Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

The Return of Brazil to the International Arena of Human Rights

Estefânia Maria de Queiroz Barboza and Melina Girardi Fachin, Federal University of Paraná

[Editor’s Note: This is the second substantive post in the ICONnect symposium on the new Lula government in Brazil and the challenge of democratic erosion after Bolsonaro. For the introduction to the symposium, see here.]

Talking about Brazil’s return to the international human rights arena has a logical antecedent assumption that presupposes its withdrawal from this stage. The Brazilian authoritarian escalation, which culminated with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, marks the Brazilian isolation in international protection forums. Brazil shifted from protagonist to peer in these matters.

During the last four years, corresponding to the Bolsonaro administration, Brazil has also experienced its decline from a human rights perspective. This is not by chance because there is a common anti-human rights agenda within this populist and authoritarian wave with which Bolsonaro aligns himself. Bolsonaro’s authoritarian populism and his rise are linked to factors common to his administration. Like other populist leaders, Bolsonaro portrayed himself as a political outsider and secured his election through an anti-pluralist discourse that exploited Brazil’s economic crisis and political polarization.

Attacks on human rights, which impact and threaten, above all, the rights of vulnerable groups, were part of the government’s objectives; whether through hate speech promoted by the former President himself, who encouraged several waves of political violence, or through weakening and co-option processes of protection institutions by Bolsonaro allies, destroying them from within. Bolsonarism also practiced abusive constitutionalism by using constitutional and legal mechanisms for the corrosion of institutional structures that maintain the complex system of regulation of political power, including attacks on the independence of control institutions, attempts to pair off the judiciary, attacks on the press, dissemination of hate speech and persecution of political opponents.

Brazil was not alone and accompanied the world’s neoconservative wave with an explicit discourse against human rights in a multilevel way. Hate speech against vulnerabilities is not just a smokescreen to draw attention away from sensitive issues but a strategy to support new authoritarianism, as is also the case in Poland and Hungary. On the other hand, autocrats also sought to occupy the international space for human rights protection­­­ or to remove Brazil from essential areas it traditionally occupied. We can exemplify: i) the withdrawal of Brazil from the UN Global Compact for Migration, in addition to the speeches against migrants and refugees promoted by the former President; ii ) the “pro-family” alliance with countries with more conservative governments,   seeking, especially, an anti-abortion agenda; iii ) the signing of the Geneva Consensus Declaration, that under the discourse of protecting women’s life and health, sought an alliance between countries with ultra-right governments for an anti-abortion and pro-family agenda, such as Hungary and Saudi Arabia[1]; iv) the defunding of contributions to international bodies, such as the UN, ILO, and ICC; v) the closure of embassies in developing countries, under the leadership of the ultraconservative Chancellor Ernesto Araújo; vi) the international isolation in environmental matters. This Populist agenda is admittedly nationalist, xenophobic, misogynistic, and therefore contrary to the ethos of protecting human rights[2] and represents the break of the consensus (at least in discourse) that they represented in the contemporary scenario.

After the horrors of the 20th-century world wars, such consensus founded the contemporary conception of human rights, outlining them as universal, indivisible, and interdependent, and underlining the State’s responsibility to protect and promote these rights. From the initial milestone of the Declaration of 1948, International Human Rights Law began to expand internationally, with the adoption of various international systems and instruments of protection and, nationally, impelling the Constitutions to strengthen the protection of human rights. Both vectors – national and international – prevent human suffering and the primacy of the human person.

Seventy-four years later, on a critical balance, there is a profound ambivalence in the legal treatment of different human rights, especially those implicated with social and economic contexts. This ambivalence is intensified according to the human beings who claim them. One example is appalling: hunger, the most significant cause of death in a world that, despite a surplus in food production, struggles to feed the poorest, black men and women, women, migrants, the most vulnerable people, whose most basic rights are constantly neglected. Regardless of this fracture between the theoretical statement and its adequate protection, there was a consensus on the international scene about the International Human Rights Law regime that has influenced at least the rhetoric of most States.

The growing populist rhetoric signaled a moment of rupture of this (rhetorical) agreement, weakening the human rights protection system, counting on the endorsement of the “people”. As much as populism is not admitted a priori and per se as negative or positive, the phenomenon, with its anti-pluralist character, configures a threat to human rights, as verified in the Brazilian scenario.

Bolsonaro has uttered in his speeches that human rights are a leftist agenda, referring to “the rights of bandits” which would protect corrupt people. The anti-constitutional, anti-rights, and anti-civilizing agendas that made up his campaign were implemented in his government.

In addition to the setback in terms of the protection of human rights on the international agenda, in December 2021, IDEA published the report on Democracy in the Americas, which highlights that although countries in the continent have embraced the 3rd wave of democracy and have strengthened their institutions in this period, they are now going through a democratic setback that has been rapidly accelerating. According to this report, Brazil faced the most significant democratic setback in the world, with the highest number of attributes that measure the level of its democracy in decline.

