The Pinochet Precedent: Convicting Human Rights Violators

On October 16th, 1998, darkness set as police approached the London Bridge Hospital. They were there to arrest the former dictator General Augusto Pinochet. That Friday night, Pinochet was detained after receiving minor back surgery, the first former head of state to be arrested on a diplomatic passport in the UK. Suddenly, the immunity generally granted to persons of government had been contested, and the exiles and victims of Pinochet took a step toward justice. 

Pinochet’s human rights violations

On September 11th, 1973, bombs were dropped on the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile. This was the first day in what was to be a bloody reign by the dictator General Augusto Pinochet. Overnight, the democratically elected socialist government was replaced with a repressive regime predicated on fear, oppression, and violence. 

Previously, Chile had held the position as the longest-living democracy and most politically stable nation in Latin America. However, in the wake of the 1973 coup, Pinochet’s junta began a crusade to solidify power: constitutional guarantees were suspended, Congress was disbanded, and a country-wide state of siege was declared. 

According to decades-long documentation by Amnesty International, “torture was systematic; ‘disappearance’ became a state policy.” These gross human rights violations were perpetrated by the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the secret military police created to target the real and imagined opponents of the authoritarian regime. 

On June 1974, a year after the bloody seizure of power, Article 1 of Decree-Law 521 established DINA as a “military organization of a professional technical nature, directly dependent upon the Government junta, and whose mission will be that of gathering all information at the national level coming from the different fields of activity, with the purpose of producing the intelligence which is required for the formulation of policies, planning and for the adoption of measures that seek to protect the national security and the development of the country.”

In the immediate days following the coup, hundreds of people were detained and taken to two sports stadiums in Santiago. Thousands of social activists, teachers, lawyers, trade unionists, students, and political activists became targets and prisoners of secret detention centers across the country. 

Flowers resting atop white marble covered with names and dates.
Figure 1: Source: Reuters found on Yahoo Images; Roses laying on top of a memorial for disappeared persons in a general cemetery, Santiago, Chile.

These detention centers, and also labor camps, existed under the entirety of Pinochet’s reign. Villa Grimaldi was one of many of these camps used for interrogation and torture. It is estimated that 4,500 prisoners were abused at this site alone, the most common forms of torture including electroshock, waterboarding, forcing heads into excrement, rape, and death. 

According to Amnesty International, the number of officially recognized disappeared or killed is 3,000 people between 1973 and 1990 and the survivors of political imprisonment and torture is around 40,000 people. To this day, 1,100 people remain missing and only 104 have been found. 

International approaches to convict human rights violations

International law is a relatively new field. Born out of the horrors of World War Two, the United Nations is the multinational body that mediates the rules and creates the international dialogue on human rights. On December 10th, 1948, the UN passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comprised of 30 articles that outline the fundamental principles of human rights. Since then, the UN has written more specific conventions and treaties to expound further on the rights of: 

  • Women
  • Refugees
  • People with disabilities 
  • Children 
  • Indigenous peoples 

And even civil and political, economic, social, and cultural rights. 

When it comes to the implementation of these conventions, there are very divergent paths in the realization of human rights. Opinio juris expresses that a norm about behavior exists but is not consistently followed. In opposition, jus cogens refer to laws and norms in which no derogation is permitted, this includes crimes against humanity (torture, war crimes, apartheid, systematic and widespread violence) and genocide

A drawn image of a person with bound wrists, a gun, and wrists in chains.
Figure 2: Source: Open Society Justice Initiative from Yahoo Images; Depictions of crimes against humanity.

It is the principle of jus cogens that gives rise to universal jurisdiction. Universal jurisdiction refers to the duty that all states have to prosecute individuals who commit crimes against humanity, whether domestically or by other states when the nation where the crime occurred is unwilling or unable to indict violators. It was universal jurisdiction that was key in establishing accountability during the Nuremberg Trials following the holocaust. 

Fifty years later, this principle was used to arrest Pinochet for his systematic use of torture and crimes against humanity in Chile. 

