Brazil 2020

Anti-human rights rhetoric continued to escalate, increasing the risks to human rights defenders. The shrinking of civic space fomented by an official narrative that stigmatized NGOs, journalists, activists, human rights defenders and social movements continued. Obstacles to freedom of expression and attempts to restrict this right impacted the work of journalists and media workers. Attacks and killings of human rights defenders, members of Indigenous Peoples, Quilombola communities and environmental defenders remained chronic problems. Protection of natural resources and traditional territories was neglected as government structures to protect Indigenous Peoples and the environment were further dismantled and weakened. Violence against women increased in the context of measures introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19. The pandemic exposed deep-seated inequalities in Brazilian society, impacting communities that face discrimination disproportionately. The President’s ongoing denial of the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated the situation.

Background

On 31 March a group of people gathered in front of the army´s headquarters in Brasília, the capital, to commemorate the 1964 coup, which led to a 21-year-long military government. The demonstration was attended by President Bolsonaro, who referred to the date as “the day of liberty”. According to Brazil’s National Truth Commission, under the military regime hundreds of people were systematically tortured, disappeared and extrajudicially executed. Mainly due to the interpretation given to the 1979 Amnesty Law, impunity continued to prevail for crimes under international law and human rights violations committed during the military government (1964-1985).

Right to health

The COVID-19 pandemic hit Brazil powerfully, deepening existing historic, structural and persistent inequalities and exacerbating the economic, political, and public health and sanitation crisis in the country. The government failed to ensure the right to health, including access to health care, and social protection for all peoples. By the end of the year, the number of people who had died of COVID-19 was around 195,000, the second highest total of any country in the world. Brazil was an epicentre of the pandemic, with more than 7 million cases of infection.

Although dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic was a challenge worldwide, the outbreak in Brazil was exacerbated by ongoing tensions between the federal and state authorities, the absence of a clear plan of action based on the best available scientific information and the lack of transparency in public policies, among other failings.

Economic and social rights

The government failed to mitigate the social and economic consequences of COVID-19 on groups in vulnerable situations, such as low-income communities, women, LGBTI people, residents of favelas, Indigenous Peoples and Quilombola communities. Economic relief programmes for low-income individuals were insufficient and flawed. Many people faced difficulties registering for these benefits and the process was mired with allegations of lack of transparency.

In November 2020, there was a massive 21-day blackout in the State of Amapá. According to the National Coordination of Articulation of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (CONAQ), the lack of electricity worsened the humanitarian crisis faced by Quilombola and Indigenous communities in the state.

Health workers

The state failed to provide health workers with adequate assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Brazilian Association of Collective Health and the Brazilian Society of Family and Community Medicine, health care professionals faced challenging working conditions, including insufficient personal protective equipment, a lack of clear protocols to manage infections, the absence of mental health support, lack of social protection for workers’ families and precarious employment contracts.

Prisoners

Prisoners were denied their right to health by inadequate state measures to deal with and curb the pandemic. Systemic overcrowding, inadequate health services, and poor living and sanitary conditions posed grave concerns for the right to health of prisoners and juvenile detainees. According to the National Council of Justice, as of October, more than 39,000 COVID-19 cases in the adult prison system and 4,190 cases in the juvenile detention system were registered. In terms of testing, from October to December 2020, at least five states (Amazonas, Espirito Santo, Paraiba, Rondônia and Roraima) had not conducted one single additional test in their prisons. The State of Roraima, for instance, did not report testing of any prisoners or workers in the system to date. The administrative area with the highest prison population rate was the Distrito Federal, with 15% of the detainees tested from the beginning of the outbreak in March to December.

Freedom of expression

Attacks on journalists and media workers restricted and stifled freedom of expression. According to a report by the NGO Article 19, between January 2019 and September 2020, members of the federal government made aggressive and stigmatizing statements towards journalists and their work 449 times. These attacks included intimidation, smear campaigns, defamation, gender discrimination and questioning the legitimacy of journalistic activity.

Restrictions on civil society participation in public debate about government policies intensified as a result of the hostile government approach to social movements and NGOs. The authorities constantly and consistently used rhetoric that stigmatized activism and groups in vulnerable situations. An emblematic example of this was the President’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September. Jair Bolsonaro alleged that there was a “disinformation campaign” about wildfires and deforestation in the Amazon led by international institutions. He also claimed the wildfires were a consequence of the traditional practices of Indigenous Peoples and other traditional communities. Days later, General Augusto Heleno, Chief of the Institutional Security Cabinet, accused the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil (APIB) movement of endangering national security due to its work on Indigenous Peoples’ rights, citing the same legislation that the military dictatorship used in previous decades to accuse the opposition of treason.

