Brazil continued to experience an extended period of instability and crisis. The federal government lacked the commitment to coordinate effective responses in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, impacting people’s human rights. Those from groups who have historically experienced discrimination were disproportionately affected by the health emergency, which exacerbated the economic and social crisis, making their living conditions more precarious. President Jair Bolsonaro continued to promote initiatives contrary to the needs of most of the population and harmful to the environment and climate justice. His statements, which often vilified human rights defenders and activists, also undermined the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary.
In April, the Senate established the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry to investigate the actions and omissions of the Brazilian government in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. The investigation of the mismanagement of the health crisis by Jair Bolsonaro’s administration included instances of corruption, the collapse of the public and private health systems, negligence regarding vaccines and the damage caused by the lack of effective public policies to address the social crisis, which deepened in 2021.
Economic and social rights
The Covid-19 pandemic continued to entrench structural and persistent inequalities and to exacerbate the economic, political, social and public health crises in the country. The government did not ensure the right to health or sufficient and adequate public policies for the social protection of the population, especially those belonging to groups that have historically faced discrimination, such as the Black population, Indigenous peoples, Quilombola communities, women, LGBTI people and those living in favelas and disadvantaged neighbourhoods on the outskirts of cities.
Right to health
As of December, more than 615,000 people had died of Covid-19. According to the Alerta group, a coalition of NGOs, 120,000 deaths could have been avoided by March 2021 if the government had not repeatedly ignored scientific evidence and failed to coordinate strategies to address the crisis.1
Testing and monitoring of infection rates, medicines and hospital supplies, hospital beds and intensive care units were inadequate and insufficient, especially in public health facilities. As a result of the lack of oxygen in hospitals, people died in the state of Amazonas in January.2 The shortage of the medication necessary for the intubation of the most severely ill subjected patients, their families and healthcare professionals to stress and suffering.
According to the Alerta group, the government’s neglect of socioeconomic and territorial inequalities, which in Brazil are related to racial inequalities, meant that Black people and those living in poverty experienced the highest death rates. They were particularly affected by the shortage of intensive care beds in public facilities and many died in pre-hospital units waiting for admission to specialist care units.
Investigations undertaken by the Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry suggested that government actions during Covid-19 vaccine negotiations and implementation of the vaccine programme lacked coordination, efficiency, and commitment to follow scientific evidence. The spread of disinformation about vaccines and the authorities’ defence of drugs that were proven to be ineffective violated the right to accurate public health information. The government’s negligence in negotiations with pharmaceutical companies and with the COVAX initiative delayed the implementation of an effective vaccination plan.
In addition to vaccine shortages, the lack of coordination between national and state-level planning led to delays and interruptions in the vaccination roll-out throughout the year, as well as inconsistencies in schedules, deployments of vaccines and consensus on the coverage of priority groups. By December, 75% and 66% of Brazilians were partially and fully vaccinated, respectively.
Right to food
According to a study by the Brazilian Network of Research on Sovereignty and Nutritional Security, an independent national research network, food insecurity had increased by 54% in Brazil since 2018. More than half of the population did not have full and permanent access to food. Severe food insecurity, which refers to the situation of hunger, affected 19 million people in 2021, or 9% of the population. Among small family farmers and Quilombola, Indigenous and riverside communities, the proportion of households affected rose to 12%. Households headed by women and Black people suffered most from the lack of food.
Rights to housing, water and sanitation
A significant part of the population continued to live in precarious situations, lacking essential services. According to the Trata Brasil Institute, nearly 35 million people did not have access to clean water and 100 million had no sewage collection.
Those living in rural and traditional territories and disadvantaged neighbourhoods were most affected by the non-existent or insufficient sanitation infrastructure. A study by the NGO Criola found that the percentage of the Black population living in inadequate homes was significantly higher than that of the white population. In addition to the lack of basic sanitation, overcrowding was greater in Black homes. According to the Zero Eviction campaign, over 23,500 families were evicted from their homes between March 2020 and October 2021 during the pandemic. Following pressure from social mobilizations, in October Congress approved legislation that prohibited evictions throughout the country until 31 December 2021.
Rights to work and social assistance
The federal government used a false dichotomy between the defence of the economy and the defence of life to justify its failure to promote measures to prevent infection among workers who were unable to work remotely during the pandemic.
