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Block the backlash in Brazil

AWID spoke to Ana Cernov, program coordinator for Conectas South-South, about the current political crisis in Brazil. Cernov’s analysis aims to help us to understand the long-term effects on civil society and human rights in Brazil.

AWID: What is the current situation in Brazil? Can you tell us about the ongoing repression and backlash on democracy? 

Ana Cernov (AC): Brazil’s political crisis concerns us, in particular, due to the profound consequences and negative impacts on democratic institutions and human rights. The ousting of a head of state is a serious matter and, as such, justifiable only in extremely exceptional circumstances. There are questions about the political legitimacy and legal conformity of the process that charged President Dilma Rousseff with breaking budget laws.

Nevertheless, regardless of whether Rousseff is definitively removed from office, it is indisputable that the forces, which have rallied to support the interim government, have already announced measures that - on the pretext of combating the economic crisis - in fact constitute a direct assault on the civil, political and social rights enshrined in the Federal Constitution of 1988.

It is true that the country is still a long way from achieving the goals set out in the Constitution, such as eradicating poverty and reducing social inequalities. But, it is also true that progress has been made along the way, since re-democratization. This is why it is necessary to steadfastly defend the recent – and, as such, fragile – victories, and to announce that any measure which results in setbacks will be met with profound resistance and condemnation by human rights movements.

The downgrade of the importance of human rights in the agenda of this interim government is to be condemned. Not only, but especially, the institutional changes announcing the incorporation of the Ministry of Women, Racial Equality and Human Rights by the new Ministry of Justice and Citizenship. The declared intentions of the party of interim president Michel Temer, to put an end to the constitutional requirements for spending on health and education, also indicate a political choice that threatens social guarantees in Brazil.

The alignment of conservative forces in Congress has produced some deeply disturbing initiatives.

These include legislative bills that threaten the principle of secularism of the Brazilian State, for example, a proposal to amend the Constitution in order to allow religious entities to question approved laws (PEC 99/2011). There is also a long list of proposals pending in the National Congress that aim to restrict sexual and reproductive rights, such as the Family Act and amendments to the Criminal Code that criminalize women and health professionals who provide assistance to victims of sexual violence.

A provisional cabinet consisting only of white men also sends a powerful message to disregard gender equality.

In the field of criminal justice, there’s an imminent risk that the age of criminal responsibility will be lowered and prison sentences lengthened.

The economic crisis through which the country is passing requires a balanced approach by the interim government, so that human rights do not become political currency in Brazil’s domestic or foreign policy. Regrettably, public statements by the interim president and his party Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Democratic Movement Party, PMDB) have signaled a serious risk, that private interests will prevail over the public interest.

Labour rights are clearly vulnerable. A bill has already been introduced by the PMDB that would allow collective bargaining agreements negotiated between employees and employers to prevail over labour laws, even when this results in losses for workers. There is also concern about the weakening standards of corporate environmental and social responsibility, and of environmental licensing for large-scale projects. There are some alarming bills pending in Congress, such as a constitutional amendment that would slacken environmental licensing requirements.  And the approval of the new Mining Code without the necessary adjustments to prevent environmental disasters such as the one in Mariana/Rio Doce, or guarantees to protect  human rights in affected communities. The same pattern of prioritizing private interests at the expense of human rights can be observed in the threats against the rights of Brazil’s indigenous and traditional peoples, for example, by not permitting the demarcation of their lands.

There are also warning signs that Brazilian foreign policy could be reduced merely to an instrument for promoting the country’s trade. The Federal Constitution states that the international relations of Brazil must give priority to human rights. Of particular concern is the role that the national arms industry could have in this effort to promote Brazilian trade around the world.

In conversations with others, there is a growing concern about how narratives are being built around the fact that civil society presents threats to regular citizens. For example, there have been discussions on whether a specific law is needed, with harsher penalties for property damage. Protests, occupations and other common strategies used by social movements and civil society are being sold to society as dangerous and damaging. This narrative will probably bring negative, long-lasting effects.

