Brazil’s Bolsonaro haunted by genocide allegations

A commentary by Conrado Hübner, professor of constitutional law at the University of Sao Paulo and former fellow atthe WZB’s Center for Global Constitutionalism (Twitter: @conradohubner)

Originally published at Folha de São Paulo:

The political history of the 20th century bequeathed two words that express radical and absolute evil: fascism and genocide. In the index of political malignancy, fascists and genocidal leaders sit at the top. If there is anything worse, only in the mystical and religious lexicon. Only in hell.

These words impregnated the political vocabulary in different ways. “Fascist” has become banalized as an epithet to designate any authoritarian leader who represses minorities and freedoms.

“Genocide” was not vulgarized in the same way. However, the term liberated itself from the strict bonds of the legal concept, which imposes evidentiary requirements and started to refer to diffuse actions and omissions that multiply death in specific social groups.

The habit of invoking these terms to vent repugnance and disgust affected its impact. Banalization brought distrust. This very mistrust, which was also banalized, suggests that the applicability of the concepts needs a human disaster that is quantitatively comparable to that of Europe in the 1930s. It seems to call for a new Hitler and a new Holocaust.

Jair Bolsonaro contributed to the reinvigoration of the technical sense of these concepts. Is he a fascist? There is no shortage of Brazilian scholars that would call him that. It is not a sectarian cry, but an argument. The debate about “Bolsonaro’s fascism”, “new Brazilian fascism”, “why bolsonarism is a fascism” is already growing.

If “Brazilian researchers” sound unreliable, you can turn to the top researchers on the subject in the world. Federico Finchelstein and Jason Stanley portray Bolsonaro as the most well carved example of a contemporary fascist. It’s all there: anti-intellectualism, attack on truth, construction of parallel reality, sexual anxiety, repudiation of equality, denunciation of moral degeneration, fabrication of the enemy, aesthetics of violence, mythical past, ideal of purity, tactical use of religion.

Is he also a genocidal autocrat? Bolsonaro’s well-known death drive is not enough for that legal characterization; the correlation between his attitude and, for example, the increase in police lethality is not sufficient; not even his choice and his indifference to let citizens die in the current pandemic.

In the legal sense, genocide is not any slaughter of an ethnic, racial or religious group. The crime can be punished when the intention to destroy such a group, by action or inaction, is proven through convincing evidence.

Bolsonaro has done his part. He fulfilled his promise of “adapt or disappear!” to the country’s indigenous peoples. In an open challenge against the Constitution, the government has been gutting the organs of the environmental inspection and protection agencies (Ibama, FUNAI and ICMBio), combating what it calls the “demarcation industry” and encouraging the invasion of indigenous lands by criminals, loggers and miners.

The Corona-virus in a sense is only an accelerator. The greater socio-epidemiological vulnerability of the indigenous people, combined with the deliberate absence of the State in their homeland, provides an opportunity for Bolsonaro’s government to extinguish entire ethnic groups by non-action.

The ICC has started to examine Bolsonaro. Sylvia Steiner, a former judge at the ICC, says that Bolsonaro’s failure to protect the indigenous population may constitute a genocidal policy similar to Darfur: “Some elements may lead to the conclusion that this is a deliberate and purposeful policy to clean up an area and remove indigenous people.”

If the Brazilian Federal Supreme Court cannot pass a judgment on the specific crime of genocide, it can prevent or mitigate it by acknowledging the State’s failure to protect vulnerable indeogenious groups, ordering that the policies protecting them shall be restored. A lawsuit signed by 14 indigenous brazlian lawyers is on Justice Luís Roberto Barroso’s desk.

There are also dozens of impeachment requests against Bolsonaro pending with Rodrigo Maia (the Head of Congress). Some of them with the explicit aim of containing the indigenous genocide while there is still time.

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