The exclusion games: Rio’s human rights deficit on the eve of the Olympics

Beneath the gilded surface of 2016’s Olympic city, human rights activists struggle through harassment and violence to protect the most vulnerable.

Renata Oliveira
7 August 2016
Security operation at the 2016 Olympic Games. Wikimedia/Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil. Some rights reserved.

"As always, the poor population from the favelas is the one to suffer the worst consequences of this militarisation." Security operation at the 2016 Olympic Games. Wikimedia/Tomaz Silva/Agência Brasil. Some rights reserved. I arrived in Rio de Janeiro from my hometown in northern Brazil exactly one month before the opening ceremony of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, to help film a campaign about human rights defenders (HRDs) for Front Line Defenders. As I left the airport, welcome signs to the Olympics on a solid plastic wall effectively hid the poverty at the entrance to the city. This was my introduction to the efforts of the government to hide Rio's problems from international tourists, athletes, and journalists visiting us this month.

Sporting mega-events often take place at the expense of local populations. Governments from Azerbaijan to Russia to Bahrain have hosted international games, reaping the financial and reputational reward whilst punishing those who work to expose human rights violations behind the glamour. Rio de Janeiro faced similar problems in 2007 and 2014, when the city hosted the Pan-American Games and the World Cup respectively. This summer, Rio is hosting another mega-event, and human rights defenders are facing renewed challenges as they work to protect those most vulnerable from the negative impacts of the Olympics. “I know the problems this city faces, but the killings of black and poor youth in the favelas is much more urgent — these are lives which are taken away and society could not care less about this reality.”

Brazil is known for topping the list of human rights defenders killed in 2016, with at least 24 HRDs killed in the first third of the year. HRDs working in Rio de Janeiro on different human rights issues have been brutally persecuted and silenced.

HRDs working against discrimination, violent evictions and police violence — especially against children and teenagers — have been specifically targeted. Journalists and media activists publicising these violations are also victims of defamatory attacks, arbitrary arrests and harassment. As the Olympic Games approach, attacks, threats, intimidation and stigmatisation against HRDs have grown, and most defenders I’ve spoken to in Rio expect repression to increase during the Games.

Defending rights in Brazil is a deadly profession. Raull Santiago told Front Line Defenders he does not keep any pictures of himself in the house he shares with his partner and their newborn, to avoid the police who raid his home confirming that he lives there and attacking him or his family. “When the police go inside my home, I have to hide like a criminal because I am a human rights defender.”  

Mônica Cunha also fears the fatal attacks suffered by other HRDs in Brazil: “this is the country where most killings happen.” She struggles daily for justice and rights in her community, but acknowledges that often “what is most beautiful is just to remain alive.”

The struggle of human rights defenders in Rio

I am Brazilian, and in 2014 I witnessed the impact of a mega-event in my own city of Natal during the World Cup. Still, the situation in Rio is more chaotic than I expected. Olympic venues there are still not ready and nonviolent demonstrations are being violently repressed throughout the city. There is a strong police presence on the streets — the local government is clearly working hard to portray Rio as a safe city. As always, the poor population from the favelas suffers the worst consequences of this militarisation.

I went to the Complexo do Alemão favela to talk to Raull Santiago, one of the most outspoken voices in the struggle against police violence in Rio de Janeiro. Due to his activism, he faces numerous risks and forms of harassment. He is one of the members and co-founder of Papo Reto, a group of independent citizen journalists documenting life in the favela. This collective plays an important role in denouncing police brutality.

Raull told me about the escalation of police operations. He said young black people who live in the favelas are the main victims: “I know the problems this city faces, but the killings of black and poor youth in the favelas is much more urgent — these are lives which are taken away and society could not care less about this reality.”

One of his major concerns now is a bill, soon to be voted on in congress, that would grant military jurisdiction to army officials who kill civilians in the city, even though the Brazilian constitution provides that killings should be judged by a jury in a civil court. If approved, social movements in Brazil have warned that this bill would effectively be a license to kill.

Mônica Cunha, founder of the NGO Movimento Moleque and member of the Rede de Comunidades e Movimentos Contra a Violência, echoed Raull's concerns. Mônica is an activist for children’s rights and supports the families of children and adolescents in conflict with the law, some of whom have lost their lives; Mônica's son was murdered by the police about 10 years ago. She has endured stigmatisation and defamation campaigns for her human rights work.
Physical attacks and sexual assaults are a constant reality, and the demand for sex workers and sexual exploitation tends to increase during mega-events.
HRDs working on sex workers’ rights also face extreme danger and police violence – especially if they work in the industry themselves. Sometimes these HRDs are caught in the middle of conflicts between police forces and armed gangs, putting them in an even more vulnerable situation. Physical attacks and sexual assaults are a constant reality, and the demand for sex workers and sexual exploitation tends to increase during mega-events.

This particular issue is still a significant taboo in Brazil — defenders of sex worker rights face a lot of stigma and are not granted as much visibility and support from civil society and NGOs as other HRDs. The NGOs that do work on these issues, such as DAVIDA, have done an incredible job to defend sex workers’ rights in Brazil, while the Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) has started a project called Observatório da Prostituição, which aims to promote these rights in Rio and to contribute to the implementation of public policies on prostitution in the city.

