RIGHTS-BRAZIL: The Long Shadow of the Dictatorship

  • by Mario Osava (rio de janeiro)
  • Wednesday, September 30, 2009
  • Inter Press Service

The SEDH is holding conferences on the rights of children and adolescents, in which 170,000 people are participating all over the country, and running campaigns against sexual exploitation of children and for the rights of the elderly, the disabled, homosexuals and other minorities, the cabinet-level official pointed out.

It is also fighting other problems, such as slave-like conditions for some labourers, torture, and discrimination against women, Afro-descendants and indigenous people — part of 'a very broad agenda,' said the minister in a recent interview with IPS and the Italian news agency ANSA.

But its activities do not generally attract the attention of the media, which are more interested in unresolved issues relating to the dictatorship that ended in 1985, such as finding the remains of opponents of the regime who were 'disappeared' and the questions of the punishment of torturers and public access to classified documents and archives.

A new search is under way for the bodies of the Guerrillas of Araguaia, an insurgent group created by members of the old Brazilian Communist Party who were massacred in a military operation between 1972 and 1975 in the vicinity of the Araguaia river in the northern jungle state of Pará. At least 70 people were killed, including local civilians, and many questions remain unclarified.

Victims' families and civil society organisations brought the case to the Inter-American human rights system. The Brazilian state must answer for its actions to the Costa Rica-based Inter-American Court of Human Rights next year, and may be issued with a judgment condemning it for illegal detention, torture and killings.

Moving out of the dark shadows left by the military dictatorship is a challenge on which 'there is no consensus; on the contrary, it has caused divisions within the government itself, and even among the families involved,' Vannuchi said. Some, for example, disagree with the way the search for remains is being carried out in the Araguaia river basin, he said.

Public access to secret documents from the dictatorship, which would shed light on the fate of the victims of forced disappearance, is the goal of another longstanding struggle by family members and activists that has so far been unsuccessful.

According to Vannuchi, many documents have been made public in Brazil, in the National Archive, more than in neighbouring countries that were also ruled by military regimes.

But there is a long way to go to recover 'The Right to Truth and Memory', the title of a 2007 book published by the SEDH as a result of 11 years of investigation and fact-finding by its Special Commission on Those Who Died and Disappeared for Political Reasons (CEMDP).

The armed forces, which created irregular agencies of political repression, claim that all files related to those activities were destroyed. 'But I don't believe the military intelligence centres would have destroyed everything,' without keeping some records, Vannuchi said.

The Brazilian Foreign Ministry, which played a role in the clampdown on dissidents during the dictatorship, has some 60,000 historical documents dating to that period, but argues that making them public could reopen old wounds connected to past relations with neighbouring countries, like Bolivia and Paraguay, with which Brazil had been at war or had border disputes.

In this respect 'I was not able to persuade' the Foreign Ministry, 'but I will keep trying,' as sensitive documents affecting foreign policy could be excluded while the rest were made accessible to the public, Vannuchi said.

The recent publication of documents of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, mentioning the support given by Brazil to the 1973 military coup in Chile, added to the pressure on the Foreign Ministry to open up its files.

Latin American countries like Argentina and Chile have made more progress than Brazil in bringing to justice members of the military and police for dictatorship-era human rights crimes like torture and extrajudicial executions. In Brazil the argument put forward is that the 1979 amnesty applies to 'both sides,' meaning guerrillas and state agents.

'I am in favour of punishment,' particularly in the form of alternative sentencing and reparations, because the amnesty 'was not an agreement between the different parties,' but instead was imposed by the military regime and was effectively a defeat for the civil society proposal of a 'broad, general and unrestricted' measure, Vannuchi said.

In fact, there were still political detainees in Brazil until October 1980, over a year after the amnesty had been signed. Nor does the amnesty explicitly say that it applies to 'agents of the state,' he said.

But above all, torture is a crime that has no statute of limitations under international law, he said.

The question of what is and is not covered by the amnesty is due to be decided soon by the Supreme Court.

The SEDH is best-known for its activities involving issues inherited from the dictatorship, but its 'strategic' goal is education on human rights - its priority for the 2009-2010 period, said Vannuchi, who uses the question of those who were 'disappeared' for political reasons as an opportunity to highlight other forgotten rights, like those of minorities.

Military training in this country, for instance, does not include education about constitutional law, which could discourage coups d'état, nor about human rights, he noted. And it is still inconceivable for the armed forces to admit they made a mistake when they overthrew the government in 1964, he added.

This subject is even absent from the study programmes of law schools and from the Brazilian bar exam, Vannuchi said.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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