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Brazil's Truth Commission

March 22, 2011 // 1:15pm2:45pm
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The discussion focused on Brazil's progress in developing a congressionally-backed truth commission which would examine crimes committed by the military regime that ruled the country from 1964 to 1985. This was the message that was delivered by Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro and Paulo de Tarso Vanucchi, both of whom held high level positions within their respective human rights commissions.

Manuela Lavinas Picq, the Loewenstein Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Amherst College, analyzed the experiences of similar commissions organized in other countries and pointed out that Brazil is late in the process. Sérgio Fausto, the Executive-Director of the Instituto Fernando Henrique Cardoso, raised questions about how the Truth Commission is perceived by the Brazilian society.

Pinheiro and Vannuchi agreed that the chances of legislative approval for the creation of the Truth Commission will be much lower if the vote is delayed until 2012 when Congress will be involved in local elections. They also advocated that the government majority approve the bill with as few changes as possible to expedite its implementation.

The creation of the Truth Commission in Brazil has faced strong opposition from the military. This position was voiced by the Minister of Defense, Nelson Jobim, a constitutional lawyer and former Minister of Justice and member of the Federal Supreme Tribunal, Brazil's Supreme Court. Minister Jobim, who was confirmed by President Dilma Rousseff, has toned down his opposition to the Truth Commission. Although President Rousseff supports the project, her government has yet to push for its passage. No date for a vote has been announced.

Paulo Vannuchi explained that the idea for the commission came from civil society during the debates held to develop the Third National Human Rights Program during the Lula administration. The government worked on a bill that would give a Commission two years to investigate human rights violations. Although its members will have no prosecutorial powers, it is expected that the results will be the basis for criminal charges by state attorneys.

"The opposition to the Truth Commission by the military shows that the Armed Forces have not yet fully completed its transition to a full constitutional democracy," said Vannuchi. Pinheiro argued that the Amnesty Law of 1979, which covered both crimes committed by members of the armed resistance against the military regime and those crimes committed by state agents, does not represent an immutable political bargain. This law should not, therefore, inhibit further investigations by a Truth Commission. According to Pinheiro, the Brazilian State recognized its responsibility for crimes committed under the military dictatorship in 1995 when Congress approved and enacted a bill that called for restitution to be paid to the victims of the military regime.

Vannuchi and Pinheiro also argued that the legislative debate over the creation of a Truth Commission should take priority over the implementation of the December 2010 Inter-American Humans Rights Court decree that demanded a state investigation into the death and disappearance of some sixty people of the Araguaia Guerrilla, a group of rural militant activists that fought against the dictatorship. The court found the military regime responsible for their deaths and mandated a full criminal investigation as well as compensation to be paid to the victims' families. "The focus must be on the Truth Commission. If we try to implement the decision of the Inter-American court at this very moment, we will not have a Truth Commission. Next year we will have elections, this year the government and the opposition can agree on the Truth Commission," said Pinheiro.
Manuela Picq explained that there is a trend towards the creation of Truth Commissions in Latin America led by civil society demands in those countries. From the 22 commissions created in the world in the last twelve years, eight were in the region.

According to her analysis, there were two waves of Truth Commissions in Latin America. The first had more political focus as countries such as Argentina and Chile transitioned to democracy in the 1980s. The second wave, from the 1990s, focused on the investigation of more widespread violence by the State and had strong ethnic and economic components. The Truth Commissions in El Salvador, Peru and Guatemala are examples of the second wave. "What is interesting in Brazil is why it has not happened yet," said Picq, who pointed out that the country is the only one in Latin America where approval of a proposed Truth Commission is pending.

Manuela Picq said that by paying compensation to victims and families, Brazil recognized the responsibility of the State and validated the economic rights involved in the matter. However, the country has been unable to deal with investigating the truth and holding people responsible for those crimes, a basic human right the victims' families that should precede any financial reparation.

For Picq, the creation of a Truth Commissions "is a rupture with the past. Brazil has touched on the topic before, but only in a very negotiated form. This Truth Commission and the way it is being formalized is so problematic because, if approved, it will bring accountability." According to Picq, the goal of the commission in Brazil has more to do with "institution building," and "the future of democracy [as] an ethos of human rights in the public arena," than with finding out who was assassinated, as is the case in Guatemala and Peru, or sending people to jail, as in Argentina and Chile.

Sergio Fausto said he would speak as an outsider who is not an expert in the matter. He laid out the argument that one of the reasons there is so much resistance to the creation of a Truth Commission is that those who oppose it are organized groups in the military, whereas those who favor it – e.g., families and victims – are a diffused group who does not have the same lobbying power. He also mentioned that another factor working against the creation of the Truth Commission is an apparent lack of societal interest in the subject.

The debate about the Truth Commission gained impetus after Dilma Rousseff was elected president last year. A militant of the political wing of the armed resistance to the dictatorship, Rouseff was arrested and brutally tortured in the early 1970s. The bill is currently at the House of Representatives and awaits the nomination of a special commission which will decide on its constitutional and political viability.

Drafted by Leandra Peres
Edited by Paulo Sotero, Brazil Institute

 
Event Speakers List: 
  • Paulo Sergio Pinheiro // Commissioner
    Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Former Secretary of State for Human Rights in the government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso
  • Paulo de Tarso Vannuchi // Former Minister of Human Rights
    Lula Administration
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