Press Release

IACHR and Regional Office for South America of the OHCHR Condemn Murders of Rural Activists in Brazil

December 27, 2018

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Washington, D.C. / Santiago, Chile - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Regional Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for South America condemn the murders of two activists for the Landless Workers Movement (MST, by its Portuguese acronym) in the Brazilian state of Paraíba, and of a leader of rural settlements in the State of Pará. The IACHR and the OHCHR urge the Brazilian State to investigate those events with due diligence, considering the victims’ activities in defense of human rights, and to address the structural causes of those acts of violence, which are linked to the struggle for land rights in Brazil.

According to public reports, José Bernardo da Silva, known as “Orlando Bernardo,” and Rodrigo Celestino were murdered in the evening of Saturday, December 8 on Dom José Maria Pires camp, the MST settlement in the municipality of Alhandra, in the state of Paraíba, where they worked as coordinators. According to those reports, several masked attackers stormed the camp and fired machine guns against the area were the victims were. The Commission observes that the brother of one of the victims, Odilon Bernardo da Silva Filho, who was a member of the Movement of Dam Victims (MAB, by its Portuguese acronym), was also murdered in 2009, after receiving several death threats. A third brother, MAB coordinator Osvaldo Bernardo da Silva, had to join the Human Rights Defender Protection Program that year, because he was believed to be in danger. Aditionally, on 15 December, Gilson Maria Temponi was assassinated, president of the Associação dos Agricultores Nova Aliança, of the rural settlements "PDS Castanheiro", "Arthur Faleiro" and "Avelino Ribeiro". The leader had previously suffered threats because of his defense of the regularization of rural lands.

The Commission and the OHCHR warn that the murders of defenders José Bernardo da Silva, Rodrigo Celestino and Gilson Maria Temponi happened at a time of especially worrying violence against human rights defenders in Brazil, particularly those who defend the right to land and territory. According to the annual Global Witness report, Brazil became in 2017 the country with the highest number of murders of human and socio-environmental rights defenders in the world. Further, according to the information provided by the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT, by its Portuguese acronym), almost 1,800 MST activists have been murdered since the movement emerged in 1985.

“The Brazilian State must urgently take effective action to prevent acts of violence against human rights defenders,” said Birgit Gerstenberg, Regional Representative of the OHCHR. “The work done by human rights defenders is vital for democratic societies. Brazil must strengthen its protection program to guarantee that defenders can work in a safe environment that is free from threats.”

On July 27, 2018, the IACHR condemned the murders of defenders of human rights linked to environmental and land rights and to rural laborers in Brazil. On that occasion, the Commission noted that defenders of environmental and land rights had to carry out their defense efforts in a favorable environment that did not preclude the defense of human rights, and that they could not do their job in a context that constantly put 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 land rights defenders, so these may continue to work without fear.

When faced with such acts of violence, the State must investigate with due diligence and punish both perpetrators and masterminds. Further, it must also address the structural causes of such violence, linked to the struggle for land rights in Brazil. The IACHR and the OHCHR note the statement issued by Brazil’s Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office condemning these murders, stressing its commitment to protecting the human rights of settlers and vowing to make every effort to the relevant investigation, in order to establish who perpetrated the killings and to punish anyone responsible for them. “Such investigations must also consider victims’ defense of land rights,” said Commissioner Francisco Eguiguren, IACHR Rapporteur on the Rights of Human Rights Defenders.

During a recent in loco visit to Brazil, the Commission travelled to MST settlements where it was informed of the criminalization of the movement’s actions to demand land rights. In its Preliminary Observations on that visit, the Commission expressed a deep concern over the increase in rural violence and the serious problem faced by tens of thousands of rural families who are evicted year after year from the land they live on or otherwise hold. In this context, the IACHR called on the State to immediately and urgently adopt all measures necessary to ensure the right to life, personal integrity and safety of land- and environmental-rights defenders in Brazil. In particular, the Commission highlighted the political and budgetary implementation of the National Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders. “The Brazilian State must act urgently to strengthen its protection program’s structure and budget, and also to guarantee its effective implementation in rural areas and in areas that are far from urban centers, which is precisely where most of the reported acts of violence happen,” Commissioner Eguiguren said.

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.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) is mandated to promote and protect the enjoyment and full realization, by all people, of all rights established in the Charter of the United Nations and in international human rights laws and treaties. The OHCHR is guided in its work by the mandate it obtained from the United Nations General Assembly in resolution 48/141. Its global headquarters are in Geneva, Switzerland. The Regional Office of the OHCHR for South America is in Santiago, Chile, and covers the following countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela


No. 276/18