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Businesses and the 1964-1985 Brazilian dictatorship: transitional justice still pending

Facts and Norms Institute prepares and concludes a report on the involvement of businesses with the Brazilian dictatorship and the limits of transitional justrice processes in the country.

Image source: Unsplash / Wix

The roles and responsibilities of non-state actors in transitional justice processes. This is the theme of the next report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation, and guarantees of non-recurrence.

As a preparation for the report, which will be presented in September 2022, the Special Rapporteur invited relevant stakeholders to submit contributions.

Facts and Norms Institute responded to the invitation and elaborated a submission regarding Brazil.

A collective work by researchers Giuliana Alves Rezende and Henrique Napoleão Alves, the submission draws from varied sources such as academic works, press notes, case law and governmental documents.

Limited or absent accountability for human rights violations

During the 1964-1985 dictatorship in Brazil there were thousands of arbitrary suspensions of political rights, thousands of arbitrary detentions and torture and hundreds of confirmed executions or forced disappearances of political dissidents, among other systematic human rights violations. At the same time, arguments of prescription, status of limitations and legislative amnesty, among others, barred due investigation and accountability once the dictatorship was over.

Businesses involved with the repression

The dictatorship ended in 1985, and Brazil had a new democratic Constitution in 1988. Nonetheless, it was only in late 2011 that a National Truth Commission was instituted to examine and enlighten past human rights violations.

The work of the Commission helped to clarify the role of non-state actors in the dictatorship, including the direct and indirect participation of businessmen and corporations in the human rights violations of the period.

This direct and indirect participation included activities such as:

  • financing operations to capture dissidents;

  • internal vigilance and control of employees, and sharing information about employees with the governmental surveillance system;

  • enabling the payment off the books of the agents of the repression and the cashing in of prizes for the captures of civilians;

  • funding the acquisition of firearms and allowing the use of business-owned buildings for torture and killings;

  • and even businessmen directly taking part in torture sessions.

Limited or inexistent accountability

Almost all of the participation of business entities and their owners and representatives in human rights violations remains unaccountable.

A limited exception to this pervasive context is the investigation and civil proceedings involving Volkswagen.

During the 2010s, Volkswagen was investigated by the Prosecution for acts such as blacklisting employees and allowing torture in the company's facilities.

By September 2020, the company reached a Settlement Agreement with the Prosecution which included payment of 36 million reais in compensation and donations.

The company argued that, even though the investigation found cooperation between its security agents and the military, there was no clear evidence that cooperation was an institutionalized practice in the company.

The Agreement contained, inter alia, a preambulatory clause stating that the company does not admit corporate responsibility, nor the responsibility of its directors or employees vis-à-vis the facts investigated by the prosecution.

The terms of the Agreement generated controversy and a legal appeal.

A long way from memoralizing past violations

Memorializing past violations is a central aspect of non-recurrence. Unfortunately, Brazil is still a long way from duly memorializing the human rights violations of the 1964-1985 dictatorship as a whole, not to mention the role of business entities on the matter.

There had been interesting initiatives, such as the “Memorial da Liberdade” and the "Memorial da Luta pela Justiça" in Sao Paulo; and the the “Memorial da Anistia Política”, a memory site that was to be built in the city of Belo Horizonte as part of the reparations determined by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Case of Gomes Lund and others vs. Brazil. The latter, however, was left aside by the Brazilian Federal government due to an alleged lack of funds.


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