The Human Rights Legacy of Brazil’s Upcoming “Mega-Events”

Preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games are well underway in Brazil, with local government officials in Rio de Janeiro trumpeting the “major success” of initiatives intended to address notoriously high levels of violent crime.

In an attempt to head off widespread concerns, which preceded South Africa’s hosting of the 2010 World Cup, the apparent success of initiatives such as the Police Pacification Units (PPUs) cracking down on insecurity in Rio’s shantytowns (many, such as Rocinha, close to popular tourist areas and venues for Olympic events) has been loudly hailed by local politicians and duly reported by the international media.

The Chinese 2008 Olympics served as a catalyst for international human rights mobilization, leading to calls by prominent politicians for the games to be boycotted.

Criticism of Brazil’s human rights record by activist organizations has been far more muted. International media reporting on the impact of Rio’s beefed up security policy, such as this month’s Roundtable article, conspicuously fail to mention human rights at all.

To a large extent, this reflects a lack of equivalence between an authoritarian dictatorship and a constitutional democracy where, according to Freedom House, civil liberties and political rights are broadly respected. Such a claim, however, masks a more complex lived-reality of rights violations.  Indeed, Freedom House data sits uneasily alongside human rights indicators such as the Political Terror Scale, where Brazil is the worst performer in South America after Colombia, sharing equal pegging with China and Russia.

Brazil’s democratic regime faces profound rights challenges, witnessed in a homicide rate of 27.0 per 100,000 people in 2009 (South Africa: 33.8, US: 5.0). The Sangari Institute starkly notes that 192,804 homicides in Brazil between 2004 and 2007 compare with 169,574 people killed in twelve major conflicts over the same period.

At the local level, in Rio de Janeiro the homicide rate in 2009 was 31.8 per 100,000 people, a marked improvement on a high of 51.0 in 2000. That said, observers have recently cautioned against taking official homicide data at face value, noting a recent dramatic rise in violent deaths due to “unknown causes.”

The 2010 report on Brazil by former UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, Philip Alston, documents pervasive impunity, as well as widespread killings by on-duty police and by off-duty police participating in death squads and militias. The report reserves particular criticism for police practices in Rio de Janeiro, where for every 100 homicides in 2008, the Rio police killed 19.89 people. (Sao Paolo police killed 8.46. By comparison, the rates in South Africa and the US were 2.58 and 2.62 respectively)

To grapple with the causes of massive violations of rights at the hands of state officials within an ostensibly democratic regime is to delve into Brazil’s troubled legacy of dictatorship. High levels of violent crimes, coupled with historical disrespect for civil rights and a culture of official impunity, have reinforced a deep public ambivalence toward human rights.

Alongside very serious violations of political and civil rights, Brazil also confronts structural human rights violations of an economic and social nature, including access to clean water and sanitation.

In the run up to the Games, criticism has focused on the impact of alleged displacement and evictions on the right to adequate housing. The right to adequate housing is protected by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), which Brazil ratified in 1992.

Brazil is not alone here. The Olympics have been blamed for the forcible removal of two million people over twenty years, with China accounting for three quarters of that total. The legacy effects of the Olympics in Barcelona, Atlanta, and Sydney (and possibly London) have more often than not been the displacement of the urban poor, leaving a trail of community breakdown, racial tensions, and loss of affordable housing in their wake.

In the spirit of Professor Conor O’Gearty’s observation that human rights is “a visibility project: its driving focus is to get us to see the people around us…it is concerned with the outsider, with the marginalised, and with the powerless…”, the upcoming “mega-events” in Brazil provide an important opportunity to pressure the Brazilian state to act on what are complex human rights challenges.

What will be the rights impact of the PPUs and urban redevelopment? Is this a sincere attempt by the Rio de Janeiro authorities to seek long-term solutions to deeply entrenched rights issues that invariably affect the poorest, most socially and economically vulnerable in the city?

On the housing front, the omens are not good. Local government officials have been criticized for a lack of public consultation on major infrastructure projects that are in progress as part of an $18 billion “Plan for Accelerating Growth” in host cities for the World Cup and Olympics. According to one report, an estimated 150-170,000 people have already been subject to forced removals, with inadequate compensation or suitable alternative housing, to “[c]lear the ground to make way for big, money-making real estate projects.”

As for the PPUs, initial results suggest that this initiative can have a positive impact. In the nineteen (out of 130) gang-controlled favelas where PPUs have been established, they have proven popular, with violent incidents declining dramatically.

