Canineu said. “President Bolsonaro needs to show concrete results in reducing deforestation and ending impunity for environmental crimes and violence against defenders.”