Why Brazil must refocus its approach to international relations

Rousseff must ask herself: does Brazil want to lead a new global democratic order or continue as a state that stands idly by while the same injustices that once plagued it rage overseas?

Rousseff keeps some bad company
Daniel Hamilton
On 23 December 2011 11:58

It’s just over a year since Dilma Rousseff was elected President of Brazil

A former anti-dictatorship guerrilla who was tortured by the country’s military junta, her rise to power was as profound as possible a way of demonstrating that Brazil has moved beyond the dark days of the dictatorship that ruled from 1964 to 1985.

During this twenty-one year period, thousands of educated, wealthy Brazilians fled the country realising, in Rousseff’s words, that 1970s Brazil was “no place for debutantes”. Many have never returned. Poorer political activists (largely from the trade union movement) were not so lucky; their fate often decided in the blood-splattered torture chambers of the elegant Policia Central building in Rio de Janeiro’s Lapa district.

Of the 380 people murdered by the regime, the bodies of 147 have never been found. Thousands more suffer from the physical wounds sustained through drowning and electrocution, while many adults are still scarred by the experience of being forcibly made to watch their parents be tortured. 

As a result of the country’s 1979 Amnesty Law passed by then-dictator João Figueiredo military police involved in killings and torture were given immunity from prosecution. Only one man, the infamous torturer Carlos Brilhante Ustra has ever been prosecuted for his crimes – although his 2008 ‘conviction’ was merely symbolic. He served no prison time, paid no compensation to his hundreds of victims and has issued no public apology for his crimes.

Brazil’s ruling class has scarcely come to terms with the country’s dark history. From local councils to the Federal Senate, the country’s political classes have scarcely changed in three decades. They have much to fear from a full and frank public discussion of what happened during those dark days.

Rousseff has, however, taken on the vested interests of the political establishment (who have much to fear) and announced the creation of a Truth Commission. 

Speaking last month, the President said: "It is fundamental that the population, above all the young and future generations know our past, how many people were jailed, tortured and died. The truth about our past is fundamental so that these acts which tarnished our history do not happen again”. She concluded her remarks by stating that, “as a woman that suffered corporal torture, [I] know how important the values of democracy, justice, human rights and liberty are”. 

Nobody doubts the President’s sincerity. The scars she still bears from her repeated electrocution in the junta’s torture chambers prove that.

When it comes to foreign policy, however, the actions of her government appear to indicate a belief that the defence of liberty and democracy stops at Brazil’s borders.

On March 17th, the United Nations Security Council voted on Resolution 1973 ordering Muammar Gaddafi to call a ceasefire against opposition rebels and imposing a ‘no fly zone’ over Libya. In its capacity as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Brazil’s delegates abstained from the vote. Brazil opted instead to issue a weakly-worded press release calling for “dialogue” between Gaddafi and the rebels.

Commenting on the abstention, the country’s foreign minister Celso Amorim waxed lyrical about the principle of self-determination and non-intervention, apparently forgetting Article 4 of the Brazilian constitution which states that Brazil “guided in its international relations by the principle of the primacy of human rights”.

The Brazilian government’s weak position on Libya has also been replicated in its diplomatic actions in respect of Assad’s Syria. In October, Human Rights Watch issued a devastating statement slamming Brazil and its South African and Indian partners in the IBSA Dialogue Forum for failing to back a Security Council resolution “strongly condemning the continued grave and systematic human rights violations by the Syrian authorities”. Amorim’s tired rhetoric about dialogue and non-interventionism was once again deployed.

By late November, however, Brazil had performed a volte face by supporting the very same resolution in the UN General Assembly that it had opposed as a member of the Security Council. Such a move smacks of a “too little, too late” approach. The failure of rising democracies such as Brazil to leverage their political and trade influence against Assad at an early stage undoubtedly resulted in thousands of needlessly lost Syrian lives.

Brazil’s apparent lack of regard for human rights concerns extends not only to active theatres of war, but to its day-to-day foreign policy interactions. 

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