Brazil's Right to Know: Interview with Marlon Weichert

ICTJ spoke with Marlon Weichert, prominent human rights advocate and regional prosecutor with the Federal Public Ministry of Brazil (Ministério Público Federal), on Brazil's pending truth commission bill and calls for accountability measures addressing past violations in Brazil.

05/18/2011

ICTJ spoke with Marlon Weichert, prominent human rights advocate and regional prosecutor with the Federal Public Ministry of Brazil (Ministério Público Federal), on the pending truth commission bill and calls for accountability measures addressing past violations in Brazil.

ICTJ Truth and Memory Program Director Eduardo González provides background and more information about the truth commission bill in "Brazil’s hour of truth and justice."

Q. What crimes are we referring to when we speak about the need for full investigation?

MARLON WEICHERT. Brazil was under military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. During this time many violations of human rights including torture, kidnapping and forced disappearances were perpetrated. The transition to democracy was then conducted by the military government through agreements with civil authorities. These agreements included an amnesty law that prevented any investigation or criminal prosecutions of the crimes committed in Brazil.

Q. Do you feel that investigations should be carried out by prosecutorial authorities, or is there a role for a truth commission?

A. I think Brazil should do both. There is a need to prosecute the perpetrators of grave violations of human rights as well as establish a truth commission, because both work in different ways. A truth commission is focused on the institutions’ responsibility to explain to the whole country what happened, why it happened, and how to move forward. The criminal process, on the other hand, focuses on the individual’s responsibility.

Q. You describe the creation of a truth commission as fulfilling an obligation to remember, an obligation to tell the truth about the past. What is the importance of this in Brazilian society today?

A. To date, transition in Brazil has been constructed around the concept of forgetting. This is a mistake, because we could not review the past and discuss the appropriate role of the security forces in our society. As consequence, today most of the police and army forces work on the same basis as under the authoritarian regime.

By revealing the truth we would have the chance to understand what happened and take a very close look at the reasons why and how the government turned against its own people. We need to confront our past to make right in the present and in the future. This will help us to complete our transition and to fortify human rights.

Q. Brazil is one of the last countries in Latin America to acknowledge or investigate serious human rights violations. What has changed to allow this to occur now?

A. In spite of Brazil is late in confronting the past, I think there is always time. Other countries have established truth commissions that were long overdue, and they did a good job. Canada, in establishing a truth commission examining indigenous questions, is an example of this.

I think now is an ideal time to investigate human rights violations from the dictatorship. Our democracy and public institutions are consolidated and there is no risk of disturbing that stability. We no longer need to fear the consequences of discovering the truth.

Q. Last year, the highest court of Brazil upheld an interpretation of the amnesty law of 1979 that shields perpetrators of human rights violations. However, a judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights stated that the 1979 amnesty law was in violation of Brazil’s human rights obligations. How has this been met by the human rights community in Brazil?

A. The Supreme Court has said that the amnesty law of 1979 is in accordance with the Brazil constitutions of 1988 and 1969, even though it grants amnesty to perpetrators to violations of human rights.

At this time, many lawyers and prosecutors like me said the Supreme Court should observe the ruling of the Inter-American Court. However, the Supreme Court said that it wasn’t a question that could receive interpretation by the international court, because it was outside its temporal competence.

In December of last year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights examined one case about the Brazil amnesty law applied to the Guerrilha do Araguaia and fixed its own competence to judge the impunity over the crimes perpetrated during the dictatorship. The court ruled that the amnesty law could not be interpreted to protect perpetrators of human rights violations.

The Supreme Court will now need to review this decision. Otherwise Brazil will sustain a situation we cannot accept. We are a leader in the continent and an important player in international organizations like the IACHR and other Latin American human rights organizations. How can Brazil then go against a decision of the court? We should stand side-by-side with Argentina, Chile and Uruguay on the understanding that laws promoting impunity are invalid.

Q. You recently wrote a technical note for the Ministério Público Federal analyzing the draft law on the truth commission and indicating room for improvement. In order to establish a fair, effective and independent truth commission, what are the most important elements that need to be addressed?

A. We believe that, like IACHR said in the Araguaia case, the truth commission must be autonomous from the government. Furthermore, it must remain neutral. That means security forces members and even victims shouldn’t compose it. The autonomy begins with the nomination of the members, but it depends also of the conditions under which the commission would work. The state must guarantee adequate staffing and material conditions necessary for the development of the mandate of the commission.

Q. Under the current proposal, how will the commission be formed and how will the members be chosen?

A. The government’s proposal is that the president will nominate the commission members. Nominees must have an established history as defenders of human rights.

But at present there is no proposal for public participation in this nomination process. We think nominations to the commission should be done through a public process, where organizations and civil society would be able to offer some input in the selection. We must give an opportunity to society to express its opinion about the members of the commission.

Q. For truth commissions to be effective, it’s important that there’s a climate of change and an opportunity for full truth to emerge. Is there currently a demand for truth about the dictatorship in Brazil?

A. We have a demand for truth here. As I mentioned before, we transitioned around a lie, around a proposal of forgiveness and silence. But people want to know what happened. We need to change.

Sometimes I think society in Brazil believes that violence is commonplace. The police have been violent in the past, are violent today and will continue to be. We need to challenge this kind of thinking. If we reveal to the society the violence of the past, and the loss it has represented for all the people, and also what means to uphold and protect human rights, this can change.

Countries that pursued truth and achieved justice today experience a better way of life, a stronger respect for human rights. It’s time for Brazil to pursue this. Of course every country should do this in its own way. Brazil is looking for its own way. But we cannot deny society the right to know its history, to know what happened and why it happened, so that it never happens again.