On December 10, the work of the Brazilian National Truth Commission (NTC) came to an end, after two years and seven months. The commission delivered a 2,000-page report to President Dilma Rousseff.
Aiming to investigate serious human rights violations committed by the Brazilian state in the period of 1946 to 1988, the NTC collected 1,121 testimonies from victims, perpetrators and state officials, resulting in a list of 434 names of dead or missing victims of the civil-military dictatorship.
The commission is a special chapter in the history of the struggle for memory, truth and justice carried on relentlessly by the families of the disappeared since the end of the dictatorship. It was the first step in implementing public policies related to transitional justice by the incipient Brazilian democracy.
It is true that most of the information released in the report was based on secondary sources and there weren’t that many first-hand testimonies. But what is important is that for the first time such first-hand accounts are now circulated as “official” record. As a result of the report, thousands of arbitrary arrests, summary executions and forced disappearances have been officially recognised.
The report provides a systematic record of the entire command structure responsible for handling of the repressive state apparatus which did not exist before.
It is true that the achievements of the NTC fall short of the expectations of human rights organisations, the civil society and social movements. However, it is the furthest the Brazilian government has gone on the matter of transitional justice.
Resistance and setbacks
One of the initial challenges that the commission and its seven commissioners faced was that they did not set up an agenda and did not have a plan of action. There was also a lack of a political alignment among the commissioners. Sometimes, divergences among the national truth commission team members led to temporary disruption in their work.
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As the NTC started work, unresolved issues of the past came to the surface and interfered with its progress. As its investigations went forward, it challenged the authority of the military corps and those from the civil society who call for the return of the dictatorship. The armed forces refused to contribute to the work of the NTC, boycotting their research, denying access to official documents, and refusing to cooperate with interviewers.
Without backing from the political elite and institutions, the commission was institutionally isolated and publicly disenfranchised by a silent executive power and a judiciary that supports impunity. Rousseff was not very clear about how far the work of the NTC could go and how much autonomy it had, and failed to resolve the institutional crisis between the commission and the command of the armed forces.
The lack of dialogue with the civil society was another weakness which threatened the work and the legitimacy of the NTC, especially in the beginning of its investigations.
Changing attitudes, uncovering facts
Despite the NTC’s initial reluctance, pressure from the civil society pushed the commissioners to work in a more transparent manner, conducting public hearings and promoting activities outside Brasilia. Eventually the commission opened up for a dialogue with the civil society and allowed for public hearings for the victims and their families, which brought more legitimacy to the process in the eyes of the Brazilian public.
The issue of human rights violations perpetrated by the state has never received so much attention in Brazil. After the NTC was launched, a complex network of new commissions on the local, regional, executive and legislative levels were created to help with the investigations.
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In its last year of operation, the NTC decided to release both partial and thematic reports. This was an important step which encouraged the engagement of the Brazilian society in the transitional justice process.
With more sophisticated communication tools, the presence of the NTC in the past months in the traditional press and also in social networking sites was intensified, reaching broader sectors of the Brazilian society.
In this sense, the pedagogical and educational role that the work of the commission played was very important. In the year of the 50th anniversary of the 1964 coup d’etat, its work stimulated cultural events, debates in schools, political interventions, and “escrachos” – acts of publicly exposing abusers through targeted demonstrations.
The commission’s contribution to the public debate on the legacy of the military dictatorship was enormous. The way our country deals with its past of violence has certainly changed. It is likely that the work of the NTC will encourage the creation of truth commissions to investigate other traumas of the Brazilian society such as the slavery period or the crimes and the violence going on today.
The commissioners were sensitive to the demands of marginalised sectors and ended up expanding the scope of the report, incorporating a variety of unexplored themes. For example, they changed the traditional interpretation of who counted as a “victim”; until recently this concept was applied only to those who took part in the resistance. The NTC ended up including the stories of violence and abuse suffered by women, indigenous peoples, peasants and homosexuals and dedicated special chapters to them in the final report.
The commissioners also used their legal prerogative permitting them to release the names of human rights violators, while collecting evidence. As a result, for the first time in Brazilian history, we have the names of 377 public officials who were responsible for carrying out acts of violence during the military dictatorship.
This report has opened doors to more public pressure to hold officers who were part of the military junta accountable. With this report, we are one step closer to ending this era of impunity and delivering just punishment to those responsible for the crimes of the previous regime.
The report provides 29 key recommendations to the Brazilian state, ranging from criminal proceedings for the perpetrators of violence through the repeal of laws of the authoritarian period and to the construction of places of commemoration for the victims of the junta.
The expectation now is that the release of the full report will encourage more debate and indignation in the Brazilian society against past violence and authoritarianism. This experience must help us strengthen our commitment to the principles of democracy so we can keep our state in check and work on improving the mechanisms of Brazil’s democracy.
Renan Quinalha works as a lawyer at the Truth Commission of Sao Paulo. He has written extensively on transitional justice in Brazil, including his book, Transitional Justice: Contours of a Concept and coedited, with James Green, Dictatorship and Homosexualities: Repression, Resistance and the Truth-seeking.