The killing of Marielle Franco on the UN radar

The killing of a black activist and politician is an opportunity for Brazil to show what it stands for. Thanks to Marielle, the whole world now follows the dramatic situation of the federal military intervention in Rio de Janeiro. Português Español

Gustavo Macedo
24 March 2018

Protest Against Marielle Franco's murder, in Rio de Janeiro on 15 March 15, 2018. Image: Thiago Dinz Favela em Foco. All Rights Reserved.

On March 14th, less than a month into a federal military intervention that is supposed to fix the security crisis in the state of Rio de Janeiro, the brutal assassination of a Rio de Janeiro’s Councilwoman, Marielle Franco, has dragged new actors into an already intricate political situation – and this time they are international. The United Nations (UN), which had already been expressing concerns about the unfolding political situation, may now dive into the story head first.

The case of Marielle meets all the criteria for setting the UN machinery in motion. Politically, the great commotion that the story of Marielle’s murder generated nationally in Brazil earned it international political attention, including that of the UN, an organization that strategically chooses to focus its work on emblematic cases that can serve as examples of the fight for human rights around the world. Technically, the history of other recent similar cases killings in Brazil, the profile of the victim, the circumstances of the crime, its modus operandi and the allegations of people close to the victim should, in theory, be sufficient in order for the case to be picked up by the UN.

Tragedies often unite people which is what the whole world witnessed on Thursday morning after Marielle’s assassination by a sanctioned death squad: a divided country momentarily united by mourning. From the President to mainstream media; from social networks to political parties; grief was universal. Even those who were silent spoke to Marielle. International media, governments, and activists around the world reacted by relaying a message of solidarity. For a moment, because of Marielle, Brazil stood united in the eyes of the world.

In less than 24 hours, the case of the Councilwoman of Rio de Janeiro had already gone around the Earth. The UN and the Organization of American States (OAS) issued communiqués. International Amnesty and Human Rights Watch - international NGOs with headquarters in Brazil - issued condemnations. European parliamentarians politicized the case in the negotiations with Mercosur, and public demonstrations were organized in various capitals around the globe. In New York, Marielle was remembered during a UN event. The story is now global. We must understand the dimension the case is taking; and how the case can develop from now on, inside and outside Brazil.

Marielle’s murder also drew the attention of the Geneva-based UN body that monitors the human rights situation around the world and, if necessary, seeks to act on them. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights now has autonomous 51 Special Rapporteurs, Representatives, and Experts - even though they might complement each other’s work. The rapporteurs cover a wide range of topics, such as freedom of expression, human rights defenders, racism, violence against women and extrajudicial executions. Often, rapporteurs work together on the same case. Due to limited financial and human resources, and time, researchers seek to select with discretion the cases on which they will dwell into. Therefore, it seems natural to ask ourselves: among so many topics and rapporteurs, how do they define who pursues what? In the case of the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnès Callamard there are clues as to whether and how the Marielle case fits into her scope of work.

According to Callamard, "murders that may have been politically motivated or whose mastermind may be close to public officials" fit the definition of extrajudicial killings. An extrajudicial execution is a murder committed by a public agent outside any due process but motivated by a state agenda.

The report's mandate has grown in scope over the past 20 years and is currently aimed at monitoring and reporting situations where there are allegations or evidence of arbitrary deprivation of life. Thematic reports are presented to the Human Rights Council in Geneva and to the 3rd Committee of the UN General Assembly in New York. Also, without necessarily visiting the country, the Special Rapporteur may issue communications to governments expressing concern about the situations identified, and transmitting their recommendations.

The expected result of this action is to establish a dialogue with the State in its multiple spheres, as well as with civil society actors, who are also expected to participate actively in the process of adopting the agreed preventive measures. There is, therefore, an increase in transparency, legitimacy and, hence, the effectiveness of human rights and public security policies.

Although there is a very limited definition for cases where the UN rapporteur can act, this is not enough to explain the growing interest in Marielle's death.

Indeed, Callamard is emphatic in saying that she cannot comment on the specific case of Marielle Franco and Anderson Gomes. On the one hand, because it is still too early to issue any judgment once the pieces of the puzzle continue to arrive in New York. On the other hand, the UN internal protocol is clear: the Rapporteur must communicate the country in question before issuing any public opinion.

