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Brazil torture report adds to global shame and highlights need for accountability

Dilma Rousseff holds back tears as she releases details of torture under Brazil’s military regime. EPA/Fernando Bizzera

As the world digests the findings of a report on the way the US has treated detainees suspected of terrorism, Brazil has owned up to similar abuses of its own citizens.

The Brazilian Truth Commission has confirmed that 400 people were tortured in secret detention centres under the military regime that was in power between 1964 and 1985. More than 200 of them were never seen again after their detention. However, the commission adds that these are just the cases that can be proved – the actual total is likely to be higher.

The fact that these two reports have been published practically in the same week should offer cause for reflection around the world.

Both provide gruelling and gruesome detail about what a state does as it attempts to counter a terror threat. They confirm that coercion and repression have been tools of statecraft for a very long time.

The emergence of democracy and the development of international human rights law is predicated on the philosophical, legal and moral constraints that states ought to place on themselves when it comes to human dignity. The authoritarian regimes of Latin America might be dismissed as illegitimate – but have Britain or the United States behaved any better?

Owning up

Brazil’s military regime remained in power for 21 years and it took a further 20 years for a truth commission, established by the president, Dilma Rousseff, to reveal what had been going on at the time. The findings were announced by a tearful Rousseff, who was herself a victim of torture under the regime.

The Senate Report on the CIA programme of enhanced interrogation in the post-9/11 era includes details of secret detention centres, cruel and inhuman treatment, extraordinary rendition and waterboarding.

It tells of 119 detainees and 49 people subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, more than 20 of whom yielded no actionable intelligence.

Protesters in the US. JBrazito, CC BY

While the debate about whether torture even works as a method for extracting information still rages, the key point is that torture is utterly unacceptable. It is what lawyers call a non-derogable right – one that cannot be violated even if a state faces an existential threat.

The War on Terror, as articulated by the Bush administration, was justified by references to perceived threats that ranged from the imminent to the existential. The atrocities of 9/11 fall very close to the category of existential threat. But even under circumstances as severe as these, torture is still prohibited.

The military regime came to power in Brazil with a mission to reorganise Brazilian society to defend it from communist subversion – which it framed as a terrorist threat. Those who were detained were part of the organised left, popular groups – and those who were merely associated through networks of family and friends, but were unrelated to political opposition. Mere suspicion could lead to years of detention and torture.

All in it together

Many of the military personnel implicated in the atrocities of Brazilian regime received training in counter-subversion techniques in the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in Georgia, in Panama, and – as the Brazilian report reveals – in the UK.

The use of extraordinary rendition is also common to both. The system used by the US to circumnavigate human rights law has its roots in Brazil and its alliance with other authoritarian states in the 1970s.

Back then, there was a network of mobility for terror suspects in the region, known as The Condor Operation. Just like in the post-9/11 rendition network set up by the US, the Condor Operation facilitated the movement of suspected subversives between secret detention centres for enhanced interrogation.

Moral high ground

Democracies – including the US and the UK – have laid a historic claim to being based on a set of fundamental rights and rule of law that separates authoritarian regimes. These are claims grounded in the ideals articulated in the Magna Carta of 1215, the Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, the Declaration of Independence and the US Bill of Rights.

Democratic states also supposedly stand for the principle of accountability – where wrongs committed in the name of the state can be challenged by ordinary citizens, civil society groups and other states which adhere to the same principles.

The two reports published this week show that through vigilance, patience and meticulous efforts at documentation and analysis, the long tail of human rights accountability can come back to haunt those with the hubris to think that these principles simply do not apply to them.

We have seen this before. The 1998 detention and subsequent ruling on the accountability of Augusto Pinochet of Chile, the domestic trial of General Efrain Rios Montt of Guatemala, and the reopening of the 1989 case of the murdered Jesuits in El Salvador are all cases in which principles of human rights and universal jurisdiction seek accountability for gross human rights violations committed in the name of the state.

The promise of human rights in this sense is not some ideal nirvana dreamt up by enlightened philosophers, but a tool to hold individuals and states to account for their actions. Human rights instruments provide incremental and methodical ways to constrain us from the worst forms of our own behaviour.

This sentiment was captured in dramatic fashion by the US senator and former Republican presidential candidate, John McCain, in his support for the Senate report and in his dissent from the Republican response to the report.

A victim of torture himself when a prisoner of war in Vietnam, McCain argued passionately that: “the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights.”

Processes of truth telling such as these comprise a broad acceptance of what has happened, which can then be followed by retribution (prosecution and punishment), reparation (payments to those directly affected), or a longer process of reconciliation. The release of these two reports represents the first stage in this process.

Once the reality of what has happened sinks in, the more difficult steps begin.

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