By Alex Gibson
Amidst the clamor of international outrage in the wake of the failed United Nations Security Council vote for regime change in Syria, Brazil has remained conspicuously silent. While the United States closed its embassy in Damascus, and while the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called the vote “a great disappointment,” the dominant economic and political force in Latin America was not inclined to take action.
Aspirations for a permanent spot on the UN Security Council are keeping Brazil from taking a bold and assertive stance on human rights and democracy in the Middle East. Commercial concerns with China and Iran, both key trading allies with Brazil who oppose intervention with Syria, are of course also on the minds of the Brazilian leadership. But if the country wants to become a major international player, it must take a broader and more generous view when it comes to the Arab Spring. In short, Brazil needs to denounce President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and to join the international call for its immediate removal.
Although Brazil has held only a temporary position on the UN Security council, with its most recent rotation ending in 2011, it is vying for a permanent seat, and playing the long ball to get it. Until now, it has tried to please the chief Western powers, as well as other major players like China and Russia.
“Brazil wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and any ‘loyalties’ must be seen against this backdrop of global promotion by showing pragmatism,” Professor Rafael Pons Reis told the Rio Times. “Brazil will defend its national interests on the international scene, without jeopardizing its economic development.”
A “pragmatic” sense of “global promotion” has been Brazil’s predominant tack regarding the Arab Spring since it began last winter. In a subtle effort to elbow out India and South Africa from the pool of eligible contenders for a permanent UN Security Council post, Brazil has made its biggest waves by saying nothing. Last October, it abstained from a vote in the Council to condemn a series of brutal actions committed by President Assad’s regime. But with China and Russia’s stunning refusal to act in the wake of the escalating atrocities committed by Assad against his own people, Brazil is no longer in a position to please all major international players. By continuing to pursue a universally unpopular diplomatic position, it may fast isolate its political benefactors in the international community. A nation that sits comfortably on the fence while the world clamors for intervention will never be seen as a compelling world player.
“By abstaining, [Brazil, India, and South Africa] have not only failed the Syrian people, but [have] also failed to offer a credible alternative to end the bloodshed,” the UN director of Human Rights Watch told the Christian Science Monitor. “This vote erodes their credibility in the global arena and might come to define their tenure in the Security Council and undermine their claim to permanent membership.”
If an unsustainable international strategy is not enough of an incentive for Brazil to find its voice, its own recent history of authoritarian rule should compel it to act against modern-day instances of state terror. From 1964-1985, thousands of Brazilians were imprisoned, tortured, or murdered by the military dictatorship. Brazil is no stranger to repressive rule.
Russia justified its veto of the Council resolution by stating that it “did not place sufficient blame for the violence on the opposition.” To claim that the regime and the opposition are equally responsible for the brutality crippling Syria is a form of denial that an increasingly authoritarian state like Russia might be able to stomach. Brazil, however, certainly cannot. It is time for the shining light of South America to live up to its growing international reputation and join the call for the immediate removal of the Assad regime.
Alex Gibson is a Research Associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs