LCHR on Brazil: Bolsonaro poses a grave threat to human rights

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By Stephen Delahunty, Guest Writer 

As Brazil’s new right-wing populist leader, Jair Bolsonaro, was sworn in as the 42nd president on 1st January this year, he promised the country’s “liberation from socialism, inverted values, the bloated state and political correctness”.

By the following day, it was clear to see what the former military captain actually meant. The President had already named seven former military men to head key ministries, the largest number of military officers appointed to cabinet since the end of the country’s military dictatorship in 1985. While the number of ministries was reduced from 29 to 22, a move that saw the Ministry of Labour axed in a country where over 12 million people are out of a job.

After his inauguration he issued a directive giving the Agriculture Ministry, which is dominated by a powerful agribusiness lobby, control over areas reserved for Brazil’s indigenous peoples and the descendants of former slaves. The LGBT community has been excluded from a list of groups whose concerns would be protected by a new human rights ministry. And a government agency run by a prominent general was given the ability to ‘monitor’ international organizations and nongovernmental organizations operating in Brazil.

None of this should be a surprise. The new president has served in the country’s Chamber of Deputies, representing the state of Rio de Janiero since 1991. He became notorious for his bigoted rhetoric against women, minorities, the poor and LGBT groups. And has expressed nostalgia for the time when Brazil was under military rule, and previously said the work of ‘eliminating’ those who had opposed the military dictatorship had not yet been concluded. Once a buffoonish figure on the country’s political fringes, he mobilised deep frustrations with a stagnating economy built on the unreliable pillars of commodities and consumerism. While voters became fed up with soaring crime and corrupt political elites, he also launched Trumpian style attacks on everything from the left, to fake news and refugees.

After just over three weeks in office he has yet to make good on other campaign promises to quit the Paris climate deal – although he has appointed a foreign minister who has previously described climate change as a ‘Marxist plot’ – or follow the lead of US president Donald Trump and move his country’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. He did however sign into decree last week a campaign promise to have more relaxed gun laws. Despite being a world leader in homicides, it will now be easier for Brazilians to own guns. A move President Bolsonaro suggests will see violence fall.

It’s clear then why he has already found support from other populist strongmen, including the Israeli and Hungarian Prime Ministers, Benjamin Netanyahu and Viktor Orban. Both of which joined US Secretary of State, Mike Pomeo at Bolsonaro’s inauguration ceremony. The prospect of a new ‘axis of the right’ will be just one of many foreign policy challenges facing a new Labour government. In its 2017 manifesto the Labour party committed itself to a foreign policy “guided by  universal rights and international law”. It may be difficult to impose such a vision on a President who seems to value neither – although practically there may be other steps a Labour government could take.

In 2016, the value of trade between Brazil and the UK was £5.4 billion for goods and services. Brazil represented a significant share of UK total exports to Latin America and the UK represented 8.3% and 7.4% of Brazilian total exports to and imports from the European Union, respectively. Last year, during the tenth meeting of the UK-Brazil Joint Economic and Trade Committee (JETCO), both countries reiterated their commitment to facilitate and deepen trade links. This includes the continuation of the development of the UK government’s Prosperity Fund programme in Brazil.

Pulling out of such funds and ending bilateral trade and cooperation agreements are just some of the tools a Labour government could leverage, if for example, President Bolsonaro pulled out of the country’s climate change commitments. However, a Labour government acting alone is unlikely to deter the actions of a president who has already found support with some of the UK’s traditional allies. So new alliances may have to be formed under the guise of a longer term multinational political strategy.

A Labour government would also need to reach out to activists within countries, trade unions and indigenous groups, amongst others, in the name of solidarity and justice, as explained by Labour MP Dan Carden below. In November last year the MP for Walton helped launch the Brazil Solidarity Initiative. A British-based enterprise that aims to campaign in solidarity with progressive movements in Brazil that are fighting for equality, democratic rights and social progress.

The shadow international development secretary said: “Bolsonaro reveres murderous right-wing dictatorships and has openly justified the use of torture. His sexist, racist and homophobic views represent an attack on the Brazilian working class in all its diversity. I was proud to help launch the Brazil Solidarity Initiative. As internationalists, it is our duty to offer support to the millions of Brazilians fighting to defend democracy and human rights in Brazil. The next Labour government will face many challenges in international relations. These will only be met by firmly restating our values of solidarity, equality and social justice“.