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Brazil: NTC launched to investigate human rights violations covering a 42-year period

Publicado: 2011-12-22

Artículo publicado en el portal IJ Central el 8 de diciembre de 2011.

President Dilma Rousseff signed in November the Law creating a National Truth Commission (Comissão Nacional da Verdade) to investigate human rights violations that may have been perpetrated in Brazil between 1946 and 1988.

Despite some attempts to establish the record of human rights violations, Brazil has been in much need of truth and justice for many years. There has never been a comprehensive official account of the human rights abuses committed during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

In this context, Brazilian Congress passed a bill establishing a Truth Commission that will work under the scope of the presidency (under the organ called Casa Civil) and will operate for two years. It must be noted that this law does not revoke the 1979 Amnesty Law and will not only investigate the abuses committed by the military regime, but also possible crimes committed during democratic regimes as well. Needless to say that this Commission will investigate violations perpetrated until 1988, the date when the current Political Constitution was adopted.

Democracy Interrupted

The military coup of 1964 was significant in the history of Latin America because the military dictatorship was the first one to rule institutionally, not based on the authority of a caudillo or a charismatic leader. It was also ideological, based in the extreme-right “Doctrine of National Security”, largely developed by the Brazilian military.

During the dictatorship, the State was responsible for systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detentions, and the curtailment of free expression. Sources report that more than 10,000 Brazilians fled the country during those years; around 50,000 persons were detained just in the first months of the dictatorship and 400 were desaparecidos.

Despite all the efforts undertaken by the civil society and the Church, the exact number of tortured, disappeared and killed has never been clearly established. Two reparation boards established during the governments of Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Lula da Silva have recognized the dignity of the relatives of the disappeared, and have compensated survivors, but there has never been an authoritative narrative. This will be one of the main tasks of the Commission.

The only exception to official silence was a report from the Archdiocese of São Paulo in 1985 describing in detail the commission of tortures and the modes and instruments of torture in police posts; the repressive system; conditions of detentions and the distortion of the law. The report accounts 1,918 cases of torture from 1964 to 1979, noting that its source material excluded an “incalculable” number of other cases.

Importance of Inter-American Rulings

Just like other countries in Latin America, Brazil adopted an Amnesty Act in 1979 to avoid judicial investigation and prosecution over possible human rights violations perpetrated during the military regime. The Amnesty Act, originally demanded by civil society to release political prisoners, was also used to shield government and security officials from prosecution for possible human rights violations. In the Guerrilha do Araguaia Case decided by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in late 2010, the amnesty Law was ruled “invalid”.

The Amnesty Act, according to the Court, is not compatible with the Inter American Convention on Human Rights. Despite the IACHR ruling, the Act has not been revoked by Parliament.

Readdressing the Truth?

The creation of a National Truth Commission in Brazil was agreed after a long discussion between the different political parties in Congress and with the support of the Human Rights community, including all former ministers of Justice since the return of democracy.

The Commission will be formed by seven eminent Brazilians appointed by the President, whose names have not yet been made public, it will have two years to work on a report with their findings. The number of Commissioners and staff foreseen in the bill raises some concerns, since the bill allocates only a dozen staff for such an extensive investigation.

At first glance, it seems that the creation of the Truth Commission will help Brazilians to learn what really happened in the country. However, critics say the Commission will not have enough time to carry out a serious investigation in only two years. The time frame of work cannot be extended and the investigation will have to carefully review 42 years of Brazilian history. The Commissioners will have the difficul task to investigate alleged crimes committed under five civilian governments and by the military officials that ruled the country from 1964 until 1985.

Finally, the Act does not lift the Amnesty Act adopted in 1979, which shields from prosecution those who might have carried out crimes against humanity during the era of military rule It remains to be seen if – acting within this constraint – the Commission will manage to be independent, effective, and unleash a process of soul-searching in Brazil that will finally probe the effects of the amnesty on the national psyche and culture.


Mariana Rodriguez Pareja is a Communications Expert and Human Rights Advocate. Twitter: @maritaerrepe

Salvador Herencia Carrasco. LL.M. University of Ottawa, Legal adviser of the Andean Commission of Jurists. E-mail: sherencia@cajpe.org.pe

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Salvador Herencia Carrasco

Blog sobre Derecho Internacional, Derechos Humanos y Relaciones Internacionales. Publicaciones disponibles en: ssrn.com/author=2239552

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