The daunting job of Brazil’s truth commission

Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff speaks at the inauguration of the National Truth Commission in Brazil. Photo by Agência Brasil

Early this year the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture stated in its review of Brazil that “impunity for acts of torture was pervasive” in the country.

However, following the recent conviction of a colonel for crimes of torture, a new wave of optimism and hope is sweeping the country. Paulo Vannuchi, the former minister who pushed for the establishment of the truth commission in Brazil, is spearheading the wave. He stated, “the impunity has been broken.”

And that wave is not small. The Brazilian truth commission, which began in May and has a two-year mandate, has already received hundreds of recommendations from civil society organisations around the country. These organisations are calling for the government to not only list but prosecute those responsible for the alleged crimes of torture committed during the dictatorship despite a 1979 amnesty that shelters military officials from prosecution.

Open the archives, don’t create new ones

Grupo Tortura Nunca Mais (GTNM), an IRCT member organisation based in Rio de Janeiro, has for many years been at the forefront of calls for the establishment of a truth commission in Brazil. However, the organisation, which has recently been threatened and seen its office targeted by burglars, is not being swept up in the wave of optimism about recent developments.

A little over a month after the commission’s work began, GTNM issued a statement which read: “the national truth commission has been showing their real objectives, and their perverse limitations”.

According to GTNM, the core of the matter is that the dictatorship archives have been kept hidden for years, and instead of making them public, the truth commission is creating new ones, in a measure thought to persuade the perpetrators to reveal details about the crimes of the military regime. GTNM asks whether the commission isn’t just helping to “cover the crimes and its perpetrators?”

Ultimately, the amnesty law remains untouched, and the truth commission won’t have the power to act against those involved in the crimes. Furthermore, the commission is not obliged to release its findings and an eventual list of torturers might be shared with the defence minister and the president only. To further curb the optimist, the small team of seven men and women has only two years to heal the wounds of more than 40 years and turn the page.

The dictatorship in Brazil killed an estimated 400 people; torture victims are estimated to number in the thousands, including, most notably, the nation’s president Dilma Rousseff.

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