An end to amnesty 

After democracy was restored in Chile, Pinochet lost the presidential election, but not before creating a legal structure to protect himself and his accomplices. In 1978, Pinochet passed an Amnesty Law to protect military personnel who committed human rights violations. Additionally, Pinochet remained commander-in-chief of the Chilean Armed Forces after losing his presidential position and was appointed a senator for life. It appeared, to Pinochet and his victims, that he would remain outside of a courtroom. 

A black and white image of a group of women holding pictures of people with “Donde estan?”
Figure 3: Source: Wikimedia Commons found on Yahoo Images, Kena Lorenzini; Chilean mothers of disappeared holding signs of their loved ones.

Instead, victims were not deterred from bringing awareness to the crimes of Pinochet. Lawyers representing victims of Pinochet’s repressive regime decided to file complaints in Spain where the principle of universal jurisdiction was enshrined in their legislation. Joan Garcés, a Spanish lawyer, had begun filing for Pinochet’s arrest in 1996, and when it was known that the former dictator would be traveling to the UK, the moment to act became apparent. On October 15th, 1998, Garcés’ team filed a motion for Pinochet’s arrest which was granted. An Interpol red notice was issued, which is a formal international request to locate and arrest persons pending extradition, and a day later Pinochet was detained. 

Pinochet twice petitioned the House of the Lords to dismiss his arrest claiming immunity on the basis of being a former head of state. Both of these requests were denied as the House of Lords affirmed that former heads of state did enjoy immunity for acts committed as functions of a head of state, international crimes such as torture and crimes against humanity were not such functions. Ultimately, in March 2000 Pinochet was released and returned to Chile on medical grounds after tests found him mentally unfit to stand trial. 

However, in the wake of Pinochet’s arrest, Chile’s political and legal landscape had transformed allowing more space for the voices of victims and a sweep of new legal interpretations. The Supreme Court had found the Amnesty Laws only applied prior to 1978 when the state of siege was declared over, additionally, they stated that amnesty could only be granted after an investigation. Moreover, in the cases of disappeared persons, this act constituted an ongoing aggravated kidnapping meaning these cases went beyond the 1978 cut-off. 

Chilean Judge Juan Guzmán asked the courts to strip Pinochet of his immunity and the courts agreed, indicting Pinochet and placing him under house arrest. 

Unfortunately, Pinochet never stood for trial, but his military officers did. 

The indictment of Pinochet and new interpretations of the 1978 Amnesty Laws paved the way for other human rights violators to be prosecuted in Chile. By July 2003, 300 military officers had been indicted and dozens convicted, mostly surrounding cases of enforced disappearances. In 2017, 106 ex-agents of DINA were charged with kidnapping and killing 16 people in “Operation Colombo” during the early years of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Many were already serving times for other cases and were sentenced to between 541 days to 20 years in jail, while the state was ordered to pay around $7.5 million (5 billion Chilean pesos) to the families of the deceased. 

Photo from behind a person in front of a wall of pictures of people.
Figure 4: Source: Wikimedia Common found on Yahoo Images, Carlos Texidor Cadenas; An exhibit of images of victims of the Pinochet dictatorship at the Museo de la Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos, Santiago, Chile.

Justice is not only a conviction of a crime. While it is vital to convict human rights violators, it can be extremely challenging, but the arrest of Pinochet has laid the foundation for other dictators to stand trial. Of equal note, this case transformed how victims were seen and heard in Chile, offering justice through legal means when possible and honoring the injustices publicly when before there was silence. Chile continues to reconcile with its past, voting to do away with the constitution written by Pinochet in place of a new one and through the tireless efforts of human rights defenders domestically and internationally. 

You can offer your support or learn more below: 

International Attempts at Transitional Justice

Note from the author: This blog was written to accompany the social justice cafe on Wednesday, November 30th at 4:00 pm on zoom. To join, sign up here. Alongside this event, this post focuses on an international scale while the recent post by Maya Crocker focuses on transitional justice in the United States. 

Forgiving and being reconciled to our enemies or our loved ones are not about pretending that things are other than they are. It is not about patting one another on the back and turning a blind eye to the wrong. True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end, it is worthwhile, because, in the end, only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu

A headshot of a Black man smiling wearing purple clerical attire and collar.
Figure 1: Source: Flickr, John Mathew Smith; Archbishop Desmond Tutu in Washington, D.C., 1999.

