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Brazil election: why we need to stand with human rights defenders

01 November 2018

Jair Bolsonaro's election in Brazil is extremely dangerous for human rights activists in Latin America.

Maria Soto and other Ixil women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide

Maria Soto and other Ixil women celebrate after former Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide against indigenous people in the 1980s. The election in Brazil will increase threats against indigenous communities across the region. (Photo: Elena Hermosa)

The result is part of a growing pattern of the rise of populist right-wing leaders who come to power with the promise of smashing political corruption and who stoke the fears of people who feel vulnerable in the face of social and economic change. We have seen this in the United States of America, Italy, Hungary, Turkey, the Philippines, parts of Africa and now in Latin America too. 

Bolsonaro’s election will embolden dangerous political movements in the region at a time when Latin America is already volatile. 

Venezuela is in the midst of a deep economic and political crisis; Nicaragua has been shattered by political violence; while Guatemala and Honduras are racked by gang violence and the killings of human rights activists. 

The election of a person with extremist opinions on a range of issues – from women to minorities to the environment – will further destabilise Latin America, as what happens in Brazil affects the entire region. 

Bolsonaro’s election coincided with the migrants’ caravan from Honduras towards the United States border. This migrants’ movement has attracted shocking criticism from US President Donald Trump. Trócaire was proud to support the migrants by helping to provide food and water as they moved through Guatemala. 

The people taking part in the caravan are leaving their homes in Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico because they no longer feel safe there. Poor governance and high levels of violence have meant people feel they have no choice but to leave their homes. Some have already lost loved ones. 

The murder rate in Honduras, for example, is 43 per 100,000. This compares with Ireland’s rate of 0.8 per 100,000. Women and indigenous groups are particularly at risk of violence – violence that is mostly inflicted with complete impunity.

People taking part in the migrants' caravan resting in Guatemala, where Trócaire provided them with water and food. (Photo: Blanca Blanco / Trócaire)

Trócaire has worked in Latin America since our foundation in 1973. The struggle for human rights in the region is core to our mandate and mission. 

We remain committed to supporting vulnerable people, particularly indigenous groups, and the environmental and human rights activists who protect them. This is why we are particularly concerned at Bolsonaro’s intention to target activists. Already there have been reports of increased intimidation of human rights activists in Brazil. 

Bolsonaro wants to increase deforestation, build destructive hydro-electric dams, open up new mines and reduce environmental protection.

All of these actions will place indigenous communities and their defenders at risk. 

It is also very worrying from a climate change perspective. His plans to clear large areas of the Amazon will make it impossible for Brazil to meet its carbon emission reduction targets and endanger global efforts to reduce temperature rises. 

These are very worrying times for Brazil, for the region and for all of us who care about human rights. 

You can take action by signing Trócaire's Human Rights Defender petition. Lend your voice to help protect the brave women and men who are defending vulnerable communities against human rights abuses.