Global Policy Forum

New Truth Commission in Brazil; Just a Name and Blame act?

Grave crimes committed during the military dictatorships in South American countries like Argentina and Chile, are known to many. Not much is known of horrors committed during the military dictatorship in Brazil. The Brazilian congress has approved a new Truth Commission to investigate crimes against humanity that took place from 1946 to 1988. The decision to create the Truth Commission has been controversial; some critics say it is merely formed to avoid embarrassment in front of other states. Another problem is the apparent clash between the Commission and Brazil’s amnesty law.

By Mariângela Guimarães

Radio Netherlands Worldwide

September 26, 2011

Most people know about the horrors of military dictatorships in other South American countries, like Chile and Argentina. But less is known about Brazil. One reason might be that Brazil has never thoroughly examined its recent, dark past. Furthermore, much of what happened during the dictatorship years, from 1964 to 1985, is still being discovered by the lifting of other big black dots.

Truth Commission
This week, Brazil’s Congress approved the creation of a Truth Commission, which will investigate and hopefully shed light on all human rights violations committed during the military dictatorship. The project still has to be approved by the Senate and by President Dilma Rousseff, though these two steps appear to be formalities. However, this doesn’t mean the decision is uncontroversial. To begin with the commission, which will be made up of seven people to be appointed by President Rousseff, will not only investigate the dictatorship years, but a larger period from 1946 to 1988.

The Truth Commission will examine cases of torture, death, disappearings and the hiding of corpses. It should also identify and make public the structures, places, institutions and circumstances related to the systematic violations of human rights. The hope is that this information will lead to the discovery and identification of the remains of the people who disappeared in those years.

The Truth Commission project, which has been in discussion for the last two years, was presented to Brazilian Congress this week as a matter of urgency, which means it had to be approved or disapproved without further changes. Some say avoiding embarrassment in the international community is the real reason for the urgency. Brazil has until December of this year to respond to the Organization of American States (OAS) Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which, in response to a lawsuit filed by relatives of missing persons in the Araguaia Guerrillas, ordered that the country investigate and punish those responsible for crimes against humanity committed during the dictatorship.

Critics also say that approaching longer period was the result of pressure from the military, as a way of taking the focus away from the dictatorship years, when most atrocities happened and the ones that really matter. With only seven members and two years to investigate a period of four decades, the Commission is unlikely to manage a thorough examination of all the documents and facts.

Another problem is that Brazil has an Amnesty Law, dating from 1979, that according to a decision taken last year by the country’s Supreme Federal Court should not be changed – a decision which ended any expectation that the Truth Commission would also bring any real punishment to those responsible human rights violations.

At the end of the 1970s, Brazilian society fought for a ‘broad, general and unrestricted’ amnesty, thinking of the immediate freedom for all political prisoners and the possibility of return to the country of all leaders and activists that were forced into exile by the regime. The end of the dictatorship wasn’t yet in sight and what most people didn’t realize then is that this law would also prevent crimes committed by the military from ever being punished. Broad, general and unrestricted amnesty also meant amnesty for them.

So now even if the Truth Commission turns out to be effective and is able to wipe out all of the black dots that are still covering up some of Brazil’s horrific past, revealing what happened to all who were tortured, killed and disappeared and by whom, critics fear it will become primarily a name and blame act.

This is important for the memory of those who suffered and for historical truth, but if no changes are made to the Amnesty Law, the guilty will remain unpunished.

The official number of deaths during Brazil’s military dictatorship is 500 and 147 people disappeared. According to the organization Tortura Nunca Mais ( ), 20.000 people were tortured during that period.

In countries like Argentina, Chile and Peru, truth commissions were the first step for a process of justice that later was completed with the punishment of the perpetrators.

According to International Law, crimes against humanity are inalienable, so, even with Brazil’s Amnesty Law, will fall under the same kind of decision given last year by the OAS Inter-American Court of Human Rights, once jurisprudence applies to all States that are signatories to the inter-American system. This means that the possibility of justice outside Brazilian boarders still exists.


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