The promise of PPUs lies in their potential to transform relations between the police and local communities in Rio and elsewhere. In contrast to the lethal methods employed by the elite special unit battalions to neutralize the power of the drug traffickers, the PPUs offer a very different approach to law enforcement, one that relies on capturing and holding territory through a “permanent” police presence (police do not currently live within the communities).

If sustained, the PPUs might begin to normalize new terms of engagement between the police, drug gangs, and local residents. The PPUs may have been conjured up as a clever ploy for local and international media consumption. Certainly, what is a tentative move in the right direction faces a range of formidable obstacles in terms of resources, institutional resistance, and pervasive mistrust, among others.

However, if the PPUs prove popular, if they achieve modest but real results on the ground, it may become difficult for Brazilian politicians and security officials to later defy demands and expectations for their continuation, even after the Games have packed up and left town. Never underestimate the potential for unintended consequences.

Originally published here.

En Memoria: Professor Guillermo O’Donnell

It is with great sadness that I learnt of the death of Professor Guillermo O’Donnell in Buenos Aires on Tuesday 29, November 2011.  O’Donnell was one of the most brilliant and influential political scholars of his generation, and an inspiration to generations of students tackling the complex issues of democratisation and authoritarianism.  You can read a tribute to him here by Professor Scott Mainwaring of University of Notre Dame.

For my part, Guillermo O’Donnell was and remains a seminal influence in my work on democratisation, political accountability and human rights.  His conceptual innovations including delegative democracy, horizontal accountability and appointed institutions have done a lot of heavy lifting in my own research on human rights institutions in Latin America.

O’Donnell’s work has been a source of inspiration and an indispensable companion in making sense of a complex and often murky Latin American political landscape. The extraordinary contrasts I observed as a DPhil student fresh off the plane in Peru between Lima (the capital of Peru) and Huancavelica (the high Peruvian Andes) made a lot more sense when looked through O’Donnell’s prism of ‘brown areas’; territory where liberal guarantees and the rule of law are absent and subject to violations by state agents.

In short, O’Donnell’s work has been a gateway to my own more careful examination and appreciation of the Latin American lived reality. In his own words:

The compelling challenge in ‘societies marked not only by pervasive poverty but also, and even more decisively for our theme, by deep inequalities, is how to ensure that the weak and poor are at least decently treated by [state] agents…’

On a more personal note, O’Donnell was a long-term collaborator of my DPhil supervisor, Laurence Whitehead and a frequent visitor to Nuffield College, Oxford.  In my first year as a DPhil student, I found myself in a seminar with Guillermo and was introduced as a ‘horizontal accountability’ enthusiast.  Guillermo graciously expressed an interest in reading my draft work.

Upon emailing it over that afternoon, I received a short message of thanks and thought that might be that. An hour later, another email popped into my in-tray: “I’ve just read your very interesting texts…”

The following Tuesday afternoon we spent the best part of an hour discussing my MPhil study of the Peruvian human rights ombudsman, accountability theory, and where I might take the project as I made the leap to a comparative frame.  Listening again to the recording of the conversation, I am struck anew by his enthusiasm and gentle encouragement: “I thought it was very good, excellent, I learnt a lot…”

The US on the Palestinian Statehood Bid: Weighing the Costs

Reflecting on the controversy surrounding the Palestinian bid for statehood, Richard Falk neatly subverts the opening words of the UN Charter, “we the people,” as having always surrendered to “we the governments,” and, in the modern era of American empire, “we the hegemon.”

This may well be true. The UN Security Council (UNSC), in particular, is viewed in Washington as a vehicle for hegemonic ambitions—to be indulged when it serves its purpose and vetoed and sidelined when it does not. Unfolding events at the UNSC, reportedly due to vote on the Palestinian resolution on November 11 but now postponed perhaps indefinitely, do much to affirm this assessment.

But what are those hegemonic ambitions? Prominent moderate and more conservative thinkers are struggling to answer this central question, with experts of diverse political stripes expressing concern at the political fallout of Israeli and US belligerence towards the Palestinian bid. As Washington Post columnist Thomas Friedman reports: “I’ve never been more worried about Israel’s future…”

The difficulties encountered by the Obama administration in pursuing a policy deeply at odds with much of the international community in the “Global South,” and the possible costs to the US and its regional allies and clients—both foreseeable and unintended—of opposing the largely symbolic Palestinian bid at the UN, certainly raise the question: what is the payoff?