Human rights defenders

A report by the NGO Global Witness highlighted the dangerous situation faced by territory, land and environmental defenders in Brazil, which was third in its list of the most lethal countries for environmental and human rights activists.

On 18 April, Ari Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau was killed in the city of Jaru, in the State of Rondônia, after several threats in 2019.

The notorious killing in 2018 of Marielle Franco, a defender of LGBTI, Black and women’s rights, and her driver, Anderson Gomes, highlighted the obstacles faced in obtaining justice and reparations for attacks on human rights defenders. Two men were charged with carrying out the killings. However, two years after the death, investigations had yet to establish who was behind the killings.

Rights of women and girls

One of the indirect consequences of movement restriction measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 was an increase in cases of domestic violence against women. Data consolidated by the Brazilian Public Security Forum revealed that the rate of femicide increased in 14 out of the 26 states in the period between March and May 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019. For example, in the State of Acre, the rate of femicides increased by 400%. Other states also saw significant increases in the number of femicides from March to May: 157.1% in Mato Grosso, 81.8% in Maranhão and 75% in Pará.

In the first six months of 2020, 1,861 women were murdered, and an additional 648 were victims of femicide, according to data from 12 states compiled by the Brazilian Public Security Forum. Emergency phone calls to the police related to domestic violence rose by 3.8% in the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. In the State of Ceará, according to the Popular Public Security Forum, the number of women killed increased by 66% in the first seven months of the year compared to the same period in 2019, during which 216 women were killed. The number of girls murdered increased by 124% in the same state.

There were over 119,546 cases of domestic violence resulting in physical injuries to women in the first six months of the year, equivalent to an average of 664 cases per day. This represented an overall reduction of 11% compared to the same period in 2019, likely due to under-reporting during the pandemic. However, six states registered an increase in cases of physical injuries during the same period. The State of Pará saw the highest rise in such cases: 2,674 cases were recorded, an increase of 46.4% compared to the same period of the previous year. On average 126 girls and women were raped every day in the country during 2020.

Rights of Indigenous Peoples and other traditional communities

Despite Brazil’s international commitments and national laws for the protection of Indigenous peoples and other traditional communities, the historical lack of respect for the rights of these communities intensified in 2020.

Illegal mining, wildfires and the seizure of land for illegal cattle farming and agribusiness continued to threaten Indigenous peoples and other traditional communities, impacting the right to land of these communities and affecting the natural environment.1

Data collected by the National Institute for Space Research registered an increase of 9.5% in the destruction of forests between August 2019 and July 2020, compared to the same period a year earlier. More than 11,000km² of forest were devastated in that period. The progressive dismantling of national institutions responsible for monitoring and protecting these areas reflected the failure of the state to fulfil its obligation to guarantee the rights of affected communities to a healthy environment, livelihoods, and to be protected from forced evictions.

Wildfires in the Amazon were, in many cases, started by farmers who illegally invaded the territories of Indigenous peoples in order to prepare the land for cattle. Cattle illegally grazed in the Amazon has entered the supply chain of JBS, the biggest meat-packing corporation in the world.2

In a public hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in October, Indigenous representatives condemned invasions into Yanomami territories and threats to Indigenous leaders by those seeking to carry out illegal mining activities. They also condemned the invasion of the lands of the Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, Karipunas, Guajajaras and Tembés communities for economic exploitation. Many members of Indigenous communities have lost their lives in the context of these invasions, including Edilson Tembé dos Santos killed in September and Ari-Uru-Eu-Wau-Wau, killed in April.

Right to health

Ineffective public policies and measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 among traditional communities highlighted the failure of the state to ensure the right to health of these groups.

In July, along with six political parties, APIB took to the Supreme Court the Action of Noncompliance with Fundamental Precept (ADPF) number 709, which seeks health protection measures for these communities, due to the pandemic. According to the lawsuit, the fatality rate among Indigenous peoples was 9.6%, while the national average was 5.6%. The Supreme Court had determined that the state should implement a specific emergency plan and public health sanitation measures in Indigenous areas. However, in December a third version of the plan presented by the government was rejected by the Supreme Court for not providing answers to basic topics such as access to water and sanitation and for not setting detailed measures to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), testing material and human resources. APIB claimed that a proper response to the pandemic was coming from within the community, since the federal government had failed to comply with the Supreme Court's determination to protect the communities in the context of a pandemic. The articulation had to create an emergency plan to equip the special units across the country by delivering tests, breathing tubes, hygiene kits, PPE and cylinders of oxygen.

