Brazil: Congress plays ‘House of Cards’ with the lives of marginalized teenagers

By Atila Roque, Executive Director at Amnesty International Brazil @atilaroque

As political U-turns go, this was a pretty spectacular and shocking one.

On Wednesday, a packed House of Representatives in Brasilia vociferously debated and voted against lowering the age at which a child can be tried as an adult and be sent to an adult jail – an appalling prospect that violates international law and standards.

But although large sectors of the country celebrated this victory for human rights, Eduardo Cunha, President of the House of Representatives, was not happy – and wasted no time doing something about it.

In a wicked move worthy of the drama series “House of Cards”, Cunha immediately called for a fresh vote on a “new” proposal that was actually virtually the same text the Parliament had rejected only a few hours earlier.

His manoeuvre was legally controversial and received several complaints, but the vote went ahead anyway and the proposal was passed.

Even though a second vote in the House of Representatives and another in the Senate have to take place before the proposal becomes law, the odds are high it’s a fait accompli.

This means that across Brazil people as young as 16 could be tried as adults and sent to some of the most brutal prisons in the world, where overcrowding, sexual abuse and other forms of torture are rife. Prisons across Brazil are so dangerous that they have been described as, at best, “factories of criminals” and at worst, “death houses”.

Prisons across Brazil are so dangerous that they have been described as, at best, “factories of criminals” and at worst, “death houses”.
Atila Roque, Executive Director at Amnesty International Brazil

The vote has sent shivers down the spines of those who have, for years, worked to help thousands of marginalized teenagers escape a vicious circle of poverty and violence.

They know that sentencing teenagers to time in adult jails is the quickest way to send these children on a downward spiral of neglect and abuse, rather than rehabilitating juvenile offenders.

They know that sentencing teenagers to time in adult jails is the quickest way to send these children on a downward spiral of neglect and abuse, rather than rehabilitating juvenile offenders.
Atila Roque

The vote is shocking but hardly surprising.

It is the result of a dangerous narrative promoted by the most conservative sectors of Brazil permeating all corners of society – one based on a longstanding fear and the stigmatization of young marginalized teenagers.

They are the ones who get blamed for the very real security crisis affecting Brazil. But this analysis fails to take into account the facts that clearly show that, far from being the culprits of the violence, teenagers are their main victims.

According to the Map of Violence, published earlier this week, every single day 10 young people aged 16 to 17 years old are murdered across the country.

This adds up to 70 every week, more than 300 a month, or around 3,650 a year.

The question is: what is Congress doing to prevent these deaths and bring those responsible to justice?

By failing to tackle the root causes of the security crisis – including the shocking levels of poverty and inequality still prevalent in the country – and instead looking for cosmetic measures to show that something is being done, Brazilian lawmakers are missing the point.

The Brazilian state must effectively fulfill its commitments to the country’s children and teenagers, looking for ways to duly apply existing legislation and comply with their human rights obligations while reforming the public security system.

The Brazilian state must effectively fulfill its commitments to the country’s children and teenagers, looking for ways to duly apply existing legislation and comply with their human rights obligations while reforming the public security system.
Atila Roque

As we approach the second round of voting in the House of Representatives and a further battle at the Senate, there is still time to change course. The young people of our nation, and Brazil’s future security, depend on it.

What Brazil needs is not another Frank Underwood but politicians with enough courage to stand up for human rights.

Read more:
Brazil: Shocking U-turn on vote against lowering age for children to be tried as adults (News Story, 2 July 2015)

This op-ed was originally published in the Brazil Post.