The default position of many commentators is to point to the inordinate influence of the Israeli lobby on domestic politics in Washington, especially as the 2012 election year approaches. This would appear to be borne out in a recent opinion poll, which suggests that a majority of Americans actually support the Palestinian resolution. But is the Israeli lobby really powerful enough to “force the [Obama] administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s”?

Reflecting growing alarm in Washington, US officials have embarked—some would say rather belatedly—on a concerted push to derail or pre-empt a vote at the Security Council, without success. Diplomatic entreaties in recent weeks have given way to last ditch efforts at arm-twisting as momentum has built around the Palestinian bid. However, the US has struggled to get a grip on the situation.

The US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, has signaled that there is “no greater threat” to US support and funding of the UN than the prospect of Palestinian statehood being endorsed by member states. UNESCO has become the first test of US resolve, with the organization voting to recognize Palestinian statehood (a vote not subject to US veto).

Reaction has been swift and decisive. The US withheld $50 million in funds from the organization, sending a clear signal to the broader UN community. For its part, Israel has responded to the UNESCO vote by speeding up settlement expansion in the West Bank and Jerusalem.

Neither action is likely to be looked on kindly by allies or adversaries; indeed, the White House and the British Foreign Secretary have expressed deep disappointment in the Israeli response. This provocative move by Israel further undermines the already tenuous credibility of US insistence on a negotiated settlement.

This round of retribution follows the earlier punitive decision by the US Congress to freeze $200 million of economic aid destined for the Palestinian Authority. That move drew criticism from across the political divide, including from Hilary Clinton, who voiced concern that it will provide an opening for radical groups to fill the vacuum.

Unable to deter the Abbas administration, US attention has turned to the Security Council. With the majority of UNSC members having signaled their voting intentions, diplomatic maneuvering has focused on those few remaining undeclared members, Gabon, Nigeria, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, in an attempt to secure the nine votes necessary to avoid a US veto.

At the time of writing, this approach appears to have worked. With Britain and France declaring their intention to abstain – despite the latter voting in favor of Palestinian statehood at UNESCO – and Colombia, Portugal, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Germany expected to oppose the resolution, the Palestinian leadership can count on only eight votes in support (China, Russia, Brazil, India, South Africa, Lebanon, Nigeria and Gabon).

The costs to the US of checking Palestinian ambitions may be significant, in so far as doing so further diminishes US influence in the Middle East. US foreign policy commentators have singled out repression of Shia minorities by US client regimes and the enduring plight of the Palestinians as the two key issue areas undermining US efforts to win hearts and minds in the region.

Only last year, Barack Obama declared his ambition that a negotiated agreement “will lead to a new member of the United Nations.” However, the apparent inability of the US to halt Israeli settlement activity, combined with the revelations of the Palestinian papers, which documented Israel’s rejection of historic concessions by the Palestinians, have left many observers deeply disillusioned about the prospects for peace through negotiation and the sincerity of Obama’s rhetoric.

Stalwart US allies in the region have counseled the US to support the Palestinian bid. Saudi Arabia has declared that its “special relationship” with the US risks becoming “toxic.” Recent reports of Saudi Arabian nuclear ambitions indicate the regime’s growing sense of vulnerability. Similarly, Jordan has expressed deep concern at the prospect of the Palestinians being “really short-handed on this issue.” Turkey has also signaled its intention to defy US entreaties.

In the background lies the bigger uncertainty for the US regarding the growing influence of Iran, its alleged development of nuclear weapons, and the continuing fallout of the Iraq invasion. The refusal by the Iraqi government to allow continuation of a US military presence (under current immunity laws) after 2011 was widely reported as a major diplomatic and military rebuff.

Against this backdrop of deep uncertainty, can the US afford to further alienate the Arab world by blocking the Palestinian bid for statehood? Are the hands of the hegemon tied by the Israeli lobby? No doubt, many of those who argue that the preponderance of the Israeli lobby has forced the hand of the US are sincere.

However, to sound a more skeptical note, it is also likely that US policymakers have conducted their own risk assessment and concluded that the costs are either acceptable or largely immaterial given the country’s unrivaled hegemonic status. Some decision-makers may argue that opposition to the Palestinian bid actually serves US interests by signaling cast-iron support for Israel.

Israel is a de facto US aircraft carrier in the region—an important asset for the projection of US power by proxy. However, as part of this arrangement, Israel’s dependence on US patronage is absolute, which raises the question: is Israel really in a position to dictate terms to Washington on the Palestinian bid, or on any other issue for that matter?