What is transitional justice?

Transitional justice (TJ) refers to a set of judicial and non-judicial processes addressing previous injustices of authoritarian regimes (or multiple perpetrator groups) and establishing rule of law. Transitional justice has several aims and synthesizes aspects of punitive and restorative justice. 

According to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), these aims include: 

  • Providing recognition to victims 
  • Building trust between citizens and state institutions
  • Reinforcing the rule of law 
  • Committing to human rights and building solidarity with victims
  • Reconciliation between victims, perpetrators, and bystanders
  • Preventing new violations

But only characterizing transitional justice through its aims would not highlight the transformative effect this approach attempts in states where massive or systematic violations have occurred. While providing redress to victims and undertaking prosecutorial avenues as practical solutions, this approach also takes a strategic initiative to change the political systems, conflicts, and conditions that contributed to violations occurring in the first place. 

This field first emerged in the 1980s and early 90s in response to the drastic political changes in Latin America and East Europe. Human rights advocates and citizens alike questioned how and what kind of redress should occur in the wake of widespread and systematic violence. Fears over disrupting political changes by pursuing indictments of former leaders were salient: how could justice exist without compromising democratization? 

Thus, “transitions to democracy” and “justice” intersected and involved multiple processes to be sensitive to these concerns during a critical period in the country.

These processes are: 

  • Criminal Prosecutions: judicial investigations
  • Truth Commissions: ad hoc commissions of inquiry established in, and authorized by, states for the primary purposes of investigating and reporting on key periods of recent past abuse. 
  • Amnesty: a pardon granted to perpetrators, usually granted to those who comply with truth commissions and offer testimonies
  • Purges, lustrations, and security reforms: (1) removal of known collaborators of oppression from office and state institutions, (2) process of vetting personnel in state institutions, (3) transformation in state institutions involved in repression, like the military, police, judiciary
  • Reparations: state-sponsored initiatives that aim at repairing, on a massive scale, the consequences of past abuse experienced by certain classes of victims, including material and symbolic benefits
  • Gender Justice: focusing on the intersections of human rights abuse and gender during a period of repression, fact-finding initiatives to establish the nature of gendered abuses
  • Memorialization: museums, memorials, and other means of preserving the public memory of victims and raising moral consciousness about past abuse

Ultimately, TJ is a context-specific process that crucially (and historically) is led by the nation where the violations happened.

Specific attempts at transitional justice: the good and bad

Bolivia

Days after the restoration to democracy in 1982, the government created the National Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances. No reports or prosecutions were produced. In 1986, prosecutions began against the former military leader, General García Meza, and some of his officers. The trial was not complete until 1993, by which point Meza had gone into hiding to avoid a 30-year sentence for torture and murder. Notably, this court case rejected pardons for those convicted of crimes against humanity. 

Uruguay

After a 12-year military rule in 1985, the new government avoided truth commissions. Instead, President Sanguinetti issued a pardon (1986) to all soldiers and officers of the previous regime, with no distinction as to those who followed orders and those who gave them. He claimed this was the ‘safest path’ but ‘not a moral decision,’ highlighting that TJ attempts are not pursued in every situation. This is often a result of corruption and officials often rely on a dialogue of ‘national reconciliation by granting large amnesties but failing to pursue any other TJ processes, essentially dismissing victims’ realities.  Victims were denied any form of reparation and violators remain in high office in the police and military. An official Commission for Peace was established in 2000 under President Jorge Batlle with the official report released in April 2003 confirming that the military dictatorship was involved in some of the disappearances. 

Chile

This history of Chile’s dictatorship and eventual prosecutorial redress can be read about in my next blog. Part of the reason for the near-decade gap between the restoration of democracy (1990) and Pinochet’s arrest (1998) was due to Pinochet’s change of the constitution during military rule. Not only did he pardon himself and his torturers in 1978, but he enshrined legal protections from purges and lustration attempts. Nonetheless, Chile has engaged in memorialization and reparations in the cases of successful prosecution of former DINA police. 