AWID: What do you see as the role of civil society and human rights organizations in engaging and addressing the current crisis in the country?

AC: Social movements and organizations have an important role at this moment, which is to keep vigilant and identify backlash, to guarantee of rights. The Brazilian constitution of 1988, written just three years after the end of our dictatorship (Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985), is still considered progressive and advanced because of the important commitments its text brought.

Threats to it have increased greatly in the past months with the interim government.  Though it has been at risk for some time. Brazil’s political system requires alliance building between its 39 political parties - to form coalitions and majority in both the Executive and Legislative powers. As a consequence, coalitions are often built around economic interests and bring together caucuses which, when aligned, can be even more dangerous to human rights. One example is the so-called BBB caucus – Bible, Bullet and Bovine - representing the growing evangelical church interests and power, the arms industry and the cattle industry and agribusiness. Those combined form an explosive threat to land, environment, LGBTI and women’s rights.

Unfortunately, our country has a political structure in which white male millionaires are the ones that have access to candidacies and to being elected representatives. They do not represent the country’s population, which is, in its majority, female and black. But they have the power to use governments to their own advantage and to the advantage of their allies. Without political reform, when this crisis is overcome, another one will be around the corner.

However, despite the setbacks and threats to our still young democracy, we have a very active and vibrant civil society. The achievements of the democratic process since 1985 are directly linked to social movements and organizations that made sure to denounce injustice, voice concerns and take part in constructing solutions.

So at this moment, more than ever, civil society needs to make sure those threats are identified and made visible. Only with loud, firm and committed voices will we be able to block backlash.

AWID: Given your work globally, particularly related to South-South engagements; can you draw any parallels between what is currently happening in Brazil and trends elsewhere across the globe?

AC:  What is happening in Brazil is not an isolated case. There is a wave of new governments in Latin America in particular, that are leaning to the right, and increasing their focus on an economic agenda to the detriment of a socially focused one. The role of private interests is growing, again, to the detriment of public interests, and with that, the role civil society plays in democracy has been devalued.

There are increased threats to civil society brought by this economic agenda. Civil society now has to contend with the corporate capture of our governments, as well as recommendations by international and multilateral bodies to restrict their functioning. One clear example is the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a little known multilateral body linked to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). FATF has, over the past decade, been fostering counter-terrorism measures. In its package of recommendations, FATF informs countries that civil society can be particularly vulnerable to being used by terrorist groups for their financing, and should be better controlled.  As a result of this single recommendation from FATF, a series of NGO- control mechanisms in a number of countries from both North and South have been implemented, namely single NGO registry lists and bureaucratic control and restrictions in financing.

Conectas, alongside a coalition of organizations that monitors the FATF- The Non-Proft Platform on the FATF - pressured the body to adjust their recommendation related to civil society - Recommendation 8. In its last plenary held in June, FATF agreed to the suggestions made by this platform and modified the recommendation for governments so that their anti-terrorism agenda does not harm the non-profit sector. The new writing of the recommendation reinforces the need for risk assessment to be done, and not to discourage legitimate activities from both organizations and social movements.

While measures should be taken where there are risks, they need to be identified first, before imposing rules and regulations on civil society that help governments – democratic and not so democratic – to regulate, control and limit what an organization or group can do and under what circumstances.

Post 9/11 has seen a huge increase in the number of antiterrorism laws all around the world, and with that, more limits on civil society demanding rights. Limits on protests are often included within the realm of antiterrorism laws, and experience shows that it is often used against social movements and organizations making undesired claims.

Brazil’s antiterrorism law was approved last February, after being fast-tracked by President Rousseff. We are sure that it will be used to criminalize dissent and the undesired claims for rights, as has happened in so many other countries.

The 13th AWID International Forum will be an important moment for mobilizing, getting together, exchanging views.

Learning together can’t be stressed enough as the path to advancing our causes and equality. Not only because that can bring us invaluable lessons but also because each step forward can be celebrated in solidarity. That strength is what will get our organizations and movements to break the barriers that are being imposed upon civil society globally.

AWID Forum