That being said, what makes cases similar to Marielle's jump on the rapporteur’s radar? Two things: the global repercussion and the reaction of public opinion. Take, for example, the two recent murders of journalists in Europe, one in Slovakia and another in Malta. In both cases, the immense international commotion resulted in a large number of requests for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to step in, which, although not necessarily decisive, certainly contributed to creating the pressure that led to the outcome with the punishment of those involved - and in the Slovak case, the resignation of the president.

Still, it remains to be asked why other cases of murder that occurred on the same night as Marielle’s have not been taken into account?  "I do not think that criticism should be overlooked," says Callamard, "but I must remind you of the history and nature of my mandate. That is crimes that were committed on behalf of the state, by state agents to implement state policy. Secondly, a traditional reading of human rights prioritizes killings where the responsibility of the State and its failure to respect the right to life can be demonstrated. I'm not saying that's what happened in this case [Marielle]. Thirdly, one must consider the identity of the victim and understand why that particular murder would have been prioritized. This does not mean that some people's lives are more important than others, but that the death of some people may have more social impact than others; particularly when individuals occupy public roles and when they represent a large number of constituents, when they represent those historically absent from public space, when they are elected politicians, journalists or are human rights activists. In short, all those individuals present in the public sphere who exercise the social role of informing the public, defending it and reporting to it, if those individuals are killed it will very likely catch my attention and other human rights people.", concludes Callamard.

Unfortunately, if it is proven that this is the case for Marielle, she will be part of a perverse statistic of killings of human rights activists. According to the Front Line Defenders report, in 2017 alone, 312 activists were murdered in 27 countries. In 84% of cases, the victims received at least one death threat. Until last January, only 12% of the cases resulted in the arrest of the suspects. More is the information that 80% of these murders occurred in Brazil, Colombia, Mexico and the Philippines.

It seems likely that the Brazilian government will soon receive an official communiqué from Callamard's office and other rapporteurs of the High Commissariat. If that happens, it will not be an exception. In the last 16 months, Callamard herself has issued five letters to the Brazilian government regarding other episodes in the country. One letter, for example, refers to the wave of killings that struck the state of Espírito Santo during February 2017. Other letters, signed by multiple UN rapporteurs, concerns the murder of 11 peasants in the state of Pará, an alert on the situation of threat to activists around Brazil, the murder of five children in the slums of Rio de Janeiro in the context of a military anti-drug operation, and the death threats of at least six activists in the state of Minas Gerais.

Unlike most of the countries with which Callamard communicates with, the Rapporteur acknowledges that "Brazil tends to respond to all the letters I send; and usually provides more information about the cases, as well as explaining the steps they are taking. Not all governments are so diligent. "

The fact is that the human rights crisis is global. According to the UN database, in the last 16 months, Agnès Callamard has held 133 posts to 50 countries on all continents. Of the five countries that received the most notifications in addition to Iran, the Philippines, Bahrain, and Pakistan, the United States stands out in third place. Asked about selection criteria or whether she also acts on the so-called developed countries, the rapporteur replies: "Absolutely ... I sent communications to the United States, United Kingdom, and France about murders committed by the police or committed during custody. Like my predecessors, I also sent letters to the United States regarding the use of drones for ‘targeted killings.' These killings are extraterritorial, but the responsibility is usually from countries in the Global North. (...) I was recently in Italy and Belgium discussing the murder of migrants."


One thing is sure; the success of the investigation into Marielle’s case depends on domestic and international pressure; and will require dialogue between different sectors of the Brazilian state and society. The case has gained international prominence and will probably be politicized, as it is usual with all human rights issues. Governments, organizations and the international public opinion were captivated by the story of this young black activist, of humble origin who was, most likely because of her political activity, brutally murdered. If every crisis is an opportunity, this an opportunity for Brazil to show what it stands for. Thanks to Marielle, the whole world now follows the dramatic situation of the federal military intervention in Rio de Janeiro. Today, Marielle is as big as the entire world.


This article was also published by Brazil Talk

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