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María Isabel Rivero
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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Case 12.066, “Fazenda Brasil Verde” Workers with regard to Brazil.
The case concerns the State’s international responsibility for violations of the American Convention on Human Rights in a context in which every year tens of thousands of workers were subject to slave labor, a practice rooted in a history of discrimination and exclusion. The group affected is made up primarily of men of African descent between the ages of 15 and 40, who come from the country’s poorest states and have few work prospects. The extreme and special vulnerability of this group is due to, among other things, a lack of adequate and effective recourse to protect their rights, not just formally; the extreme poverty that affects much of the population in the states they come from; the insufficient presence of government institutions; and the unequal distribution of land.
Since 1989, State authorities have conducted visits or inspections of the Fazenda Brasil Verde to check on workers’ conditions. These visits verified the existence of forced labor, work “irregularities,” and “some flaws” at that estate. Workers who managed to escape reported on the existence of death threats if they were to leave the estate; deterrents to being able to leave freely; the lack of wages or the existence of a minimal salary; the debt they had incurred with the estate owner; and the lack of decent housing, food, and health care, among other problems. The Commission believed that the information available warrants characterizing practices at the estate as forced labor and indentured servitude as a modern form of slavery.
Moreover, the Inter-American Commission declared that this situation can be attributed internationally to the State of Brazil, as it has been aware of these practices in general, and specifically at the Fazenda Brasil Verde, since at least 1989. The IACHR found that even though it was aware of the situation, the State failed to take reasonable prevention and response measures and failed to provide victims with an effective judicial mechanism for the protection of their rights, the punishment of those responsible, and the procurement of reparations. The Inter-American Commission’s analysis also took into account the principle of nondiscrimination.
The Commission further concluded that the State of Brazil is internationally responsible for the disappearance of the adolescents Iron Canuto and Luis Ferreira. Their disappearances were reported to State authorities beginning in December 1988, and no effective measures were taken to learn of their whereabouts, despite the State’s awareness of the practices at the estate. By tolerating these practices, the State perpetuated them.
In its Merits Report on the case, the Inter-American Commission concluded that the State of Brazil is responsible for the situation of forced labor and servitude for debt analogous to slavery, and for the impunity for all the events that took place as a result of the State’s actions and omissions, as well as for the disappearances of Iron Canuto and Luis Ferreira.
In the Merits Report, the Commission recommended that the State of Brazil provide adequate reparation, both material and moral, for the human rights violations; ensure that the victims receive back pay for their labor, as well as the amounts of money illegally taken from them; and investigate the incidents involving human rights violations with regard to slave labor and the disappearances of Iron Canuto da Silva and Luis Ferreira da Cruz. It also recommended that the State order appropriate measures to respond to actions or omissions by State officials that contributed to the denial of justice; establish a mechanism to help find the victims of slave labor; and continue implementing public policies, as well as legislative and other measures, to end slave labor. The Commission further recommended that the State strengthen the legal system and create coordination mechanisms between the criminal jurisdiction and the labor jurisdiction, so as to close any gaps that arise in the investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible for the crimes of servitude and forced labor; seek to ensure strict compliance with labor laws related to work days and equal pay to other wage earners; and adopt the necessary measures to do away with all forms of racial discrimination, particularly by carrying out promotion campaigns to raise awareness among the national population and civil servants—including justice system operators—about discrimination and the subjection to servitude and forced labor.
The Inter-American Commission submitted Case 12.066 to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court on March 6, 2015, because it deemed that the State of Brazil had not complied with the recommendations contained in the Commission’s Merits Report. The Commission submitted for the Court’s consideration the State’s actions and omissions that occurred or continued to occur after December 10, 1998, when the State of Brazil accepted the Court’s jurisdiction. These actions or omissions include the situation of forced labor and servitude for debt analogous to slavery, as of December 10, 1998, a situation that was verified by evidence, including an inspection that took place in the year 2000. The Commission also submitted to the Court’s jurisdiction the actions and omissions that have led to the situation of impunity for all the events in this case, an impunity which was still in effect when the State accepted the Court’s jurisdiction and which continues today. Finally, the Commission submitted to the Court the disappearances of Iron Canuto and Luis Ferreira, which extended beyond the date of Brazil’s acceptance of the jurisdiction of the Court.
This case will enable the Inter-American Court to develop case law on forced labor and contemporary forms of slavery. The Honorable Court will be able to expand on the circumstances in which a State can compromise its international responsibility due to the existence of these types of practices. Specifically, the Court will be able to examine the scope of the duty to prevent acts of this nature by private individuals, as well as the scope of the duty to investigate and punish these violations.
The IACHR is an autonomous organ of the OAS, and derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote the observance of human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this matter. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected by the General Assembly of the OAS in a personal capacity and do not represent their countries of origin or residence.