Emergency aid was discontinued during the first three months of 2021 and subsequently reintroduced at a lower rate and for a more restricted group of people. This led to accelerated impoverishment of the population impacted by the economic and social crises aggravated by the pandemic. A study by the University of São Paulo found that in 2021, with the reduction in emergency aid, more people began to live in poverty. Black women were the most affected: 38% and 12.3% were living in poverty or extreme poverty, respectively.
Data from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics indicated that, in the first quarter of 2021, unemployment reached its highest rate since 2012 (14.7%). The proportion of Brazilians in the informal economy without income security or social protection reached 39.6% during the year.
Right to education
State education continued to be delivered remotely in much of Brazil until May 2021. Problems related to lack of access to the internet and the electronic equipment necessary to conduct remote activities were among the reasons for increased school dropout rates during 2021, especially among students in state education, which serves the most disadvantaged sections of the population.
All states started vaccinating school staff in June, as state schools were reopening. The infrastructure of many schools, however, did not ensure a safe return based on sanitary protocols. Water supply and access to basic sanitation and the internet were not a reality in all state schools in Brazil. In 2021, the National High School Exam, the main form of admission to higher education institutions, registered the lowest number of applicants in 13 years.
Freedom of expression
Throughout the pandemic, the state did not adequately guarantee the right to information for the population. Inaccurate or deliberately misleading public statements about Covid-19 prevention, treatments and vaccines sought to undermine scientific recommendations and dissenting voices, fuelling misinformation and reducing civic space.
Restrictions on civil society participation in public debate intensified because of the federal government’s hostile approach to the press, social movements, NGOs and other critical voices.
In 2021, the organization Human Rights Watch identified 176 accounts of journalists, Congress members, influencers, media outlets and NGOs, including Amnesty International Brazil, blocked on President Jair Bolsonaro’s social media.
Federal authorities promoted speeches and demonstrations that threatened the rule of law. On several occasions, such as the official celebration of Brazil’s Independence Day, President Jair Bolsonaro sought to undermine the Supreme Court and called into question the electoral system.
Excessive use of force
The logic and implementation of the “war on drugs” that has structured public security policies in Brazil for many years continued to fuel the cycle of violence and killings in the country.
In 2020, police killed 6,416 people. More than half of the victims were young Black men.
Although the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of police operations in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas in June 2020, a survey by the Study Group on New Illegalisms found that deaths caused by law enforcement personnel increased by 185% in January and February 2021, compared to the first four months after the Court order. Police operations using heavy weaponry resulted in hours of intense shooting in the favelas and other marginalized neighbourhoods.
The excessive use of force also took the form of raids on homes, the destruction of belongings, sexual violence, psychological torture, restrictions on freedom of movement and the suspension of essential services, such as schools and health facilities.
On 6 May, a police operation in the Jacarezinho favela, Rio de Janeiro, resulted in the death of 27 residents and one police officer. The operation was launched based on photographs of alleged suspects on social media. Images and preliminary investigations pointed to summary executions and evidence tampering at the crime scenes. Investigations into the deaths had not been concluded by the end of the year.
On 8 June, Kathlen Romeu, who was four months pregnant, died after being shot during a Military Police operation in the community of Lins de Vasconcelos in northern Rio de Janeiro. The investigation into the circumstances of her death was continuing at the end of the year.
On 22 November, nine people were found dead in circumstances suggesting they had been summarily executed in the Complexo do Salgueiro favela, Rio de Janeiro. On 20 November a policeman had been killed during a police operation, and preliminary investigations indicated that the nine killings were an act of revenge. Investigations were continuing at the end of the year.
In August, five police officers charged with the killings of 13 people almost three decades earlier in the 1994 massacre in the Nova Brasília favela, Rio de Janeiro, were acquitted for lack of evidence. In addition to the fact that it took 27 years for the case to be brought to trial, the result was considered inadequate by the victims and human rights organizations. The excessive and lethal use of force by the police was not promptly and effectively investigated in accordance with international standards. At the time of the killings, the police involved in the operation were absolved of responsibility before the proper investigations were carried out. The acquittal represented an example of the historical impunity that has perpetuated the cycle of violence and human rights violations by state agents, especially in favelas and disadvantaged neighbourhoods. In 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights condemned the Brazilian state for police violence in the Nova Brasília case.
Human rights defenders
The killings of city councillor and human rights defender Marielle Franco and her driver Anderson Gomes in March 2018 had yet to be resolved. The families and civil society continued to press for justice. In July 2021, the Rio de Janeiro prosecutors who had been in charge of the investigations since 2018 asked to be removed from their positions, raising concerns about the progress and outcomes of the investigation and the case. The two men charged with the killings remained in prison and no date had been set for a trial by the end of the year. Those behind the killings remained unidentified.
