After the world looked on open-mouthed as President Jair Bolsonaro delivered a heavy-handed speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September, it has become difficult to look to Brazil for any authority on human rights issues.
With severe accusations against indigenous communities and even nods to the country’s brutal military dictatorship (1964–1985), the conservative agenda of Brazil’s far-right government is now out in the open. Its first test, however, comes tomorrow, when Brazil, Venezuela, and Costa Rica battle it out for two seats on the UN Human Rights Council.
The UN General Assembly will elect 14 new members to fill the 47-strong council for three-year terms beginning 2020. Selected countries must receive 97 of a possible 193 votes. Until October 3, only Brazil and Venezuela were competing for the two positions reserved for Latin America and the Caribbean, making them both shoe-ins.
However, after Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado also showed an interest, the Latin American and Caribbean regional group at the UN now have the perfect plan to kick Venezuela’s bid into touch.
If Brazil’s extraordinarily religious and anti-communist discourse is awash with criticism, Venezuela’s repressive government is in a much worse diplomatic situation. According to José Miguel Vivanco, Human Rights Watch director in the Americas, electing Nicolás Maduro’s country “would be an insult” to other members of the council.
The Organization of American States (OAS) says the same. Secretary-General Luis Almagro tweeted that he supported Brazil’s candidacy precisely because “it would be inadmissible” to see Venezuela in their place.
Besides the allegations of Messrs. Vivanco and Almagro, Venezuela’s current regime is also in a new stage of seclusion after a report from UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet in June. The former Chilean president denounces “extrajudicial executions, torture, imposed disappearances, and arbitrary detentions.”
As Caracas denies and rejects this onslaught of pressure, Brasília is reveling in it. Internationally speaking, the Venezuela issue takes the spotlight away from the controversial statements of the Jair Bolsonaro government.
Behind the seats
The isolation of Nicolás Maduro is likely to bail the Bolsonaro government out of jail, as far as the UN Human Rights Council is concerned. However, there is no smooth sailing between Brazil and the intergovernmental organization. Mr. Bolsonaro’s scuffles with the UN date back to the 2018 presidential campaign, when his far-right supporters began to call the organization a “communist” group.
On September 4, Ms. Bachelet was the target of Mr. Bolsonaro’s ire. The former Army captain suggested “the only reason” Chile didn’t become Cuba is “thanks to those who dared to put a stop to the left in 1973,” referring to the bloody dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. The Brazilian president also derided Ms. Bachelet’s father, who was killed during the regime.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s inflammatory responses came after Ms. Bachelet criticized Brazil’s uptick in police killings in 2019—statistics which the Brazilian government omits in its propaganda material for re-election to the Human Rights Council.
In the same week as the council vote, members requested that Jair Bolsonaro explain the comments he made back in July about the disappearance of Fernando Augusto de Santa Cruz Oliveira, the father of the current head of the Brazilian Bar Association (OAB), Felipe Santa Cruz. The Brazilian president suggested he knew about the whereabouts of the remains of Mr. Santa Cruz senior, who was disappeared and killed during the military dictatorship.
The president of the UN’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, Bernard Duhaime, and the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Fabian Savioli, said that anyone “who obstructs investigations or withholds information” would be held responsible by the organization for the continued commission of a forced disappearance.”
Guilherme Casarões, a political scientist and professor at Fundação Getulio Vargas, explains that while Brazil’s opposition to Venezuela could have some repercussions on Latin America and among some western countries that recognize Juan Guaidó as the nation’s legitimate president, it will have little bearing on the opinions of the rest of the world.
“Even if some countries subscribe to the Brazilian candidacy following the logic of the ‘lesser evil,’ other countries will certainly oppose some of the most controversial proposals that Brazil has been supporting. The election and coalitions that will be made within the Council follow different logics,” he points out.
Cuba is one example of this. In 2016, the island—which has been criticized for human rights abuses—was elected a council member with 160 votes, more than the total received by Brazil at the time. Mr. Casarões states that by rejecting Mr. Maduro, it does not mean that nations support the conservative agenda defended by the Bolsonaro government.
Furthermore, the nations in charge of the world’s most prominent human rights decisions already have a well-defined agenda. Therefore, Mr. Bolsonaro’s ultra-conservative discourse is likely to be used mainly to satisfy evangelicals and supporters of far-right guru Olavo de Carvalho, but it’s unlikely to have any bearing whatsoever on the operation of the Human Rights Council, says the professor.
Lessons from Costa Rica
Costa Rica has been able to gain worldwide respect despite having less than five million inhabitants. The tiny Central American country is known as a peaceful haven within a tumultuous region, with stable education and health figures, and an electricity matrix which is made up of 98 percent renewable energy.
The UN also recognizes the country as a reference point in Latin America for environmental issues. Costa Rica was hailed as the 2019 Champions of the Earth—the most prestigious environmental award given by the UN—for its role in nature protection and ambitious climate change policies.
The country’s goal is to reach full renewable energy and make its automobile market 70 percent electric by 2030. It also has a detailed plan to decarbonize its economy before 2050. The initiative is in line with the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals.
In the second week of October, 30 environment ministers and over one thousand delegates went to Costa Rica’s capital city of San José for a three-day climate forum, which discussed new mechanisms to contain global warming. Tackling the climate change denial pushed by the U.S. and Brazilian governments was also on the agenda.
And before the center-left leader is called a hypocrite for endorsing human rights violations in Venezuela, he is one of the few left-leaning heads of state leaders to uphold a truly progressive agenda. That includes condemning repression against freedom of speech and dissidents in Venezuela and Nicaragua, without forgetting his country’s urgent commitment to sustainability. Would Brazil be able to do the same?
Update: Despite widespread international criticism, Venezuela managed to beat Costa Rica for the second Latin American seat at the UN Human Rights Council. Brazil led the election, with 153 votes. Venezuela came in second, with 105—and Costa Rica came up short, with 96.