In the lead-up to the World Cup and following a trip to Brazil in March, I wrote to President Dilma Rousseff, asking her to welcome and embrace the protests in Brazil as an opportunity to build a more just, diverse and free society.
While in Brazil I met with representatives from Amnesty International, Article 19 and Conectas Human Rights. They expressed concerns about the escalating violence on Brazilian streets and how this is being used as an excuse to fast track the approval of bills within the Brazilian Congress which restrain Brazilian democratic rights and tend to increase the criminalization of social movements.
Street protests in Brazil started in June 2013, mainly due to bus fares, but rapidly expanded to cover other issues - such as the lack of proper education, sanitation and health services, besides corruption and the feeling of misrepresentation by official institutions.
Dear Ms. President,
The fight for democracy marked Brazil’s history. For over 20 years, Brazilians lived under the shadow of a repressive regime that shrank fundamental democratic rights, such as the right to assemble, the right to protest and freedom of speech. Though State forces were heavily used to silence those against the regime, it didn’t stop people standing up and fighting for their rights - including you, Ms. President. The same way that I did in South Africa fighting against the Apartheid and antidemocratic rule.
Many things have changed since then and Brazil is now a democracy. But after my recent trip to the country, I must alert you to a few things happening in Brazil that concerned me as they put our valuable democracy at stake and risk to undermine the fundamental rights of all citizens.
As I've seen in many other places around the world, people are outraged with increasing corruption and impunity, with the lack of action related to enviromental and social problems. Conflicts in the field are getting worse because of the recurrent attacks to indigenous rights and to small farmers movements, on behalf of powerful economic interests. Also, the fact that many people around the world still live in extreme poverty and with no access to basic needs - such as transportation, sanitation, health, education - just aggravates people’s sense of political misrepresentation towards official institutions.
These are the driving forces of the protests happening everywhere in the world - from Egypt and Greece to Turkey and Brazil. They are a fundamental part of any true democratic society. When people gather to tell their governments that they want them to take action and change, governments should not feel threatened. Instead, governments should allow those voices of change to be heard and respected.
But what we see around the world are governments using more and more forms of repression to silence peaceful protests. An attitude that unfortunately can be witnessed in many streets of Brazil nowadays - leading to more protests and creating a certain level of violence during manifestations.
I genuinely acknowledge the legitimate outrage that people feel around police repression and abuse of power. I'm also mindful that governments under pressure try to demobilize authentic peaceful protests using the force. I have seen this happening all over the world as an attempt to make our cause look illegitimate when the real problem is that governments do not know how to deal with mass demonstrations.
Several Human Rights organizations working in Brazil - including Amnesty, Conectas and Article 19 - have raised serious concerns about the escalating violence and how it is being used as an excuse towards an increased criminalization of social movements. We are following with concern the development of related bills within the Brazilian Congress which restrain Brazilian democratic rights. In fact, they seem to only serve the purpose of weakening the intensity of popular protests in the lead up to the World Cup.
I must say, Ms. President, that violence does not serve us. In times like these, we have no choice but to take more peaceful action and be more confrontative to defend our democracy and all the values we hold dear in our hearts: this is the right to protest and the right for freedom of association, expression and assembly.
So I urge you, Ms. President: welcome and embrace the protests in Brazil as an opportunity to build a more just, diverse and free society and look to the protesters as the ones willing to help the government to build this new path. Strike back against any attempt to silence the voices of change coming from the streets - to the contrary, do everything that it is in your power to ensure a democratic environment that allow a wide public participation in the political decisions of Brazil.
With love and respect,
Kumi Naidoo is the Executive Director of Greenpeace International.