Assault on the foundations of liberal democracy and the human rights that support it was orchestrated by the Brazilian federal government under the Bolsonaro administration: attacks on i) professors and university autonomy ; ii ) scientists and censorship of research bodies; iii) on the Federal Supreme Court, the Superior Electoral Court and their Ministers; iv) attacks on the integrity of the electoral process; v) attacks on political opponents using the National Security Law against critics of the President; vi) attacks on the press and journalists; vii) presence of military personnel in federal government positions; and viii) co-option of control bodies; ix) increase in the carrying of weapons by civilians; x) systemic and structural discrimination against indigenous peoples, including the dismantling of FUNAI (official indigenist body of Brazilian State) and the transfer of competence for the demarcation of indigenous lands to the Ministry of Agriculture; xi) increase in deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

Also, it is possible to observe attacks on human rights defenders as part of this logic, as seen in measures undertaken against policies to protect the environment and the rights of indigenous people – making the country even more dangerous for human rights defenders.

Furthermore, the religious aspect is part of Bolsonaro’s conservative populism, under the slogan “Brazil above all things, God above all persons”, which emphasizes the ideal of the traditional family, the conservative ideology places itself as an antagonistic to human rights.

It cannot be forgotten, either, that the anti-rights project, of which Brazil is an emblematic example, is, in fact, undertaken at the transnational level. In a recent report, it was found that the visit of the Secretary of the Family linked to the Ministry of Human Rights of Brazil, Angela Gandra, to Poland, to support new restrictive measures on abortion took place with expenses paid by the ultraconservative Instituto Ordo Iuris. That denotes the existence of an intertwined and articulated movement of conservative sectors, which sponsor, in a plethora of countries, attacks on the fundamental freedoms and guarantees of the Democratic State of Law.

The deconstruction project is faster and projects its consequences beyond the four years of government in which it was gestated. Faced with the above-described devastating scenario of the last four years, Brazil’s return to the international human rights arena will be defying.

Turning our eyes to the past, we find the last four years as the greatest contemporary challenge for the protection of human rights in Brazil. We live the triumph of institutionalized hatred for misgovernment, the inferiorization of differences as a factor of annihilation, intolerance, and violence in all its most abominable sexist, racist, xenophobic forms – all this articulated in a neoconservative world order.

Some men and women who made the defense of human rights their life mission – such as Bruno and Dom, Marielle, and Anderson – unfortunately are not alive to witness the sunset of the chaos that killed them.

In the absence of internal state structures capable of responding to human rights violations, the international systems for protecting human rights showed their relevance within the limits of their strength. Obviously, none of these international structures can immediately change atrocious national scenarios since they depend precisely on state orders to be fulfilled. But the existence of these minimum protective international standards – and their safeguard structures such as Commissions and International Courts – were and are essential precisely as minimum preservation for people in eroded state contexts from the point of view of democracy and rights, as were the last four years in Brazil.

Looking to the future, the expectation of change looming on the horizon allows, without any celebratory euphoria, hope. It is true that the effects of the policies of destruction and annihilation of rights have a prolonged effect over time and that the disengagement of this lack of a government with human rights will last longer than the four years of the mandate. In any case, International Human Rights Law is there to look back on our past violations in the future and hold responsible those who should be held, even personally.

As historical processes of struggles that are human rights, obviously, the return of thematic centrality in the national and international arena, will not happen without resistance. The acts practiced on January 8th in Brazil, with the barbaric acts of invasion and destruction of public buildings, account for future challenges. This episode has even reignited an interesting debate on the human rights of people detained and imprisoned for violent practices. For the first time, many of them found themselves in the places formerly occupied by the “bandits” who called for rights.

Indeed, the challenge for the new government is enormous, and it will need to assume many commitments in the international human rights agenda, especially the protection of women’s sexual and reproductive rights; the protection of the environment; the protection of indigenous peoples; the commitment to protect freedom of the press and journalists, as well as activists who work to protect human rights, and yes, as a priority, reduce and eradicate poverty and hunger in one of the most unequal countries on the planet.

In the gap of time between past and future, the now emerges; and it is time to exalt the existence of human rights law as a stage of struggle that allows, in this new commitment to human rights that appears, to institutionalize its gains, pave the way for internal-international dialogues and make the institutional bodies more robust to hold accountable and, above all, to prevent new authoritarian attempts that violate human rights that live around here.

Suggested citation: Estefânia Maria de Queiroz Barboza & Melina Girardi Fachin, The Return of Brazil to the International Arena of Human Rights, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Feb. 12, 2023, at:

[1] On January 17th, The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lula’s government announced that Brazil will withdraw from the so-called “Geneva Consensus”.

[2] ALSTON, Philip. The populist challenge to human rights. Journal of Human Rights Practice , v. 9, no. 1, p. 1-15, 2017. p.1.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *