National public policies and mechanisms for the protection of Human Rights Defenders: the situation of Brazil. By Alice de Marchi Pereira de Souza, Marisa Viegas and Rafael Gonçalves Dias (Justiça Global)[1]


Brazil is today a country that is emerging onto the international stage as a regional and global economic actor. Its democratic system is perceived to be solid and to be confronting historically rooted social problems. Nevertheless, a complex context of human rights problems persists, which is in contrast to this image. The topic of HRDs at risk continues to be little discussed, although many are threatened as a result of their activities in defence of human rights. There is a serious problem of criminalisation, delegitimisation and disqualification of HRDs underway, whose principal protagonists are landowners, large companies and the major media outlets. Justiça Global forms a part of the General Coordination of the National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders and has been urging the government for a long time to increase its political investment in the matter, as the authorities do not prioritise the protection of HRDs.

The National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders: some data

The Brazilian National Programme for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (PPDDH in Portuguese) was formally created in 2004, but only began to function in 2005, and the decree establishing it was only approved in 2007. The relevant draft law is yet to be approved.  It is estimated that currently there are about 1,000 threatened HRDs in the country,[2] of whom some 400 are included in protection programmes (133 in the PPDDH). State programmes exist in six of the country’s 26 states.[3] Recently, the programmes in the state of Pará (which has the highest number of cases) and in Rio of Janeiro were suspended, despite the fact that both are characterised by scenarios of serious violations as a result of the impact of megaprojects[4] (in the case of Pará) and of mass sporting events [5]and police violence in Rio.

HRD protection in states that still do not have programmes is dealt with by the PPDDH, which operates from the Human Rights Secretariat of the Office of the President. This is the case of Mato Grosso do Sul, where 60% of the murders of indigenous people occur[6] – affecting in particular the Guaraní-Kaiowá who are being forced off their lands by large landholders. Mato Grosso do Sul has the second highest number of HRDs at risk.

Principal difficulties, persistent challenges and lessons learned

The main difficulty that has been identified is that human rights are not a priority either for the Federal or for state governments. Nor is it a coincidence that the most vulnerable and threatened HRDs are those engaged in struggles for land and territory. The idea of national development, first advanced during the period of civil-military dictatorship, is still based on the development of megaprojects (infrastructure, the energy sector, extractive industries, etc.). The model is incompatible with the struggles of these HRDs and affects traditional communities (indigenous fisher peoples and “Quilombolas”, or Afro-descendants) and rural workers who need their lands and depend on their natural resources in order to survive.  Large businesses and agroindustrial interests pursue their economic projects generating enormous profits and causing immense social impacts, all without engaging in effective prior consultation with the affected communities.

This is reflected in other problems: the resources dedicated to protection programmes are insufficient; effective participation by the security forces is required; state programmes are interrupted because of excessive bureaucracy in the realisation of the programmes; and there is insufficient technical capacity to provide effective protection for HRDs. Another important aspect is the need to go beyond police protection – which is always insufficient and palliative in nature – and to confront the structural causes of threats. This means opening serious investigations into threats when they are made, raising the profile of HRDs and supporting their struggles, which are both legitimate and of great importance.

Finally, we stress that coordination with other civil society actors and the work of the Brazilian Committee of Human Rights Defenders (established in 2004) have been of fundamental importance to the creation of periodic recommendations to the PPHRD. Nevertheless, after ten years of existence we attest, in addition to the difficulties described above, to the ineffectiveness of the programmes.

[2] According to the newspaper “Congresso em Foco”, Nº 8. December 2013.

[3] Bahia, Minas Gerais, Espírito Santo, Pernambuco, Rio Grande do Sul and Ceará.

[4] We emphasise the hydroelectric and mining megaprojects that affect traiditional commununities.

[5] The 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

[6] Data taken from “Relatório Violência contra os Povos Indígenas no Brasil”, 2012.