Amnesty, human rights and diplomacy

Paulo Sotero – Estado de S. Paulo, 01/02/2011

This op-ed was originally published in Portuguese here

The recent verdict of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemning Brazil in the case of the Araguaia guerrilla and demanding the punishment of those responsible for the disappearance of 64 people in the early 1970s is a challenge that President Dilma Rousseff probably did not count on addressing this early in her administration. Having, however, signaled that she will take human rights matters very seriously, the president has an opportunity to act with greatness regarding the decision of the Court of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The argument that there is no demand from society for a review of the painful past reflects reality but is flawed. In democratic nations, good leaders don’t just do what the people want, but what reason and decency require. Unfortunately, Brazil’s Amnesty Law of 1979 –an integral part of the political compromise that paved the transition from the military rule to the rule of law a quarter century ago – included the crimes of torture committed by state agents and perpetuated the culture of impunity that undermines democracy in Brazil.

The Brazilian Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal, STF) ruled that the Amnesty Law is constitutional. The hard and frustrating truth is that the sentence issued by the OAS Court has no legal effect. Under the Constitution, international treaties have to be ïnternalized” to be valid in the Brazilian legal system. The American Convention on Human Rights –the basis of the Araguaia verdict– was ratified by the National Congress in 1998. It is considered constitutional. However, its application is not automatic. It is up to the Supreme Court to grant its applicability. Moreover, the STF ruled that the Amnesty Law is in effect. This means that one cannot ask the Brazilian Judiciary to punish the Executive Branch for not condemning the Araguaia torturers. And the Executive Branch cannot violate the Supreme Court decision, which determined to halt prosecution and punishment of all politically related crimes committed during the harsh years of the military rule.

Therefore, the creation of a National Truth Commission, proposed by former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is an appropriate and reasonable way to confront this sad past. It would be a cathartic exercise, conducted in the spirit of reconciliation, not revenge. As a former political prisoner who was tortured during the military regime and is now commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, Rousseff has the authority and legitimacy to lead this process.

The verdict of the Inter-American Court is timely for a second reason. By having the Brazilian people confront this painful piece of the past, it invites the new president and the country to reflect on the bewildering position that the Foreign Ministry has taken recently on behalf of the Nation: to abstain systematically from votes in the United Nations Human Rights Council condemning abuses committed by notorious violators such as Myanmar, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Iran, among others.

The justification of former Foreign Minister Celso Amorim is that the present U.N. voting regarding human rights has been politicized and serves only the goals of U.S. foreign policy. Because the voting is public and creates noise, it does not help promote human rights. For Amorim, that would be achieved more effectively if the pressures were applied discreetly behind the scenes, without causing embarrassment to the violators.

Similar calculation has guided former President Lula in his unsuccessful attempt to mediate the nuclear issue between Iran and the international community. During the conversations held with the president of Iran Mohammed Ahmadinejad behind closed doors in Tehran in May, Lula was very tough. “Everybody thinks you do not fulfill your word, including your friends,” Lula said to Ahmadinejad, according to a report by journalist Assis Moreira published in daily Valor on May 21 based on what he heard from the then president. The information was corroborated by some diplomats who read the Brazilian Foreign Ministry cables on the talks in Tehran. Lula insisted with the Iranian president that the deal was an opportunity to create a climate of trust and alleviate a major focus of international tension. He said he was there to open a door for peace and insisted with the Iranian regime to send a “strong” message to the world about its nuclear intentions.

Lula could have repeated publicly a diplomatic version of the appeal he made to the Iranian leader. However, out of a concern for asserting his own position –one that he assumed was more effective than the U.S.’s in seeking an understanding with Iran– the former president refrained from publicly clarifying the position he defended behind closed doors, casting doubts regarding Brazil’s motivation in acting on behalf of peace. In turn, Ahmadinejad, whom no one trust, had the chance to turn the announcement of the precarious agreement jointly signed with the Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a celebration of a victory against the strategy of the United States and its allies to isolate Tehran. Days later, the UN Security Council rejected the Brazilian-Turkish initiative, and imposed new economic sanctions on Iran. Brasilia was left with the embarrassment of explaining that “Lula did as told by Obama” and to leak a personal letter sent from the American leader to his Brazilian counterpart to prove that he had acted at the request of the United States.

The Iran episode contains two lessons. First, it confirms that the wisdom of the late Baron of Rio Branco (foreign minister from 1902 to 1912) remains current: In diplomacy one does not celebrate victories. The second and most important lesson is that in matters of principles, such as those involving human rights and international peace, nations that take themselves seriously have only one position. This does not mean they cannot modulate their public statements, as United States does toward China, and Spain toward Cuba. It means, however, that they should always be consistent with their values – in public and behind the scenes.

Director, Brazil Institute, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars

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