Standing our ground: Efforts to overturn Brazil’s torture prevention system must be resisted
Not long ago, as I joined a public hearing at the National Congress of Brazil, I had a moment of déjà vu. I was taken back to a time, nine years ago, when I took part in a similar event, at the same venue (although this time my presence was ‘virtual’), to discuss and advocate for the same issue: the implementation of a national system to prevent torture in the country.
However, despite the many similarities, these two experiences were fundamentally different. The expectations were different, the objectives were different and the feelings shared by participants were different.
Nine years ago, we sought to drive progress. Our goal was to advance human rights protection and mechanisms in the country. Hopefulness and enthusiasm prevailed.
Today, we are fighting setbacks and challenges to established human rights policies. Frustrations emerged. However, there was also resilience and persistence.
In 2012, we stood before Congress and called for parliamentarians to approve legislation that would demonstrate their commitment to fight torture and ill-treatment and uphold the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).
Last week, we stood before the House of Representatives to defend a State policy, enacted by federal legislation, that has been unilaterally dismantled by an Executive order. We were there to resist the rollback of rights and to defend an established and effective torture prevention body.
On June 2019, the federal government issued a Presidential Decree that removed funds for the functioning of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) against torture; determined that members of the NPM would cease to be remunerated and would instead carry out their functions on a voluntary basis; and summarily dismissed all current members of the body.
All these measures seek to dismantle the National System to Prevent and Combat Torture, a State policy and legislation approved in 2013, that created national and local anti-torture bodies (national and local committees and mechanisms to prevent torture).
The policy helped drive greater transparency and oversight of places of detention. It has also saw Brazil’s vibrant civil society actively involved in developing policies and programmes to prevent torture and ill-treatment.
However, the Decree restricts the autonomy of civil society to elect their representatives in public policy debates and gives the President full power to choose the organisations that comprise the National Committee to Prevent Torture.
Since its publication, a broad coalition of national and international civil society organisations has denounced the Decree, through public statements, dialogue with State officials, reports to international human rights bodies and judicial actions.
In addition, the UN Subcommittee for the Prevention of Torture, in an unprecedented move, published a legal opinion analysing the compatibility of the Decree against the requirements of OPCAT. In its report, the SPT stated that the changes brought by Presidential Decree nº 9.831 “are not in accord with the obligations of Brazil under the Optional Protocol” and have “severely weakened the torture prevention policy of Brazil”. The SPT also called on the Brazilian State to revoke the Decree to ensure that Brazil’s torture prevention system functions efficiently and independently.
The Courts have provided a temporary remedy. In response to a legal claim presented by the Federal Public Defense Office, a ruling was made that suspends the effects of the Decree until a final ruling is adopted. This court decision is all that sustains Brazil’s NPM. If the measure is overturned, the national anti-torture body will immediately cease to exist.
Since its establishment in 2015, the NPM has inspected more than 46 psychiatric hospitals, 68 prisons, 34 detention centres for adolescents, as well as six care facilities for the elderly and 31 drug addiction treatment centres, in 25 states across Brazil. Based on its independent monitoring, it has issued recommendations to authorities of the legislative, executive and judiciary. It has followed up on State responses to violent massacres in Amazonas, Rio Grande do Norte and Roraima. It has denounced torture perpetrated by the National Security Force of Prison Intervention. It has been consistent in its efforts to document human rights violations and engage in dialogue to implement preventive measures.
Above all, the NPM has brought to light information about conditions of detention in every corner of the country and has made that available to the public. The publication of its monitoring reports and findings demonstrates that opacity can no longer prevail in closed institutions or facilities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, national and local preventive mechanisms have played a key role to maintain oversight of the situation inside places of deprivation of liberty, at a time when there has been a lack of reliable official information. Nationwide, family visits have been suspended for several months. In some states, this has continued to the present day. The preventive mechanisms have been one of the few oversight bodies to continue to inspect places of detention during the pandemic and have been a key ally and source of information for the families of detainees.
On 26 June, International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, a network of civil society organisations and public institutions came together in an inspiring video. Our goal was to focus community attention on the continuing reality of torture in Brazil, to stand with those who are most at risk – black youth and sexual and gender minorities – and to call for a stronger National System to Prevent and Combat Torture. As so many voices said, the establishment of the National System in 2013 was the result of strong and coordinated advocacy from civil society organisations. It is a State policy that belongs to all Brazilians.
Our advocacy today must be just as concerted. At a time when the commitment to ending torture faces its greatest threat, we will continue to raise our voices and remind the Brazilian State of the absolute prohibition on torture. We will continue to advocate for a National System that upholds the rights and dignity of all people deprived of liberty. We will continue to remind the legislative and the judiciary of their duty to protect and defend a policy that must go beyond the influence of the government holding office.