The CONAQ took ADPF 742 to the Federal Court in September, demanding a national plan in response to the pandemic in Quilombola communities, inspired by ADPF 709. The plan was filed, but there was still no positive action. The organization launched its own initiative to monitor the spread of COVID-19 among communities and kept alerting to high fatality rates and under-reporting. Communities also denounced other difficulties – and even denial – in accessing tests.

Excessive use of force

In favelas and other marginalized neighbourhoods, police violence escalated during the COVID-19 pandemic. Between January and June, at least 3,181 people were killed by the police across the country, an average of 17 deaths per day and 7.1% more than in 2019. While people were following recommendations to stay home, police officers continued to conduct incursions in favelas for arrests which ended in killings. Federal and state governments and representatives publicly supported the idea that “good criminals are dead criminals” and the use of force by the police in favelas and city outskirts.

According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, 79.1% of the people killed by the police were Black and 74.3% were under 30 years of age. Brazil´s population comprises 54% Black people, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. Residents of marginalized neighbourhoods were the most affected.

During the year, Rio de Janeiro’s police forces continued to carry out militarized police operations in favelas, frequently using helicopters and armoured vehicles. Police killings in the state reached a level unprecedented since they began recording fatalities in 1998; between January and May, 741 people were killed, the highest number in the country.

In May, 13 men were killed in Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas in Rio de Janeiro, during a violent police operation carried out by the Special Operations Battalion (BOPE) and the police.

A few days later, 14-year-old João Pedro Mattos died in an operation in the Salgueiro favela, São Gonçalo, Rio de Janeiro. He was at home with friends when members of the Special Resources Unit (CORE) entered his home and fired over 70 rounds. João Pedro Mattos was shot in the back.

The worsening situation in Rio de Janeiro led civil society organizations, local activists, the Rio Public Defender’s Office, the Brazilian Socialist Party and relatives of victims to file a petition with the Supreme Court to stop police incursions in the favelas. In June, the Court issued a preliminary decision to suspend police operations in favelas during the pandemic. Following the decision, killings by the police fell by 74%.

In São Paulo, police officers killed 514 civilians between January and June, a 20% increase compared to the same period in 2019 and the highest number since records started to be collected in 2001. A recent law known as the Anti-Crime Package has determined that an investigated policeman should have a lawyer during investigations and if he does not have one, the police corporation should provide him one. In addition, the State of São Paulo determined that military policemen should have access to lawyers for free. Since public defenders do not act during investigations and no private lawyers have been nominated for the cases, the internal ordinance of the Military Police says investigations should be suspended. These conditions resulted in at least 300 police killings not being investigated.

In the state of Bahia, police killings rose from 361 in the first six months of 2019 to 512 in the same period in 2020, an increase of 42%. In the state of Ceará, 96 people were killed in the first six months of the year, a 12.5% increase compared with the same period in 2019. In July, 13-year-old Mizael Fernandes da Silva was killed by the police while he was at home asleep. Two parallel procedures were initiated to conduct investigations. The military investigation concluded that the police officers who killed the boy were acting in self-defence. The parallel investigation by the Civil Police concluded that a police officer should be charged with the crime of homicide and violating legal procedures. The prosecution had not pressed charges by the end of the year.

Enforced disappearances

Enforced disappearances remained a serious concern nationwide given the involvement of paramilitary groups, including police officers and former state agents, in these crimes in the past decades.

Despite families’ struggle for justice, impunity persisted and there was no significant progress in clarifying past cases of enforced disappearance.

Domestic law was not brought into line with international treaties and did not include a specific crime of enforced disappearance, which continued to be dealt with under other provisions, such as kidnapping. This gap in the law continued to pose a barrier to the prosecution of those responsible for enforced disappearances, as well as to the implementation of reparation policies for victims. The justice system also lacked effective and independent systems for the investigations into these crimes.

There was no progress in the case of Davi Fiuza, a 16-year-old Black youth who, according to witnesses, was forcibly disappeared in October 2014. He was last seen in the city of Salvador de Bahia with his hands and feet bound being put into the trunk of a car that was escorted by the Bahia State Military Police. In 2018, the Public Prosecutor´s Office indicted seven military police officers for kidnapping and false imprisonment. In 2019 the case was transferred to a military court, contrary to international human rights law standards. Hearings scheduled to take place in April and June were postponed, ostensibly due to COVID-19. At the end of the year no date had been set for the rescheduled hearings to take place.


  1. Brazil: Alarming number of new forest fires detected ahead of Amazon Day (News, 3 September)
  2. Brazil: Cattle illegally grazed in the Amazon found in supply chain of leading meat-packer JBS (News, 15 July)