Too Little Too Late? The National Truth Commission in Brazil

Posted by Nina Schneider 

While numerous countries in post-authoritarian South America have revoked Amnesty Laws issued under authoritarian rule, punished officials involved in repressive organs and instated truth commissions, Brazil long remained the only post-military country in South America to neither instate a truth commission nor prosecute state officials involved in human rights crimes. Only in November 2011, 26 years after the formal return to democracy, did the current Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, sign the law to instate a National Truth Commission. The law has been delayed, significantly amended, and in the eyes of many human rights activists and victim families now represents a compromised or watered-down version.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announces the Law for the Truth Commission.

Photo: Agencia Brasil.

For decades the Brazilian state has tactically silenced its military past. Between 1964 and 1985 Brazil, like most other countries on the Latin American continent, was governed by an authoritarian regime. This illegal regime seized power by force, passed dictatorial laws and suppressed political opponents. In 1969/1970 a systematic and nationwide repression network was installed which killed an estimated 474 people (official number of the HR Report of 2007), tortured 20.000 people, and forced an estimated 10,000 Brazilian citizens into exile. One of the victims of torture was the Brazilian President Rousseff herself, who was imprisoned for more than two years and suffered nearly three weeks of torture.

The National Truth Commission will be the first official initiative to systematically clarify the circumstances of these human rights abuses committed by the state. In 1995, a so-called Special Commission was instated to shed light on state violence during the period of the dictatorship, but it has lacked sufficient resources as well as state and public support.  The National Truth Commission in Brazil will conduct its work for a period of two years and cover the period from 1946 until 1988, although the victims of the regime (1964-1985) are likely to be the key focus. President Rousseff has nominated the seven commissioners and meetings have taken place to outline the procedure of the commissions. The sworn in commissioners include Rosa Maria Cardoso da Cunha (the lawyer who defended Dilma Rousseff in court); José Filho Paulo Cavalcanti Filho (a lawyer and writer), Jose Carlos Dias (a legal scholar and former Justice Minister under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso), Gilson Dipp (a lawyer and Minister at the Superior Justice Tribunal (STJ) and the Superior Election Tribunal (TSE)), Claudio Fonteles (a legal scholar who belonged to the student group Popular Action (AP) and who lead the National Student Union (UNE) in the 1960’s), Maria Rita Kehl (a psychoanalyst), and Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro (a renowned political scientist and Chairman of UN’s International Commission of Inquiry for Syria).

Many victims and human rights organizations are dissatisfied with the weak mandate of the truth commission. In particular, they demand the possibility to convene and to punish perpetrators. Currently, former human rights transgressors are protected from prosecution by the 1979 Amnesty Law which has been confirmed by the Brazilian Supreme Court (STF) recently. The Truth Commission has also been attacked by retired military generals in a manifesto published in March 2012. The Rousseff government has announced plans to punish the signatories for disobedience to the law and the Brazilian President. Meanwhile leading Brazilian lawyers and filmmakers published manifestos in support of the truth commission. Among the Brazilian public, the military regime remains a highly controversial topic. Many Brazilians still have positive memories of that era or are indifferent towards human rights crimes in the past.

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