Human Rights in Brazil

In Brazil, the almost universal perception amongst the middle and upper classes is that human rights defenders are simply defending criminals…

I spent some time yesterday talking to people from the justice program at Conectas, a collection of organisations that works on the unpopular issue of human rights in Brazil. Conectas also has a global south program that works more broadly in the developing world, and publishes the excellent journal, Sur.

ipbI say that human rights is unpopular, which may sound surprising, but talking to the valiant lawyers and organisers at the Instituto Pro Bono, which provides lawyers to those who can’t afford them, mainly prisoners, and Artigo 1o, which brings civil actions against the state on behalf of prisoners killed or injured by police and prison staff, I was immediately reminded of the depth of the social divisions, and the sheer mutual ignorance of people in different social classes here in Brazil.

In part, I was told, the gap has to do with the experience of the dictatorship that came to and end from 1985. Human rights had grown in opposition to the dictatorship, and once the end came, many wealthier people started to wonder why people still needed these apparently strange and special rights in a ‘free society’. The almost universal perception amongst the middle and upper classes is that human rights defenders are simply defending criminals, end of story. The Artigo 1o staff told me that they regularly receive hate-mail and threatening or angry telephone calls. The Instituto Pro Bono is still battling to have its lawyers even accepted in courts in many states in Brazil. Bar associations are opposing them on the grounds that they take business away from defence lawyers! Neither organisation gets any more than a tiny proportion of its income from Brazil; most comes from the European Union and the USA.

Everything you need to know about what drives Sao Paulo (Nineteenth Century Building in the heart of the city)
Almost everything you need to know about what drives Sao Paulo (Nineteenth Century business federation building in the heart of the city - the other side of the entrance says INDUSTRIA)

Partly too there is a partially Catholic Christian legacy of accepting one’s ‘natural’ social place and waiting for what one deserves after death. However there are also questions of geography. And sociospatial variety leads to different relationships and different attitudes by the ruling classes in different parts of the country. In Sao Paulo, the poorer areas, and the favelas – I was reminded of course that there are both and many, many very poor people are not living in illegal settlements – are largely peripheral. This means that they can be ignored by the rich. Sao Paulo is also a mercantile city absolutely dedicated to making money and many of the rich seem to regard the masses of poor as simply ‘failed entrepreneurs’ whose fate is their own fault. This contrasts with Rio, where rich and poor are thrust right up against each other, with favelas running right into the heart of the city. The poverty cannot be ignored, but instead it is crushed, repressed by the actions of groups like the Autodefesas Comunit├írias, (illegal ‘community self-defence’ groups).

Welcome to Sao Paulo! ("REVENGE - Intruders will die" says the graffiti)
Welcome to the other Sao Paulo! ("REVENGE - Intruders will die" says the graffiti)

Of course such mass violence does occur in Sao Paulo too – Artigo 1o is currently looking for funding (not a lot in relative terms BTW – please contact me if you have about $6000 US to spare!) to publish their report into the mass battles between police and organisations of ex-prisoners and criminals, which resulted in the extra-legal execution of hundreds of people by the police. However, in general, the staff of Artigo 1o argued, the relationships are different.

(there was a lot more, but I will write about issues around security and surveillance later)