Eye on the Amazon

UN Experts Slam Brazilian Government's Attacks on Indigenous Rights

Sônia Guajajara. Photo credit: Gert-Peter Bruch / Planète Amazone

In response to the deepening human rights crisis gripping Brazil, last week a group of experts from the United Nations (UN) and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) forcefully denounced President Michel Temer's administration and the agribusiness-affiliated ruralista congressional bloc for leading the assault on the rights of indigenous peoples.

Acknowledging the severity of today's spiraling political regressions, Special Rapporteurs Victoria Tauli Corpuz and Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli (rights of indigenous people for the UN and IACHR, respectively), Michel Forst (human rights defenders), and John Knox (human rights and the environment), did not mince words, asserting: "The rights of indigenous peoples and environmental rights are under attack in Brazil."

Specifically, the experts cited the intolerable levels of violence perpetrated against Earth Defenders in Brazil, noting that killings take place on a weekly basis, with indigenous peoples most at risk. They also denounced congressional efforts to dismantle the indigenous agency, FUNAI, by slashing its budget and removing its authority to title and demarcate native lands, while using a congressional inquiry to criminalize numerous anthropologists, indigenous leaders and human rights defenders dedicated to indigenous issues.

"Against this backdrop, Brazil should be strengthening institutional and legal protection for indigenous peoples, as well as people of African heritage and other communities who depend on their ancestral territory for their material and cultural existence," the experts stated. "It is highly troubling that instead, Brazil is considering weakening those protections."

Sônia Guajajara, a prominent leader of Brazil's National Indigenous Movement, welcomed the assessment of the Special Rapporteurs: "The United Nations is a fundamental voice within the context of today's political chaos. This message, coming from a respectful institution, offers our struggle much needed visibility," she said. "The UN is acting as an instrument to defend our rights from the threats we face while reinforcing our demands."

The Brazilian government's brazen moves to undermine rights and environmental protects have unleashed a firestorm of international condemnation and media attention in recent weeks, culminating last week's high-level denunciation.

Swiftly responding to the UN and IACHR's report, Brazil's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a scathing rebuttal, deeming the statements "unfounded." The Ministry claimed that the unprecedented attacks on indigenous rights and upon indigenous advocates are a justifiable form of free speech, essential to democracy and the interests of the majority of Brazilian society. "[T]he findings that Brazil is considering weakening its legislation on the rights of indigenous peoples and environmental law are unfounded and inadequate," it asserted.

"The Brazilian government positions itself very poorly when it questions the basis of these sorts of denouncements," said Sônia Guajajara. "It shows that it is very distant from the people."

Indeed, the Ministry's heavy handed response recalls past attempts by the Brazilian government to undermine international human rights institutions when then President Dilma Rousseff recalled her Ambassador to the IACHR over its call to suspend the Belo Monte dam. The government's latest, highly unfortunate sign of creeping authoritarianism and racism clearly indicates its aim to shut down dialogue from with actors critical of its agenda.

In a recent article Sônia Guajajara maintains the importance of resolute struggle at this difficult moment, writing:

"Our movements are strengthened in our name, which continues to be synonymous with decently and resistance. We do not engage with this government because we know it represents the opposite values. Its historical practices of lying, cheating, manipulating, and attempts to dominate are long known to us. We continue with certainty that we are on the right side, the side of struggle and resistance in defence of our rights, of our peoples and of Brazil."

We have a collective responsibility to stand with Sônia and Brazil's Earth Defenders, whose struggle for rights and environmental protection is also our own.

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