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Brazil Takes Steps on Truth, Human Rights, and the Right to Know

November 22, 2011

By Erin Maskell

“The truth about our past is fundamental, so those facts that stain our history will never happen again.”

On November 18, 2011, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff signed two major pieces of legislation: the Law of the Truth Commission (Lei da Comissão da Verdade) and the Law of Access to Public Information (Lei da Acesso à Informaҫão), making Brazil the 89th country in the world to enact a freedom of information law. These laws are interconnected and mark an important step in bringing Brazil into the modern world by finally opening a window of public scrutiny on its dark past.

After years of ignoring the abuses that occurred under the military dictatorship in Brazil, the Lei da Comissão da Verdade establishes a seven member truth commission to investigate and report on the murders, torture, and disappearances perpetrated by both the government and the resistance from 1946-1988. The commission will have two years to complete its investigation. The law empowers the commissioners to summon witnesses under oath as well as gain access to all government documents—at least in theory.

“The truth commission law is a political compromise with a resistant and obstinate Brazilian military which has repeatedly refused to produce records on repression,” points out Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Brazil Documentation Project at the Washington D.C.-based National Security Archive. “Truth can be a powerful first step toward accountability for the repression of the military era,” Kornbluh notes, “but only a first step.”

Indeed, to overcome military resistance to the law, its drafters explicitly prohibited the commission’s work from being used in future prosecutions of human rights violators. Families of the victims were not consulted in the promulgation of the new law which is largely the result of decades of their efforts to find their disappeared loved ones, document the torture and executions, and keep the pressure for truth and justice on the Brazilian state. An estimated 400 people were killed during Brazil’s period of military rule and thousands more were tortured; yet, hiding behind an amnesty law passed during the dictatorship in 1979, the military has successfully blocked all attempts at human rights prosecutions. “There can be no justice when no one is held responsible,” says Pedro Taques, a senator with the center-left Partido Democrático Trabalhista (Democratic Labor Party.)

In signing the law, President Rousseff attempted to finesse its limitations. “For generations of Brazilians who died, we honour them today not through a process of revenge, but through a process of rebuilding truth and memory,” she said during a ceremony at the presidential palace. “The truth about our past is fundamental, so those facts that stain our history will never happen again.”

President Rousseff simultaneously approved the Law of Access to Public Information, passed by the Senate in October, making the right to information promised in the Brazilian Constitution a reality. First proposed in 2003, passage of the freedom of information law became imperative in September when Rousseff agreed to lead an international “Global Openness Partnership” with President Barack Obama at the UN. (In early December, Brazil will host the first Global Openness Partnership meeting in Brasilia for leaders of various countries dedicated to open government and access to information.)

This law lifts the secrecy of public documents, stating that documents may only be kept secret for a period of 25 years, renewable once. This makes all documents open to the public after a maximum of 50 years. When a citizen files a public information request, documents must be handed over within 30 days of a request barring a legitimate reason for continued classification. Additionally, there is a specific human rights provision within the law which only a few other Latin American nations, among them Uruguay, have adopted. All documents dealing with human rights violations, according to this special clause, “must be released immediately.”

Brazilian journalist Fernando Rodrigues, one of the principal advocates behind the constitutional right to access to information in Brazil, points out that the hard work is just beginning. “The law by itself doesn’t solve anything,” states Rodrigues. “Now starts the more difficult stage of bringing the law into practice. We have to see how the government is going to treat the new law and over the next six months civil society needs to make its demands heard. The law needs to detail what information is released with a request, government organizations need to start making their information available to the public, etc. All of this needs to be flushed out.” It is extremely important, he also emphasizes, that Brazilian citizens make public information requests; only through active usage will the law will be tested and refined. “It’s clear that no one should be so naive to think that tomorrow everything’s going to be different but the law is a powerful democratic tool to help shift the culture towards greater transparency.”

(For more information see Rodrigues’s interview with the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, http://knightcenter.utexas.edu/blog/journalist-fernando-rodrigues-says-brazils-new-information-access-law-leap-toward-culture-trans.)

This new law and the establishment of the truth commission come at an important time, as the one-year anniversary of the historic Araguaia ruling is fast approaching. On December 14, 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights handed down a long-awaited decision in the case of Gomes Lund and others (Guerrilha do Araguaia) vs. Brazil. The case revolved around the massacre of members of the Guerrilha do Araguaia, a resistance movement made up of young militants of the Brazilian Communist party, by members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and federal police. A landmark decision, this ruling forced the Brazilian government to publicly accept responsibility for grave human rights violations committed during the military regime, open its archives to the families of victims of repression, and pay millions of dollars in reparations. The ruling was the first time an international court has held the Brazilian state liable for these human rights offenses.

Along with the Openness Initiative, the Araguaia ruling is a compelling reason for the steps Brazil is now taking. The human rights clause in the new access to public information law supports the Inter-American Court of Human Rights decision from a year ago, which stated that the government has no legitimate reason to keep secret information related to massive human rights violations. In a country which has been characterized by a collective amnesia towards its past and an institutional recalcitrance to revisiting it, successful implementation of these laws on truth and access to information will finally bring Brazil into the modern age on the compelling issues of truth, human rights, and the right to know.

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