Rio de Janeiro’s Politics of Extermination and Impunity through Mass Police Killings

Isabella B. Ruggeri. Isabella is a JD candidate (2021) at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University and is interested in international human rights law and humanitarian law. She is an IRLS Fellow during the 2019-2020 academic year.

Military tanks with heavily armed personnel breaking through community barricades. Military checkpoints. Shots fired from helicopters and military cars in the streets. This may not be the first image that comes to mind when you hear about Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but it is the reality of those who live in its favelas.

The military’s 2018 deployment into Rio has increased the prevalence of a dehumanizing, militarized, hyper-violent discourse among politicians that targets favelas, or slums, and their populations. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro even compared alleged criminals to cockroaches, a dehumanizing language used during genocides and crimes against humanity in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The language used by Rio’s Governor Wilson Witzel, elected in 2019, has been just as problematic, evoking images of criminals shot in “their little heads” and entire slums being blown up.

Brazilian military entering a favela in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)

The governor’s policies are equally distressing. Frequent police helicopter and land operations have left many complaining of stray bullets, civilian deaths, and terror within their communities. Governor Witzel himself joined one of the helicopter operations that led residents to report being shot at during a prayer ceremony. There are also concerns about extrajudicial killings. The governor said police officers should be allowed to shoot any person seen carrying a rifle, regardless of what they were doing. In March 2019, Witzel affirmed that the police were already using snipers to do this but without any public disclosures as operations were highly classified. He said his “protocol is clear: if someone has a rifle, they must be lethally neutralized.” This raises serious concerns about the possibility of widespread, unreported extrajudicial killings within the state and lack of government transparency about its operations.

Congresswoman Renata Souza, the president of Rio’s Human Rights Commission, has called on the United Nations (UN) to investigate these deaths and has raised concerns that the problem amounts to genocide, with the victims being mainly poor and black. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet publicly criticized the government for the high number of police killings. Her comments were met with hostility by the Brazilian president, who said she was “defending the human rights of vagabonds.” Since 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions has also requested entry to Brazil to investigate the crimes, but the government has yet to respond.

The congresswoman and the commissioner may have a point. Brazil has been heavily criticized for its police killings before, but killings reached a record high in Rio in 2019 since the government started collecting information more than a decade before. The government reported 1,810 deaths at the hands of the police in Rio alone during 2019, which amounts to almost five deaths per day. This is an eighteen percent increase from the previous year. The government claims most of these deaths happened during armed confrontations with criminals, but reports from national and international organizations raise questions about this. Human Rights Watch recently published a report showing a high possibility of police tampering with evidence at police shootings by using tactics like “false rescue,” in which police remove a dead body from the scene, claiming the person is still alive and is being taken to the hospital for urgent medical treatment. Despite the likelihood of tampered evidence, a recent case-by-case investigation by Epoca, a Brazilian news magazine, revealed at least twelve cases in one month in which evidence strongly indicated either serious mistakes or summary executions by the police.

Politicians’ violent discourse was accompanied by two proposed legislative changes that increase the likelihood of police impunity. The first, introduced at the beginning of 2019 but not yet voted on, expands the circumstances in which police killings are considered legal, to include situations in which the police feel “fear, surprise or violent emotion.” The language of the legislation is very broad and permits police violence beyond the internationally agreed standards in the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. These principles prohibit the use of firearms unless it is for “self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent … serious crime[s] involving grave threat to life,” or to arrest someone committing such crimes. They also require that legislation be implemented to “decrease the risk of unnecessary harm.” The language in the proposed legislation does the opposite by allowing police officers to use even deadly force whenever their emotions are high, which tends to be a daily occurrence when working on the front lines of law enforcement. This issue is exacerbated by the second piece of proposed legislation, which would presume police killings were done in self-defense. Together, these legislative changes create an environment of impunity for police killings and give officers a license to kill without repercussion.

With evidence of a lack of effective investigation within the country and strong government support for police violence, international investigations are necessary to address these issues and to decrease current impunity within the country. Despite the government’s lack of response to the Special Rapporteur, there are other avenues to hold the country accountable. The current situation involves possible violations of articles 6, 14, and 15 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which afford individuals the right to life and a fair trial and punishment. It also potentially violates articles 2, 12, and 14 of the Convention Against Torture (CAT) due to the unjustified police killings, the lack of investigation into the killings, and police impunity. As a party to the Optional Protocols for both the ICCPR and the CAT, Brazil can be subject to investigation for its possible violations under both these treaties.

Police killings have reached a record high in Rio and are likely to increase if proposed legislation promoting police impunity becomes law. With local and federal government support for this violence and evidence of ineffective and tampered investigations into the killings, there is a need for international action on this critical rule of law issue.

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