El Salvador: 

A Commission on the Truth of El Salvador was established in 1991, led by three international jurists and staffed and financed by the United Nations. While only fully investigating 33 disappearances out of the reported 22,000, the commission did identify 40 individuals connected to the armed forces and involved in crimes against humanity. Additionally, the Commission was able to confirm the El Mozote massacre, where nearly 1,000 villagers were killed by US-trained and equipped Salvadoran army members. The Commission also called on the Supreme Court to retire, which they declined. René Ponce was named general and ordered the execution of 6 Jesuit priests (one the then head of the Human Rights Institute). Due to Ponce’s involvement in the peace negotiations and settlement with FMLN, his prosecution was never attempted. The report from the truth commission was rejected and the then-president offered a blanket amnesty for all political crimes which the Supreme Court upheld (1995). After 20 years, no other transitional justice attempts have been implemented. 

Haiti:

Haiti suffered massive human rights violations under the Duvalier reign between 1957 to 1986. Over 40,000 Haitians were killed and it wasn’t until 1990 that democracy was established with the election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Soon after, he was ousted by General Raoul Cedras, showing just how volatile transitions toward democracy can be. Under Cedras, hundreds were killed by the paramilitary group Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), funded in part by the CIA. Democracy was restored in 1994 and power returned to Aristide but at the cost of blanket amnesty for all rapes, murders, and political killings. He went on to establish a National Commission for Truth and Justice which in February 1996 urged for the prosecution of individuals who committed crimes against humanity by an international tribunal. There has been no tribunal and no prosecutions, and to this day impunity is chronic

Argentina: 

Spray painted image of a general with crossed-out eyes on a wall. The words “More than 30,000 reasons for popular justice. Never again look the other way" are painted beside the images.
Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images, Colin Snider; Graffiti of General Jorge Videla with the phrases “More than 30,000 reasons for popular justice. Never again look the other way.”

Argentina took the most extensive approach of the states discussed so far. In 1983 after the defeat of the military in the Falklands Wars, President Raoul Alfonsín annulled the amnesty the military had given themselves. He also set up the Commission on the Disappeared which produced the report Nunca Más (Never Again) which was a national bestseller – fulfilling some forms of memorialization. The evidence the commission gathered was used to prosecute 5 of the most senior members of the military junta, but when indictments began on less senior officers the military revolted in 1987. Trials ceased to end the conflict but Alfonsín refused to give any pardons. His successor Carlos Menem was the one to pardon ex-president Videla and others on grounds of “national reconciliation.” In spite of Menem’s undermining, human rights groups and families of the disappeared renewed the vigor for criminal accountability in 2003, and as of 2010, more than 800 face criminal charges and 200 have been sentenced. 

South Africa:

When one thinks of “truth and reconciliation” or “truth commissions,” the most likely example to come to mind is South Africa. After the end of apartheid (a crime against humanity) in 1994, the new democratic government formed the unique tripartite Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). It had three responsibilities: (1) record the apartheid era for memory, (2) make recommendations for reparations, and (3) grant amnesty to individuals based on application and only in limited circumstances. 

This was a revolutionary step for transitional justice and helped citizens come to terms with the violent and discriminatory apartheid. In spite of the success of this TRC, no prosecutions have ever been mounted and organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International fear the TRC suggestions are not being fully implemented. 

Nonetheless, it is important to note that the commission was chaired by none other than Archbishop Desmond Tutu whose ceaseless human rights efforts have helped define the role of TRCs as both forward and backward-looking. In his words, “True reconciliation is never cheap, for it is based on forgiveness which is costly. Forgiveness in turn depends on repentance, which has to be based on an acknowledgment of what was done wrong, and therefore on disclosure of the truth. You cannot forgive what you do not know.” 

United States: 

For an in-depth examination of the transitional justice movement in the United States, please read Maya Crocker’s blog here

Conclusion

Without addressing the seeds which sprouted violence, the threat of their reoccurrence cannot be escaped. This means acknowledgment, and hardest of all, forgiveness. While a generation suffered, hatred should not be allowed to pass down and threaten long-lasting peace.

