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Brazil too ‘traditional’ to be a global human rights leader

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The author responds to Camila Asano’s prediction in ‘Emerging powers and human rights’ of the considerable potential for Brazil to contribute positively to a global human rights agenda. A lot will have to change in the ‘global South agenda’ before that happens.A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights. Português

Jeffrey Cason
12 July 2013

Camila Asano’s hopeful piece on the potential for Brazilian foreign policy to push a human rights agenda is, unfortunately, too hopeful. 

It is true, as she notes, that Brazil has not supported the international status quo in its foreign policy.  However, it is also true that Brazil has been particularly meticulous in insisting on the principle of non-interventionism in other countries’ affairs.  It is hard to reconcile this non-interventionism and respect for sovereignty with anything approaching an internationally activist position on human rights.  While it is conceivable that concerted presidential leadership could change this stance, this is highly unlikely to happen.

Brazil’s diplomats are well regarded internationally, have outstanding training, and are viewed as especially effective in global negotiations.  At the same time, these diplomats are steeped in tradition, and Brazil’s foreign policy has been remarkably consistent, through both democratic and military governments, in the post-WWII period.  Brazil’s foreign policy has also been consistently agnostic regarding the internal politics of other countries, mostly because it did not want others to intervene in its own domestic affairs.

Human rights in Brazil

Brazilians in London in solidarity with the protests in Brazil. Demotix/Samuel Hardy. All rights reserved.

Brazil has championed a “global south” agenda in its foreign policy, particularly beginning with the government of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  That said, this stance was not entirely new, and in many ways was a continuation of foreign policy positions adopted for decades by the country.  Some emphases had changed, but the overall foreign policy orientation persisted. Brazil has considered itself an emerging power for longer than it has been considered a BRIC, and has not wanted to be in anyone’s “camp”.  It has tried to establish its own camp.

In its defense of the global south, Brazil has continuously placed an emphasis on intergovernmental negotiation, particularly in the trade sphere.  Its diplomats have cultivated an image as defenders of those poor countries who are disadvantaged by the global trading system, and especially by countries harmed by agricultural subsidies in wealthier countries.  At the same time, because of Brazil’s emphasis on intergovernmentalism, it is difficult to imagine that Brazil might step outside its self-imposed parameters, which confine its international diplomatic operations to relations with other governments and negotiations within international organizations.  Speaking out on human rights—and criticizing other governments for their human rights records—would be a huge change for Brazil.

The only way one might imagine a change in Brazilian foreign policy in a direction that would emphasize human rights would be through a change imposed by above—and in particular a change in emphasis from the very top.  In recent decades—both under former president Lula and his immediate predecessor, Fernando Henrique Cardoso—presidents took on a greater role in pushing new foreign policy agendas, at least incrementally.  But the sort of change that Ms. Asano is suggesting would require a huge push from President Rousseff.  Would she be willing to buck the traditional orientation of Brazilian foreign policy to make such a shift? It is hard to imagine that it would be politically advantageous for her to do so.

One might ask, as well:  would it not be possible for civil society organizations to push the Rousseff administration (or a future administration) to focus more on human rights?  In theory, that would be possible, and it is certainly the case—as evidenced by recent protests—that Brazilian civil society is awakening.  

There are two reasons, however, to think that civil society pressure will not change Brazilian foreign policy orientation in the human rights area:  first, much of the popular, grass-roots pressure that we are now witnessing is focused on bread and butter economic issues.  Recent protests were kicked off by an increase in bus fares, and overall, the protests are focusing very specifically on domestic issues and government budget priorities. 

More important is that fact that foreign policy is one of the public policies least influenced by internal pressure and civil society in Brazil.  While there has been some (mild) weakening of the traditional autonomy of Brazil’s foreign policy establishment in recent years, this has mostly been in the economic sphere.  It would be a fairly big leap—and a large change in Brazilian foreign policy making—to see this extend to the human rights area, especially in a way that would effectively change Brazil’s foreign policy orientation. 

In the end, Brazilian foreign policy in the future is likely to have the same thrust that it has for decades: respect for sovereignty and an unwillingness to intervene in, or comment on, the affairs of other countries. It may well focus on human rights internally - and well it should - but it is unlikely to make human rights promotion a centerpiece of its foreign policy.

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