As for US allies in the region, Washington may view their continued allegiance over the long term as uncertain in any case. Strongly worded support by Clinton and others for democratization in the region is likely to jeopardize relations with autocratic allies, such as the Saudi royal family.

Despite arguments to the contrary, this reading of events suggests that it is still, very much, a case of “we the hegemon”.

Published here: http://www.du.edu/korbel/hrhw/roundtable/2011/panel-c/11-2011/pegram-2011b.html 

Human Rights as a Vocation: A Portrait of Ana María Romero de Campero

“With Ana María Romero dies a piece of the history of Bolivia. This woman is who built our democracy.”

These words of remembrance by the Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera marked the death of Ana María Romero de Campero on October 25, 2010, at the age of 69, the first woman President of the Senate of the newly formed Bolivian Plurinational Assembly. In the days that followed, his sentiments were echoed not only by many of the urban elite and professionals of La Paz but also, more unusually, by civil society activists and ordinary Bolivians throughout the country.

Largely unknown outside Bolivia, Ana María Romero dedicated her life to promoting democracy and human rights with particular regard for those most disadvantaged in Bolivian society. Her work reached its apogee with her appointment as the first Defensora del Pueblo in 1998, an office broadly translating its intent into English as “Human Rights Ombudswoman.” The high public standing of the Defensor del Pueblo in Bolivian society today is largely attributable to her forceful leadership as Defensora until 2003. In turn, Ana María used her considerable public popularity as the former Defensora del Pueblo to continue to play a constructive role amidst the turbulent and divisive events that followed Morales’ rise to power in 2005. The recounting of Ana María’s story serves also to reflect, albeit partially, upon the past, the present and the future of Bolivia’s struggle towards viable democracy.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Ana María at her office in July 2008 as part of my research into the human rights impact of Defensorías del Pueblo in Latin America. Intriguingly, little attention had been paid to these new state human rights institutions although they seemed to be held in high public esteem, in contrast to their much-maligned political systems. Bolivia was no exception. Over the course of a three-hour discussion, Ana María provided valuable insight into the grand schemes and operational minutiae that informed her term as Defensora, as well as the philosophical basis for her actions. A growing body of anecdotal evidence suggested that the Bolivian Defensoría—alongside its Colombian, Guatemalan and Peruvian counterparts—was, and remains, widely regarded as a credible, impactful institution in a sea of dysfunctionality. In the course of my five-year investigation, a recurring predictor of success came into focus: the exceptional leadership qualities of individual Defensores, including Jaime Córdoba Triviño (Colombia), Ramiro de León Carpio (Guatemala), Jorge Santistevan de Noriega (Peru) and Ana María herself.

Ana María Romero Campero was born into a deeply political household in La Paz on June 29, 1941. Her father, Gonzalo Romero, was a leading figure on the left of the Bolivian Socialist Falange (FSB) party, and at the center of the turbulent revolutionary politics of the era. His nationalist revolutionary ideology was likely to have fostered Ana María’s outlook on Bolivian society, as she pursued her own political formation, honing her abilities as a journalist to convey a complex Bolivian reality to the world. A noted irreverence towards the powerful, as well as a gift for mediating conflict, provided early indications of her future vocation.

During decades of political strife, Ana María became a figurehead for independent journalism and a rare authoritative woman’s voice on the national stage. The first woman to preside over the Journalists Association, she also founded and led the Circle of Women Journalists and became President of the National Press Association. In a Bolivian world of male hierarchy, such a trajectory was a significant achievement and perhaps inevitably marked her out for political office. Initially, however, her experience with official politics would be fleeting. In 1979, Ana María was appointed Minister for Information during the short-lived democratic administration of Wálter Guevara Arce that was toppled by one of the many military coups that plagued Bolivia throughout the twentieth century, led on this occasion by General Alberto Natush Busch. Ana María was instrumental in tipping off the international community about the coup with the aid of her personal telex machine.

