Brazil, February 23, 2022 – the International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights (Race and Equality) through the Latin American Human Rights Consortium, joined Brazilian civil society organizations: Criola, Geledés – Instituto da Mulher Negra and the Institute for Research and Indigenous Training (Iepé), to make visible Brazil’s situation regarding the participation of organized civil society in civic spaces. Focusing on black and indigenous populations, the research aims to produce a report to denounce, before international human rights mechanisms, the current regulatory frameworks that restrict freedom of association, limit freedom of expression and extinguish channels for civic participation in the country.
In view of the current global climate of democratic tensions, Latin American countries have been facing an uptick of restrictions and attacks that threaten the participation of organized civil society in decision-making spaces. In other words, with the closing and/or tightening of civic spaces, restrictive measures aggravate the harsh conditions that civil society organizations have faced every day for decades, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and murders of human rights defenders.
Added to this difficult scenario, the COVID-19 pandemic has particularly affected the region. Although some countries are among the highest numbers of infections and deaths in the world, the unequal distribution of vaccines, poor access to health services, the sharp drop in employment, and the lack of social protection systems, reveal that institutional weaknesses and structural problems that affect, especially the most vulnerable populations, have intensified. Under the pretext of maintaining security, the pandemic has also been used by governments in the region to impose greater restrictions on movement and freedom of expression, further limiting spaces for civil society to participate.
For David Alvarez Veloso, the Regional Race and Equality Coordinator for the Human Rights Consortium, this project is of paramount importance for the development and strengthening of democracy in the countries where civil society organizations play an active role in political and social life. It is also important to document and make visible the increasing restrictions and obstacles that have reduced spaces of participation. “With the support of the Consortium of Human Rights, and thanks to the work of organizations such as Criola, Geledés and Iepé in Brazil, among others, we have comparative and updated information on the effects these measures have on the different populations of the country. In this way, it is possible to empower leaders to strengthen the protection of human rights and articulate advocacy strategies at national and international levels, in order to end restrictions on citizen participation,” explains Alvarez.
Brazil and the history of threats to civil society participation
Towards the end of the dictatorial period in Brazil, civil society began to achieve voice and citizen participation to build new perspectives for a full democratic rule of law. In 1988, with the validity of a new Federal Constitution, a political conjecture came into force that valued more transparency of data, information, public budget and, also, as a new window of opportunities and rights for historically excluded groups, such as black, indigenous and LGBTI+ populations. However, since 2014, with the approval of constitutional amendments in the Dilma Roussef government – such as the anti-terrorism PEC and the sanctions related to state security until the coup d’état in 2016, which led to her impeachment – civil society’s relations with the State have intensified deeply.
These restrictive measures represented a blow to civil society because public demonstrations came to be understood as manifestations contrary to the interests of the State. However, what has been denounced by organized civil society is that during the current government of Jair Bolsonaro, the spaces for dialogue and guarantee of rights are practically null and for human rights defenders involve a dynamic of persecution, violence, surveillance and even death. The organizations denounce that even without a military decree or legal order to close civic spaces, the current relationship between the Executive and civil society prevents the debate of agendas and the presentation of social demands. In short, there is no dialogue.
Consequences for black and indigenous populations in Brazil
In November 2021, Race and Equality launched the webinar, “Closing spaces for participation: threats to civil society in Brazil, Honduras and Guatemala,” which was attended by representatives of civil society organizations, together with the vice president from Costa Rica, Epsy Campbell Barr, to denounce and outline proposals for the regional strengthening of civil society. The virtual event was attended by Lúcia Xavier, General Coordinator of Criola, who exposed the situation of persecution of human rights defenders and violations of democracy that make black and indigenous people even more vulnerable, with total erasure of their political agendas.
According to Lúcia Xavier, these attacks are reflected from the political violence that black women; cis and trans people, have been suffering with the contempt of the Executive. With lack of access to public information at the height of the pandemic, it was necessary to create a consortium between public and private sectors so that the population could follow the cases. Furthermore, Lúcia highlighted the death of human rights defenders both in cities and in the countryside, and that even protection programs are not adequately secure.
“The Brazilian Constitution guarantees the citizenship and participation of organized civil society in all policies. These sectors are not closed, these councils work, but the ability to admit and dialogue with other sectors of society no longer exists. Therefore, there is also no monitoring of policies and public budget in Brazil. Essentially, these laws immobilize the civil society participation format, and any demonstration can be considered as terrorism and a threat to national security,” emphasized Xavier during the event.” 
Faced with this situation of withdrawal of rights and silence, the questioning and search for justice is revealed as a path of dialogue for vulnerable populations. However, Rodnei Jericó da Silva, Coordinator of SOS Racismo do Geledés, sees with apprehension the 2022 electoral agenda, in which he believes that any incidence of civil society will overlap, but depending on the outcome of the elections there is a way for change and for civil society participation in decision-making spaces.
“The Brazilian population is mostly black, public policies or even social policies are debated in spaces where there was participation of society. The damage to the collective is enormous because the target audience is not being heard, which indicates that the possibility of error and ineffectiveness is much greater. Participation spaces improve the democratic system, strengthen society, which feels integral to the process, and together seek solutions to problems,” says Jericó.
The struggle of the indigenous population to not be completely decimated by the current government has been extremely challenging with the emptying of public institutions that ensure security and indigenous rights, such as the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), in addition to attacks on communities and their territories throughout the country. In 2021, the vote of Marco Temporal,  until now suspended by the Supreme Court (STF), aims to remove the possession of indigenous lands guaranteed by the Constitution. According to Luis Donisete, Iepé’s Executive Coordinator, the closure of public spaces of indigenous and environmental policies in Brazil has major implications for the exercise of citizen participation and indigenous social control.
“The anti-democratic and anti-indigenous bias of the current government has been transformed into an orientation towards the policies of the Brazilian state, contrary to activism and the actions of organized civil society. The results are the abandonment of government programs and policies that implemented rights enshrined in our legislation in different areas: health, education, culture, territorial management, protection of indigenous lands. Today there are no more channels of dialogue between indigenous representatives and different governmental bodies. It is a huge setback that will take years and a lot of dedication to rebuild,” denounces Donisete.
In this context of uncertainties, denunciations and silencing of civil society in Brazil, Race and Equality makes a call to international human rights mechanisms for a framework that can be further aggravated with the elections taking place in the country in November 2022. Considering the setbacks and limitations to citizen participation mentioned above, and to strengthen the role of civil society in democratic life, it is important that the Brazilian state advances, among others, in:
1 – As provided for in the Constitution and in the laws, guarantee the political participation of organized civil society in public institutions and decision-making spaces of power, with effective monitoring of policies and public budget;
2 – Ensuring transparency in access to public information and carrying out data collection for the construction of intersectional public policies, as provided by the Access to Information Law;
3 – Strengthen the Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Communicators and Environmentalists (PPDDH), which has been falling apart, especially due to low budget execution, as well as the weakening of popular participation in the PPDDH Deliberative Council. 
4 – Create civil society participation councils taking into account the different realities of the Brazilian population. The councils must be a space for listening and decision-making for the most vulnerable populations, including black, indigenous, quilombolas, and gypsy peoples.
 These councils operate theoretically, but in practice they are unable to incorporate the perspective of civil society.