This is not easy, but if you believe in human rights, affirming the realities of victims and perpetrators and all those in between is crucial. As Desmond Tutu says, We must not only speak about forgiveness and reconciliation, we must act on these principles.” 

This post draws a lot of information from the book Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice by Geoffrey Robertson, originally published in 1999 with multiple editions given the continuous development of human rights. I will be utilizing information from a 1999 edition, and thus, certain information on the results of transitional justice attempts will have developed more in the last two decades. If you are interested in obtaining a copy for yourself, the latest edition was updated in 2013 and includes additional sections on Iraq, Guantanamo, the Obama administration’s use of drone warfare, the Charles Taylor conviction, and the trials of Mladic, Karadzic, and Khalid Sheik Mohammed. 

A book cover, there is no background, only a bold white title against black. 
Figure 3: Source: Target; Cover of the aforementioned book.

Geoffery Robertson is an internationally acclaimed lawyer and human rights advocate who has served as a UN war crimes judge and founded Doughty Street Chambers in London, a leading human rights law practice. In his book, he deconstructs international human rights law, beginning with the foundational philosophy of rights dialogue (natural rights, social contract, Enlightenment) and moving through the defining events of 20th-century human rights law formation. His book is written in a non-legalese, prose-like style and is a strong starting point for learning a breadth of information about the very complex processes behind prosecutions (and more often why they don’t happen). 

If this interests you, read Robertson’s book or check out more blogs from IHR below:

  • What is the International Criminal Court and Why Should I Care?
  • The Age of Human Rights?
  • Relativism’s Implications on Universal Human Rights
  • A Bright Future – Recent Human Rights Victories 
  • Justice(s) for Crimes Against Humanity: The Uyghur Muslims in China
  • Covenants Without the Sword: International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and Sexual Violence

Constitutional Changes in Chile

The streets of Santiago were filled with the sounds of horns on September 4th. The vote for a new constitution had finally taken place, after three years of sustained protests, and four decades after the dictator Pinochet first replaced the constitution. The people had spoken, and the social contract between the state and the citizens was transformed.

Calls for a new constitution fueled by social movements

Fig. 1: Source: Yahoo Images; Nearly one million protesters during estadillo social. An aerial view of Plaza Italia and streets filled with hundreds of people, one large Chilean flag held over the heads of some.

On October 18th, 2019, thousands of protesters flooded the streets of the capital city, Santiago, Chile. Originally, protests began over frustrations with a rise in the price of metro tickets but quickly compounded with inequality in the state. According to a Foreign Policy article on Chile’s constitutional overhaul, the massive protests were led by students, workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and left-leaning progressives. They expressed frustrations over a lack of socioeconomic mobility, unresponsive government and institutions, and a disconnected political class. In some instances, these demonstrations included torching metro stations and tearing down statues of Spanish colonizers. To read more in-depth on the protests, read this blog.

While these protests paralyzed the capital and country for weeks, the protests demanding change resonated outside the urban center and spread across the nation. In central Santiago, Plaza Baquedano has been the place of social protest for decades, and three years on, protesters continue to use this symbolic place to voice dissent on social inequalities.

Fig. 2: Source: Yahoo Images, John Treat; Protesters in Plaza Baquedano demanding a new constitution, December 2019. A crowd of people holding aloft indigenous flags, Chilean flags, and signs.

Known as the Estallido Social, or social explosion, the protests signaled a major development in the attitudes of citizens in the state. Protests eventually culminated in a 12-point agreement for social peace and a new constitution. In the eyes of many protesters, numerous contemporary problems traced back to the constitution ratified in 1980 under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The citizens of Chile have expressed the need for a new constitution in order to value citizen participation. The constitution written under Pinochet leans toward a conservative interpretation and does not include any formal avenues for citizens to participate. While the Magna Carta has been changed in minimal ways since a return to democracy in 1990, the opposition claim that the constitution should be considered illegitimate since it was instituted under a dictator.

Constitutional change under dictatorial rule

On the 11th of September 1973, democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a military coup. He was given an ultimatum — to resign from his position or be detained by the Chilean armed forces.

