Press Release

IACHR Condemns Murders of Human Rights Defenders Linked to Environmental and Land Rights and to Rural Laborers in Brazil

July 27, 2018

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Washington, D.C. – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) expresses its profound concern over the murders of human rights defenders in Brazil, particularly those working with socio-environmental issues, land rights and rural laborers. The IACHR urges the Brazilian State to address the structural causes of those acts of violence, which are linked to victims’ struggle for environmental rights and for the rights to land and territory.

According to a recent report published by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, by its acronym in Portuguese), 71 homicides related to land disputes were recorded in 2017, an increase of approximately 15% compared to the 61 murders recorded in 2016. A substantial rise was observed in conflicts related to land and water.

Further, based on the annual report of the organization Global Witness, Brazil was the country with the highest number of murders of defenders of human and socio-environmental rights in 2017, with an average of one such murder every six days and a total of 57 over the course of the year. That was the highest number of fatal attacks on human rights defenders since 2002. According to the same report, 90% of those murders of defenders happen in the Brazilian Amazon.

The Commission warns about the differential effects of rural violence on vulnerable communities including landless peasants, traditional Afro-descendant communities (Quilombolas) and indigenous peoples. Among the rural laborers who were homicide victims in 2017, the CPT report said that 21 were landless peasants, 11 belonged to Quilombola communities, and 6 were indigenous persons. The CPT further noted that only 8% of those murders have been investigated so far.

“The growing number of deaths of environmental rights defenders and Afro-descendant and indigenous persons in the context of rural violence in Brazil is alarming, and so are the State’s deficiencies when it comes to combatting the actions of economic agents and organized crime affecting those communities,” said the IACHR’s President and Commissioner Margarette Macaulay, the Commission’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Persons of African Descent and against Racial Discrimination and on the Rights of Women.

The IACHR has been closely monitoring rural violence in Brazil. In 2017, the IACHR expressed, along with the Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights, its concern over the protection of human rights defenders in Brazil, particularly those working with landless laborers. In this context, the IACHR expressed its concern over the rise in rural violence in Brazil. The Commission further called on the State to remedy the legal uncertainty caused by the failure to grant territorial recognition to Quilombola communities, and it observed that such uncertainty exacerbated disputes and the vulnerability of those communities.

The Commission stresses that the absence of land-demarcation and land-titling processes, along with excessive delays and interruptions in such processes, may create a scenario that favors the emergence of disputes, by allowing the intrusion of landowners or peasants into traditional or ancestral lands. The situation further contributes to the loss of traditional territories and lands; to the eviction, internal displacement and eventual resettlement of the affected individuals; to the destruction and pollution of the traditional environment; to the depletion of resources necessary for the physical and cultural survival of the affected communities; and to their social and community disorganization.

The IACHR stresses that States in the region have the obligation to adopt prompt, comprehensive measures to ensure respect and protection for the rights of Quilombola and indigenous communities to enjoy and control their own territories and to live free from all forms of violence and discrimination. This obligation to protect the rights of Quilombola and indigenous communities is even greater in connection with administratively demarcated lands. The Commission further reminds States that they need to take immediate, integrated action to protect and ensure the cultural, economic and social reproduction of those communities.

“The vulnerability of environmental defenders, indigenous peoples and Quilombolas in Brazil is serious, particularly given the reduction in the State’s structure and budget to enable them to enjoy and control their territories and to live free from all forms of violence and discrimination,” said Commissioner Antonia Urrejola, the IACHR’s Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Defenders of human and environmental rights must carry out their rights-defense tasks in a favorable atmosphere that does not preclude the defense of human rights, and they cannot do their job in a context that constantly puts their lives or personal integrity at risk. States must develop comprehensive policies to protect human rights defenders, with a particular focus on prevention, protection and the investigation of attacks on defenders of land rights, the environment and indigenous peoples so these may continue to work without fear.

In particular, the Commission stresses that the Brazilian State has an obligation to adopt any special policies and affirmative action measures necessary to ensure that these tribal and indigenous communities can enjoy and exercise their rights, taking into account the racism, the structural racial discrimination and the risk of intolerance that these tribal communities have been subjected to. Such measures must focus on promoting fair conditions to ensure that those communities enjoy equal opportunities, inclusion and progress, along with respect for their social and cultural identity and their customs, traditions and institutions.

“Brazil must guarantee the national implementation of the Human Rights Defenders Program. The budget resources required to enforce the defense of the right to life must be urgently assigned,” said Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren.

The Commission urges the State to continue investigating these incidents and other acts of violence against rural laborers, and to punish the perpetrators and masterminds of these crimes with due diligence, in a comprehensive, serious and impartial manner. This includes developing lines of investigation that take into consideration some people’s intention to exploit victims’ vulnerability and exclusion based on their ethnic and racial background and/or on their work as human rights defenders. The Commission further calls on the State to increase its efforts to combat impunity in crimes against rural laborers.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 168/18