It’s not (just) the economy, Minister

By Camila Assano

President Rousseff confirms Mauro Vieira as the new Minister of External Relations

Foreign policy has returned to the spotlight in the early days of President Dilma Rousseff’s second term after having all but disappeared during the election period. The good news is that the appointment of a new foreign minister and the future of diplomacy over the next four years have received considerable attention both in the specialized press and in the mass media. More importantly, it has created the expectation that Brazil will become more active again internationally.

Nevertheless, this renewed prominence already appears to have a face and a name: trade promotion. In his inaugural speech, the new minister said that “one guiding principle of the work of the Foreign Ministry (…) will be to collaborate intensely to open, broaden or consolidate the most unimpeded access possible for Brazil to all the world’s markets, while promoting and defending the Brazilian productive sector (…)”.

There’s nothing wrong with making diplomacy an instrument for the socio-economic development of the country. On the contrary, this is one of its functions. However, just like with everything, the ends cannot justify the means and there are standards that need to be observed. In Brazil’s case, our own Constitution defines them: international relations must be governed by certain principles, among them the “prevalence of human rights” (article 4, II).

Brazil’s international action in 2015 needs to be more focused on the global human rights agenda. It can be said that every country has a twin role to play in this field. On the one hand, countries are the “object” of the international system on this subject. This occurs when a country receives criticisms or recommendations from other countries or from international bodies, such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights of the OAS, which recently issued a provisional measure to curb the violations in the Maranhão state prison complex known as Pedrinhas. The second role of States is to be a “global player”, taking a position on various international issues and negotiations in progress on the human rights agenda, such as the humanitarian crisis in Syria.

We shall first take a look at the expectations for 2015 considering Brazil as a “global player”, i.e. that it takes positions on events occurring outside its borders. The expectations for the country are significant, due to its recently-acquired status as an emerging power.

One of the leading events for this year will be the creation of the New Development Bank by the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), also known as the BRICS Bank. It is essential for the bank, in its future loans, to require that States respect the right of free, prior and informed consent for indigenous peoples and to establish socio-environmental and human rights criteria that are consistent with the highest international standards. A responsible policy by the BRICS Bank could also have an even more positive impact if it were extended to the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), which is still a long way from being a model of transparency in the management of public funds.

A responsible role is also expected from Brazil on the matter of international transfers of arms and munitions. Brazil is the world’s fourth largest exporter of light weapons, according to the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, and our defense products industry has been securing new foreign markets, particularly in Africa and Latin America. But this sizable share of the international market is not accompanied by a transparent control of the destination and use of the arms that leave the country. The guidelines that currently regulate the industry are contained in the National Export Policy for Military Equipment, which also happens to be a secret document.

We can start to rectify this situation in 2015 with the urgent ratification of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The text of the treaty, which the Executive Branch took 17 months to submit to the National Congress, is now pending in the Lower House. The treaty places a number of restrictions on the sale and donation of armaments to countries that commit genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations. The ATT will also curtail the illegal diversion of arms by placing greater responsibilities on the exporting and importing nations. Brazil is plagued by more than 53,000 firearms deaths per year and many of these weapons enter the country illegally. In other words, the treaty will prevent the country from helping cause more deaths both inside or outside its borders.

Another issue on the agenda that deserves attention is international immigration. Since 2010, there has been an increase in the number and diversity of immigrants who come to Brazil. The Brazilian State has acted consistently with the solidarity of its discourse, for example, by not preventing the entry of Haitian immigrants and by making the visa process easier for Syrians who want to seek asylum here.

It is worth pointing out that these two measures were adopted by specific resolutions – practically band-aids – since Brazil’s current immigration law is averse to the idea that migration is a human right. One of the main flaws of the Foreigner Act, in effect since the military dictatorship, is that the regularization of immigrants is overly difficult. By preventing regularization, our legislation makes immigrants more vulnerable to abuse, such as the cases of slave labor that arouse our indignation and shame. The reform of Brazilian legislation should involve two approaches in 2015: the adoption of a new immigration law with a focus on human rights and the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and their Families.

One of the trademarks of Brazilian diplomacy is the promotion of multilateralism. However, Brazil’s financial contributions to international human rights bodies, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), are inconsistent with both the discourse and the size of our economy. They are way too low. The last payment by Brazil to the IACHR was in 2009 and in the trivial amount of 10,000 US dollars (less than 30,000 Brazilian reais), considering that Argentina in 2013 alone made a contribution of 400,000 US dollars.