To better understand this consequential moment, we need to understand the context of economic and political factors that had Chile on the brink of a civil war. A few times during his presidency between 1970 and 1973, Allende had made reference to President Balmaceda (1886-91), a previous executive whose conflict with the legislature led to a civil war. Allende refused to become “another Balmaceda” but also claimed he would not be forced from office alive.

In 1971, Allende began nationalizing companies, mainly copper and telephone, both previously owned by foreign US corporations. As a result, Chile stopped receiving aid from the US, and subsequently, the World Bank, the Export-Import Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank ceased aid as well. By 1973, inflation, labor strikes, and food shortages were uncontrollable as imports had risen while exports plummeted in the face of plummeting copper prices. Soon after, General Pinochet Ugarte, chief of the armed forces, became the dictator of Chile in a violent coup that resulted in Allende’s death.

The constitution was formally rewritten in 1980 to solidify Pinochet’s regime politically and economically. In the new constitution, Pinochet protected private property to such an extent that Chile became the only country in the world to privatize water. Moreover, the constitution concentrated power in the president, from budgetary decisions to law-making. As a result, the executive in Chile remains among the world’s most powerful governing executives.

In the next two decades, thousands of people would be tortured, executed, or forcibly disappeared under General Pinochet’s repressive authoritarian rule. According to Amnesty International, the number of officially recognized disappeared or killed is 3,000 people between 1973 and 1990 and the survivors of political imprisonment and torture is around 40,000 people. After Chile returned to democracy, Pinochet was charged under universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.

The writing of a new constitution

After protests continued and swelled to 1 million people, the government decided in mid-November 2019 that a large concession needed to be made. A referendum was set with two questions: Should Chile replace the 1980 constitution, and if so, who should write it?

In October 2020, 78 percent of the voting population favored a new constitution, with the highest participation since the end of mandatory voting in 2012. Moreover, citizens overwhelmingly supported the new drafting by everyday citizens.

Fig. 3: Source: Yahoo Images; Elisa Loncon. A woman wearing indigenous Mapuche clothing waving.

Elisa Loncon, a member of the Mapuche indigenous group, was selected as the president of the constitutional assembly. From the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the constitutional process in Chile is the first to include an equal portion of women and men, and also includes the indigenous groups historically discriminated against.

“For the first time in our history, Chileans from all walks of life and from all political factions are participating in a democratic dialogue,” Loncon said.

Not only had the social protests begun a sweeping institutional change in the country focused on the economic and political rights of people, but this moment also signaled a significant expression of self-determination.

The process has received help from the UN Human Rights Regional Office for South America which has provided accessible documents, webinars, and publications on the international framework for human rights.

The resulting constitution embodies the standards of human rights law, with rights focused on indigenous people, women, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, and the environment. Also, the new constitution ensures adequate housing, the establishment of a national healthcare system, employment benefits, and mandatory gender parity in the private and public sectors. This new charter represents a sweeping array of human rights, from civil and political to economic, social, and cultural.

Valentina Contreras, the Chilean representative of the Global Initiative for Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, said “Human rights are the common thread of the constitutional process.”

Rejection and steps forward

The vote for the new constitution was this September 4th, 2022. After two years of drafting the new constitution, 62 percent of Chileans voted against the new Magna Carta and only 38 percent for it.

The National Public Radio reported on the results of the plebiscite. While most states normally rewrite their constitutions during or shortly after the democratic transition, Chile remains an outlier. Additionally, most new constitutions are short, but in this case, the proposed Magna Carta was 388 articles long and considered “confusing” according to Claudio Fuentes, a Santiago political analyst.

This aided a large disinformation campaign launched by more conservative and centrist citizens, claiming the proposed constitution would disarm the police and confiscate people’s private homes. Still, other citizens saw the draft as a product of anger and tension, identifying the new text strongly with the violent protests that had originally spurred its creation.

This represents a loss not only for the constitutional assembly but a commitment to a broad range of human rights. However, as Gabriel Boric, the current president of Chile stated, “You have to listen to the voice of the people.” Extensive social protests first began the move to redefine the social contract between citizens and government, and now democratic procedures have determined the continuance of this process.

This process is not over, Chileans are still waiting on a new constitution. Centrist-left and right-wing politicians have expressed interest in working with the government on the next draft.

