Interview with José Carlos Moreira da Silva Filho, Professor in the Criminal Science Graduate Program at Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul – PUCRS; Former Vice-President of the Commission on Amnesty in Brazil; Productivity in Research Scholarship Recipient from the CNPq. [firstname.lastname@example.org]. The interview was conducted on 26 November 2016 in Belo Horizonte by Cath Collins, Professor of Transitional Justice, Universidad Diego Portales, Chile and Ulster University, Northern Ireland; founder member of the Latin American Transitional Justice Network. We thank José Carlos Moreira da Silva Filho and Cath Collins for their permission to publish the interview.
Q How has the aftermath of the impeachment [on 31 Aug 2016] of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff (2011-2016) affected the environment for human rights issues in general?
The impeachment represented an institutional rupture that looms large over all subsequent human rights and transitional justice (TJ) debate in Brazil, because the motif of institutional rupture reminds everyone inevitably, and powerfully, of 1964 [the military takeover that initiated the 1964-85 military dictatorship]. It had become an article of faith after the 1985 recovery of democracy that the new institutions were robust, that electoral results would be respected, and so on. But then along came the 2014 elections … an aggressive campaign, with outright misogyny, the unleashing of accusations and counteraccusations without proof; betrayals, rumours. We saw the reappearance of some elements that were also around in ’64: a white elite with a powerfully conservative discourse in parliament, the press, and the judiciary; and the influence of the US on [a range of ongoing corruption investigations or scandals] – the lavajato investigation, the Petrobras case, and so on.
What we’re seeing now, some months on, is an illegitimate onslaught by the government against human rights issues and protections, wrapped up in the language of austerity. A recent bill [bill ‘PEC 55’, passed in the Senate in mid December 2016] completely freezes social spending, which has been the lynchpin of all the gains in health and education, ie in social rights, of recent years. But there’s no mention of any alternative ways to reduce public spending: reducing judicial or civil service salaries, for example. Human rights had been given a dedicated ministry, but in September 2016 that was all absorbed into the Justice Ministry and downgraded to sub-secretariat status only. Its human rights councils, whose members were mandated to travel round the country, had their travel budget withdrawn, which to all intents and purposes put an end to their work.
Q How have transitional justice issues, in particular, been affected?
The Amnesty Commission, which recognises former political prisoner status and extends symbolic and sometimes economic reparation to survivors on behalf of the state, should have been continuing with hearings, regional public assemblies (‘Caravans’) and so on. But all of that is on hold. The Minister responsible for it – now the Justice Minister – has powers to change all the senior administrative/ civil service staff, and also to unilaterally name or remove Commissioners. Previously, that was always done after consulting with human rights organisations and relatives’ associations. There had been a small amount of turnover of Commissioners, but always voluntary, and usually for family or professional reasons – it’s an unpaid role. But when the impeachment was confirmed, on 31 August 2016, six Commissioners had already resigned, in protest. The next day, the Minister removed, at a stroke, seven of the 16 who remained – including me, as vice-president. I found out through a notice in the official newspaper: that’s still the only official communication I’ve had or seen about it. The ones who were removed that day had mostly joined around the same time, around 2007, when Paulo Abrao [now General Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights] was president of the Commission. Twenty new Commissioners have been named under the new president, to replace those seven who were removed, plus the six who had resigned earlier. Almost all of the new people have no background in human rights. Many of them are legal scholars, best known as associates or followers of a conservative jurist named Manoel Gonçalves Ferreira Filho, who supported the ’64 coup and held various official posts under the military regime. One of the new commissioners has even been strongly rumoured to have been an informer for the secret services during that period. The new commissioners were supposed to start work on 2 September 2016, but they haven’t held or scheduled any meetings yet [four months on]. What we know is that many of them are keen to ‘defend state coffers’, by, at the very least, reducing the amounts of economic reparations that the Commission awards to survivors in the cases that it acknowledges.
Q Has there been any reaction or resistance from within human rights circles?
Human rights groups have made their opposition known, but there’s been no response from the ministry. Specifically, there’s a ‘Committee of Friends’ that was set up to support the national Political Amnesty memorial that’s supposed to be being built, here in Belo Horizonte. Anyway, that Committee did manage to get a meeting with the new president of the Amnesty Commission, Almino Afonso. He’s one of the few remaining who do at least have a background in human rights. He had very little to say beyond vague assurances. He gave the impression, not in so many words, that the replacement of commissioners had had something to do with their attendance record… but that doesn’t actually stack up, in fact they were the ones who’d been most visible in the public eye protesting against the impeachment attempt.
Q how do you see the present situation?
One important thing that hasn’t been affected or interfered with, at least yet, is the search for the disappeared, and identification of exhumed remains, that’s going on in Sao Paulo state, at the Perus cemetery. I think that work is somewhat protected because of the symbolic importance of the issue, and because the state prosecution service is overseeing it. The new subsecretary of human rights did at least make mention of transitional justice in her inaugural speech. But the Political Amnesty memorial project – which had already been limbo, even before the impeachment, because the Ministry had stopped passing on funds to the contractor – doesn’t show any signs of restarting. The main signal of actual negative change is what they’ve done to the Amnesty Commission. It will be really important to keep the issue in the public eye, and for people outside to continue to ask about it.