The NGO Global Witness reported that Brazil was the country with the fourth highest number of killings of environmental leaders and land rights defenders in the world. In January, activist and rural worker Fernando dos Santos Araújo was killed in the state of Pará. He was a survivor and one of the main witnesses of the Pau D’Arco massacre in May 2017 in which 10 land rights activists were killed by military and civil police officers.
In May, Lindolfo Kosmaski, a gender and sexual diversity activist from the Landless Workers Movement, was found shot dead in a burnt-out car in the state of Paraná.
Right to a healthy environment
According to the NGO Imazon, in August the Brazilian Amazon had the highest deforestation rate for the month of August in 10 years. Between January and December, 10,362 km² of forest were cleared, 29% more than 2020.
Fires also increased in the Amazon region and other biodiversity-rich biomes as the Brazilian state continued to dismantle environmental protection agencies and mechanisms. The Conservation and Sustainable Use of Biodiversity and Natural Resources Programme lost part of its funding and investment fell in the prevention and control of deforestation and fires in Brazilian biomes.
Attacks on the right to a healthy environment were also seen in legislative initiatives. The Chamber of Deputies approved Bill 3.729/2004. If approved by the Senate, this Bill will facilitate the issuing of environmental licences for exploration activities. Bill 2.633/2020 also progressed through the Chamber of Deputies and, if approved, could allow land tenure regularization for illegal occupations of public lands.
Rights of Indigenous peoples, Quilombolas and other traditional communities
The rights of Indigenous peoples, Quilombolas and other traditional communities were systematically violated. Deforestation and fires, often resulting from the illegal appropriation of land by the agribusiness, livestock, logging and mining sectors, impacted the rights to land and territory, to a healthy environment and to the livelihoods of Indigenous peoples, Quilombolas and other traditional communities.
The latest data from the Pastoral Land Commission indicated that the number of conflicts in rural areas registered in 2020 was the highest since 1985. Land invasions, which took place despite legislation regulating territories and rights, increased by 102% between 2019 and 2020; 71% of the families affected were Indigenous. Between January and November 2021, 26 people were killed in the context of rural conflicts, a 30% increase over 2020; eight were Indigenous people.
In August, the National Articulation of Indigenous Peoples (APIB) movement filed a complaint before the ICC against President Jair Bolsonaro for the crime of genocide. Also in August, 6,000 Indigenous people from 176 ethnic groups demonstrated in the country’s capital, Brasilia, to try to halt the anti-Indigenous agenda being pursued in the National Congress. They also reiterated their opposition to the “Time Framework” proposal, which was before the Supreme Court, and, if approved, could threaten the demarcation of Indigenous territories.
The government’s inadequate management of the Covid-19 pandemic continued to impact the rights to life and health of Indigenous peoples and Quilombola communities, who in 2020 had appealed to the Supreme Court for specialized and priority support from the state. Despite a decision in their favour from the Court, they continued to report being denied the support that would help them to cope with the pandemic in 2021. Covid-19 continued to spread among Indigenous peoples and Quilombola communities because of the authorities’ failure to establish sanitary barriers, to promote the removal of people who invaded their territories and to implement adequate health, monitoring and social assistance measures.
Indigenous peoples and Quilombola communities reported several shortcomings in the vaccination process, such as lack of information; institutional racism; discrimination against Indigenous people and Quilombolas who live in urban areas or outside officially designated territories; and lack of coordination between state and municipal planning and the National Immunization Plan.
LGBTI people’s rights
A lack of adequate assistance, social protection and public policies left LGBTI people even more at risk during the health crisis. The National Association of Transvestites and Transsexuals reported that 80 transgender people were killed in Brazil in the first half of 2021 alone. In addition, physical attacks, threats, discrimination and social marginalization fuelled a cycle of violence that prevented LGBTI people from enjoying their rights in safety.
Brazil accounted for 75% of maternal deaths due to Covid-19 worldwide. According to the Covid-19 Obstetric Observatory, as of May, maternal deaths of Black women were 77% higher compared to those of white women.
According to the Brazilian Public Security Forum, the number of rapes in the first six months of 2021 was 8.3% higher than in the same period in 2020. Between January and June 2021, 666 women were the victims of femicide, the highest number since records began in 2017.