Ultimately, while Chileans voted against the proposed constitution, this remains a poignant moment for human rights. Firstly, the level of dialogue on such topics from people of varied backgrounds and historically discriminated groups remains unprecedented in Chile and illustrates the unfettered self-determination of a people. From people organizing and demonstrating their rights to cooperation between radically different political parties, the constitutional assembly remained committed to a document based on human rights.

Students have once again begun protesting at metro stations in response to the rejection. This dialogue will not stop with the constitutional committee, instead, it has and continues to be embodied by the protesters who sparked the original rewrite.

LGBTQ+ Rights in Brazil

Back of person in white shirt and hat holding rainbow pride flag in the air alongside a colorful designed scarf.
Figure 1: Source: Yahoo Images, Ye Aung Thu; Pride flag held aloft. Back of person in white shirt and hat holding rainbow pride flag in the air alongside a colorful designed scarf.

You look around at the passing people, from old women and working mothers to teachers and police, any of them could want you dead. This is the unfortunate reality facing many LGBTQ+ people in Brazil, the world’s most dangerous country for trans and Queer people. With a stark rise in conservatism driving discriminatory legislation and a president that has publicly vilified “gender ideology” and Queer persons, the rights of LGBTQ+ people are threatened by institutions and public support of hateful rhetoric and discriminatory laws. 

The political climate fostering LGBTQ+ hate

The current president of Brazil is Jair Bolsonaro, who began his term on January 1, 2019. Bolsonaro is seen as a polarizing figure both within Brazil and by the international community for his disparaging comments against women, people of color, and LGBTQ+ individuals. A far-right figure, Bolsonaro claimed in a 2011 interview with Play Boy that he would rather have a dead son than a gay one. 

Figure 2: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of President Jair Bolsonaro. Shoulder to head image of a white male wearing a black suit looking towards the top right corner.

After the election of Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s second openly gay congress member Jean Wyllys left their position and fled the country due to the increased level of violence against LGBTQ+ people and the number of death threats received. “It was not Bolsonaro’s election itself. It was the level of violence that has increased since he was elected,” Wyllys told local newspapers. Bolsonaro has been clear about how his convictions motivate his discriminatory rhetoric that disparages LGBTQ+ people, and his election and widespread public support have also translated to widespread violence. 

Bolsonaro represents a rise in conservatism further supported by a significant growth in Evangelism in Brazil over the last decade. Despite being the world’s largest Catholic country, Evangelical churches have been increasing, and now approximately one-third of Brazil’s population is EvangelicalJohn Otis, a reporter for the National Public Radio, found that “Evangelicals now make up 31% of Brazil’s population, according to the Datafolha polling firm. They’re still outnumbered by Catholics, who make up 51%. But evangelicals are growing at a much faster clip. They’re also more politically active than Catholics.” 

Evangelism is an umbrella term for Protestant denominations that emphasize the Bible as the ultimate source of morality and history and a desire to evangelize, or spread their faith. Evangelicals tend to be more conservative and opposed to more progressive values. The concern between the rise in evangelism and subsequent conservatism in Brazil is that these joint forces signal an erosion of secularism and democracy in Brazil.  

On his inauguration day, Bolsonaro said, “We will unite people, value the family, respect religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, combat gender ideology and rescue our values.” On December 1, 2021, the Brazilian senate approved the appointment of Evangelical lawyer and pastor André Mendonça to a position on the Supreme Court. This is a signal of the key role evangelists play in the political climate of Brazil today with positions on the highest court in the nation and executive office. 

LGBTQ+ experiences 

Foremost, sexuality and gender identities are a focus of discriminatory laws and practices in a lot of states, but trans and Queer people are also the victims of torture, violence, and death.

The highest rates of transpeople and gender non-conforming people killed are concentrated in Central and South America. Most prominently, Brazil has the largest number of trans and Queer people killed in the world, and in 2021, Brazil maintained this position for the 13th consecutive year. 