In the late 1990s, Ana María Romero truly found her voice on the national stage. According to the Bolivian journalist and historian Rolando Carvajal, her influence on some of the most important social and political events of recent years is perhaps exceeded only by Evo Morales. Crucial to this narrative is the almost unanimous congressional endorsement of Ana María as the first Bolivian Defensora in 1998, during the government of erstwhile dictator, later democratically elected, President Hugo Banzer. A novel office, autonomous yet part of the state, and with an explicit human rights promotion and protection mandate, the Defensor del Pueblo appointment provided Ana María with a powerful bullhorn with which to advocate for change. She proved an adept political operator, capable of navigating in an increasingly polarized social reality and a faltering political system. Above all, she had the virtue of understanding that her role as Defensor was to represent a “Magistratura de la Persuasión [Magistrate of Persuasion].” The message that all Bolivians had rights—irrespective of political affiliation or ethnicity—and that the state had a responsibility towards those most vulnerable and marginalized within society had a powerful resonance. Ana María rapidly positioned herself and the institution as a voice for the voiceless.

The Defensor del Pueblo set about reframing human rights as an objective standard apart from the political fray of competing ideologies. Campaigns to redress widely perceived injustices (such as the denial of kidney transplants, reform of the social security code and compulsory military conscription) contributed to her popular appeal as a determined human rights defender in the face of formidable opposition. Against vocal objections by the Bolivian government and U.S. embassy, Ana María intervened in a violent conflict between cocaleros and security forces in 1998 in El Chapare. Her efforts—alongside those of local civil society and church—to generate a space for dialogue are widely credited as having achieved an ultimately peaceful resolution to the impasse.

Ana María was a familiar mediating presence in many other social and political conflicts in the late 1990s and 2000s. During the 2000 Cochabamba Water War, the Defensora actively sought to hold the water utility company and regulators to account. She also successfully petitioned the Constitutional Tribunal to strike down the Banzer government’s state of emergency decree, much to the chagrin of government ministers.

Ana María’s term as Defensora expired in September 2003, and in the midst of a highly contested reelection bid, the Gas War saw countrywide protests against the selling of Bolivia’s natural gas reserves to the United States through Chilean territory. On October 11, 2003, on the order of Defense Minister Carlos Sánchez Berzaín, military forces shot to death an estimated 67 people in El Alto and left hundreds more wounded. In response, Ana María began a hunger strike in protest against the actions of the Sánchez de Lozada government, quickly joined by hundreds of human rights activists. This controversial action was regarded even by some of her family as a step too far. Nevertheless, Ana María felt compelled by a “moral duty” to do something. In our interview, she commented simply, “I suppose this action was coherent with my life and, in particular, my work as Defensora.” It proved effective. Then-sitting Vice President Carlos Mesa remarks in his 2008 memoir, Presidencia Sitiada: Memorias de mi Gobierno, that the action by the Defensora “resulted in the destruction of the government’s support base within the middle classes,” almost certainly contributing to the fall of the government days later.

These events would eventually redefine Bolivian politics, precipitating a seismic shift in the political landscape with the election of Evo Morales in 2005. In the wake of Black October, Ana María did not seek reelection as Defensora. Nevertheless, her legacy as a human rights advocate, as well as the prestige she brought to the office, has contributed to the appointment of credible individuals as successors. Both Waldo Albarracín (2003-2008) and the current Defensor Rolando Villena are highly respected within the human rights community. The election of Morales and ascendance of the traditionally excluded marks a decisive break from the old political model. This inverting of the old order ushered in a period that has seen high levels of polarization and bitter social conflict along political, regional and ethnic lines. Such a challenging new context has also demanded adaptation and reinvention on the part of democratic and rights-oriented stakeholders.

The former Defensora turned her energy towards conflict resolution, negotiation and dialogue, resulting in the 2005 creation of the NGO Fundación UNIR.

While generally supportive of the reforms undertaken by the Morales government, Ana María remained an independent- minded and constructive critic of the administration. Notwithstanding intermittent disagreements, her relationship with Evo Morales remained one of mutual respect and even admiration. An invitation in October 2009 for her to stand as the first MAS Senator for La Paz in the newly formed Plurinational Assembly was widely viewed as Morales’ attempt to broaden the appeal of the MAS to the urban middle classes and intellectual elites. After some deliberation, Ana María accepted the invitation and publicly endorsed the general direction of Morales’ political project. Elected Senator for La Paz in December 2009, she was unanimously appointed President of the Senate shortly thereafter. Illness denied Ana María the chance of fully realizing the role of “mediator-in-chief ” within the Senate. Nevertheless, her election to one of the highest offices in the land was a fitting tribute to a life lived in defense of ordinary Bolivians’ human and democratic rights.

Originally published: http://www.drclas.harvard.edu/publications/revistaonline/fall-2011/human-rights-vocation