Also on the topic of multilateralism, Brazil will have to take a position in important votes in the UN. In preparation for the major global discussion on drug policy scheduled for 2016 in the United Nations, the Human Rights Council (HRC) of the UN will debate, in 2015, the relationship between the current drug policies and the negative impacts on human rights. Given the scale of these impacts in Brazil, particularly in the prison system, it is essential for the country to take a leading role in the negotiations of this resolution in Geneva.

In 2014, we saw how Brazil’s prominence in the UN can be crucial for the advancement of important topics, such as the approval of the HRC resolution on sexual orientation and gender identity. The role of Brazil in this agenda should continue firm and progressive in 2015. It could also act, this year, to strengthen the regulation on companies and their involvement in human rights violations. There are two agendas in place that deserve a greater commitment from the country: the improvement in the functioning of the UN Working Group on the topic of business and human rights, established in 2011, and the process of creating a legally binding treaty on the subject.

Brazil also presents itself as a “player” on the global agenda though its bilateral relations. One valuable opportunity are the state visits by the president and foreign minister to other countries and the receipt of foreign dignitaries here in Brazil. In mid-2015, President Rousseff is scheduled to make the visit to the United States that was cancelled in 2013 after the spying revelations emerged. The call for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison should top the agenda of the visit. Brazil, like Uruguay, could receive prisoners who are being held in Guantanamo without formal charges and who have been released by the U.S. government. There is a list of people who can leave the detention center, but this requires a third-party State to offer asylum, since many of the detainees fear for their lives if they return to their countries of origin.

Also in his inaugural speech, Foreign Minister Mauro Vieira said that “it’s not enough for us just to be present on the world stage; we need to be active”. Brazil’s diplomatic presence, through its various embassies and other diplomatic offices, is a valuable resource. Little is known, however, about the work they do. It is important for the Brazilian government to inform the role that these embassies have in the promotion and protection of human rights in the various countries where they are present, particularly those with track records of serious and widespread abuses. To cite two cases, Brazil has embassies in Teheran and Pyongyang, and its abstentions on several votes in the UN on resolutions addressing the situations in both Iran and North Korea raise questions over its commitment to the agenda of rights and freedoms in these countries. It is hoped that information on the work conducted by the embassies is contained in the White Paper, a document that the Foreign Ministry had promised to release last year, but has yet to do.

Moving on the role of Brazil as an “object” of the international human rights system, other expectations emerge for 2015.

We would like to see a more constructive posture from the country in response to the criticisms, recommendations and decisions emanating from regional and international human rights bodies, such as those of the UN and the OAS. The mere preservation of one’s international image should not be the focus of diplomacy, as was seen, for example, in Brazil’s reaction to the UN working group on arbitrary detention after its visit to the country. On this occasion, the official response to the report was exclusively dedicated to correcting minor errors in the document, without addressing the central conclusion reached by the group of experts: the existence of a culture of mass incarceration in Brazil. It is not sufficient to just look good; you actually have to be good too. Another disappointing episode in 2014 was the attempt by São Paulo Governor, Geraldo Alckmin, to disqualify the UN special rapporteur on access to safe drinking water and sanitation after receiving criticisms over the poor management of water resources in the state.

What we need to see is the federal and state governments making use of what is recommended by the international specialized human rights bodies to help them overcome the country’s many flaws. A few days before the end of 2014, an important (and overdue) step was taken. The Human Rights Secretariat of the federal government launched a web portal where the recommendations received by Brazil from the various UN and OAS mechanisms will be available, together with information explaining the stage of implementation of each one. It remains to be seen, however, whether the portal will be used in 2015 as an instrument for the formulation of public policies by the different spheres of the Brazilian State.

The calls for a more assertive and responsible international action from Brazil on the subject of human rights should be seen as a consequence of the idea that foreign policy is a public policy, just like all policy should be under the democratic rule of law. Access to information is the pillar of democratic control and the limited progress made by the Foreign Ministry in this area is cause for concern. Not even the Freedom of Information Law has been able to rectify this situation, given the numerous requests that have been denied with questionable justifications. They illustrate that the Ministry considers itself immune to the requirement that transparency is the rule and secrecy, the exception. The publication of the Foreign Policy White Paper and the creation of a permanent forum for social participation – which should be in the form of a National Council on Foreign Policy – are two of the Foreign Ministry’s undelivered promises for 2014 that were not even mentioned in the new minister’s inaugural speech. It is up to society to keep up the pressure.

A version of this article was originally published on Carta Capital.

Camila Asano, BA in International Relations and MA in Political Science, both from the University of São Paulo (USP), is coordinator of Foreign Policy at Conectas Human Rights. She is also a member of Grupo de Reflexão sobre Relações Internacionais/GR-RI, a Brazilian international relations think-tank.