HRDs working against discrimination also face plenty of stigma and various forms of harassment. Discrimination continues to be directly related to cases of police violence and other human rights violations. Heloisa Helena Costa Berto, a Candomblé priestess (yalorixá), works to combat discrimination and promote religious freedom. A resident of Vila Autódromo she was one of many who were brutally removed from local communities to make way for the Olympic Park. Heloisa's eviction followed threats to demolish her spiritual centre along with her home, with total disregard for her Candomblé sacred place. She had to hurry to remove her Assentamento de Orixá – the very representation of her Orisha – due to the short time she had between the demolition order and the execution itself.

Heloisa has been fighting for Candomblé and other religions of African origin to be included in the ecumenical centre of the Olympic Village, as a gesture to fight prejudice and in recognition of African heritage in Brazilian society. “We have to teach the people that the ‘different’ is not wrong. A religion that is considered different isn't wrong.” 

Other HRDs affected by the evictions are Luiz Cláudio and Maria 'Dona' da Penha, a married couple who are both members of the Association of Residents of Vila Autódromo. Luiz and Dona Penha are part of a small group of 20 Vila Autódromo families who have resisted change and remained in the community. Approximately 650 other families were evicted. They currently live in a shipping container in Vila Autódromo, awaiting the completion of a re-urbanisation project and the reconstruction of houses for the few families that remained. The houses being rebuilt are a shocking contrast with the magnificent buildings of the Olympic Park that surrounds this community.

Luiz says the legacy of the Olympic games will be the “destabilisation” of Brazil's most vulnerable people. 

He also told me about humiliation, surveillance, harassment and physical attacks perpetrated against HRDs and community leaders in Vila Autódromo. Dona Penha herself was assaulted during one eviction, her nose being broken by Rio’s municipal guards. Luiz said that the evictions also have less visible effects, as they break social ties in the community and destroy the solidarity that existed between former residents, who are now scattered across the city.

Evictions occur regardless of the ‘right of use’ titles granted to residents two decades ago. These titles established the community as an area of special social interest for housing purposes, but appear to have little impact on the ongoing evictions.

Several collectives and alternative media groups have emerged in Rio de Janeiro, aimed at publicising the various human rights violations occurring in the context of mega-events like the Olympic Games. Victor Ribeiro, a member of Coletivo de Mídia Independente is also a member and co-founder of Mutirão Rio 2016, a group created to report on the social impact of the Games.

On 5 July, exactly one month before the beginning of the Olympic Games — and the day I arrived in Rio — several independent journalists were brutally repressed by Rio Metrô security guards while filming a protest denouncing the violations of human rights that have been produced by preparations for the Games.

Repression against those working on freedom of expression will likely increase due to the enactment of the Anti-Terrorism Act in March, which is part of the security strategy for the Games. Several members of Rio’s civil society believe that the ambiguous wording of this law allows for the criminalisation of many social movements and protests.

The social legacy of Brazil's mega-events

Brazil appears not to have learnt from the experience of the Pan-American Games in 2007, nor that of the 2014 football World Cup.

HRDs working with children’s rights feel as if they are experiencing deja vu — as if all the difficulties faced in 2007 with the Pan-American Games are once again present, including the disappearance and provisional detention of many children living on the streets. Despite the efforts of many HRDs towards the elaboration of a national policy on children and adolescents living on the streets and the promotion of many seminars and meetings on the subject, the problems and challenges experienced in the past are in stark evidence in 2016.

Discrimination and police violence also seem to be a constant in Rio when it comes to mega-events. The increase and intensification of police operations to keep the Olympic City 'safe' (for whom?) again (re)victimises poor and black populations. And those who continue to struggle to expose such rights violations through the use of alternative media continue to be arbitrarily harassed, detained, prosecuted and subjected to smear campaigns.

All HRDs I spoke to agree that the Olympic Games, wherever they are held, have the potential to unite communities and promote celebration and tolerance among people. But this is not the legacy that Rio 2016 will leave, and it certainly was not the legacy of either the Pan-American Games or the World Cup.

Raull Santiago commented on how the Games could be a space to include the youth from the favela, to promote sports and teach lessons about perseverance and unity – a view corroborated by Mônica Cunha, who believes that sport could have improved the lives of many children and adolescents with whom she has worked. Unfortunately, the most vulnerable and excluded groups are exactly those who are more likely to suffer from human rights violations related to the Games.

The "wonderful city" advertised on Rio's "Welcome to the Olympics" posters looks more like a city of shame.

The Brazilian government and the International Olympic Committee cannot be exempted from promoting and protecting human rights in preparation for and during the Olympic Games. It is imperative that the countries which intend to host mega-events commit themselves to use these occassions as a platform for the promotion and protection of human rights, especially the rights of the most marginalised communities, and to increase the space for civil society and HRDs. This is the lesson that Brazil can offer the world, after hosting three of these events in a decade.

HRDs and civil society members in Rio are relentless in their efforts to improve the situation. The Games are about to begin, but it is still possible to improve the situation of many who have been evicted; to promote equality and respect with a truly ecumenical religious site at the Olympic Village; to fight police violence and militarisation in the favelas; and to promote freedom of expression by allowing citizen journalists to operate freely. 

The international community has a major role to play supporting these local actors and pressuring Brazil's Olympic organisers to respect the rights of the local population. Right now the "wonderful city" advertised on Rio's "Welcome to the Olympics" posters looks more like a city of shame.

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