The violence and deaths of LGBTQ+ individuals are in direct contradiction with the right to life and safety guaranteed to all people. Additionally, LGBTQ+ people face more barriers to healthcare access, and discrimination is conflated by additional minority identities such as being a person of color. Trans persons are particularly vulnerable to exposure to violence due to name and sex details in official documents. 

As a result of the violence, LGBTQ+ people have been responding by taking defense and martial arts classes. In large cities such as Sao Paulo, Porto Alegre, and Rio, defense courses are being offered to Queer people who increasingly doubt Brazil’s institutions will protect them. Carlos Renan dos Santos Evaldt, a banker and president of a gay sports club in Porto Alegre, was spurred to offer jujitsu classes not just to ensure personal safety, but “rights achieved through hard work and at the cost of many lives and years.”

Figure 3: Source: Yahoo Images; An image of people learning jujitsu. A group of four or five white men sitting on a blue mat being instructed by a black man in jujitsu.

Since 2014, there has been a growing passage of legislation, approximately 200 bills, at all levels targeting “indoctrination” and “gender ideology.” Bolsonaro’s Minister of Women, Family, and Human Rights, Damares Alves, an evangelical pastor said on her first day, “Girls will be princesses, and boys will be princes. There will be no more ideological indoctrination of children and teenagers in Brazil.” 

In 2011, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution affirming LGBTQ+ rights as human rights due to the discrimination and violence levied against this minority community. Alves’ promotion of anti-LGBTQ+ speech disparages the identities of all people, and moreover, signals a failure from the ministry with an objective in human rights to combat rhetoric against Queer persons. Brazil is a current member of the Human Rights Council and therefore has an obligation to promote human rights for all. 

Brazil requires comprehensive sexuality education (CSE); however, attempts to reduce or eliminate teaching about gender and sexual orientation represent a threat to the right to education, information, and health. These bills represent a process of silencing rather than honoring the diversity of individuals. 

Successes in face of growing anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments 

While there is still a long way to go in addressing the human rights violations trans and Queer people face in Brazil, there have been successes in the face of growing hate and violence. As previously mentioned, trans people face additional threats due to names and assigned sex at birth listed on official documents. In 2018, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the government could no longer require individuals seeking a name or gender identifier change on official documents to undergo medical procedures or judicial review. Previously, transgender people had to undergo mandatory psychiatric evaluations, medical transitions, or obtain a judicial order. This represents a major step to ensuring the safety and validating the identity of all people. This is a confirmation of the right of a person to self-determination and a denial of any government to decide for a person who they are. 

In June 2019, the Supreme Court furthered its protection of LGBTQ+ people by criminalizing homophobia and transphobia. Under the law, homophobia and transphobia would be treated the same way as racism. In May 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a federal ban on blood donations from men who had sexual relations with men. 

Also, in 2020, the Supreme Court struck down a number of bills that aimed to censor “gender ideology” and sexuality in CSE programs. These cases established that municipalities could not override national education plans, and in these specific cases, changes represented a violation of the right to equality and education. And in April 2022, the Supreme Court affirmed that the “Maria da Penha” law against domestic violence applied to transgender women.

Figure 4: Source: Yahoo Images, Ben Tavener; Gay Pride parade in Sao Paolo, Brazil. A street filled with people to the end, a giant rainbow flag marches at the front of the group held over the heads of numerous participants.

In spite of political attempts to limit or deny the rights of LGBTQ+ people, there are institutions that still protect these human rights. As of this October, Brazil will hold its presidential election between incumbent Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is leading in the polls. As Brazilians celebrated Pride month this year with the first in-person parade in two years they did so under the slogan “vote with pride, for policies that represent us.”

The Human Rights Campaign has partnered with Instituto de Políticas Públicas LGBT and Instituto Mais Diversidade in order to promote and develop more inclusive LGBTQ+ employment practices in Brazil and Argentina. By creating more accepting workplaces for Queer people, more inclusion can be fostered across all aspects of life in Brazil. 

To get involved, you can support the Human Rights Campaign by donating so these programs can continue to combat discrimination against LGBTQ+ people. Also, by creating dialogues in your own workplaces on LGBTQ+ inclusion, human rights in corporations will continue to be a standard of practice ensuring equality and equity on all levels, local to international.