By Larry Birns and Katie Soltis
In early April, Brazil broke off relations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) as part of its angry response to criticism of the country’s mammoth Belo Monte dam. The IACHR, the highly respected judicial body of the Organization of American States, is charged with ensuring the maintenance of human rights standards throughout the hemisphere. Upon receiving complaints concerning the dam’s construction, the IACHR requested that Brazil halt construction until Brasília meets existing environmental standards and implements measures to protect the local indigenous population.
The Brazilian government responded sharply to the IACHR’s request, acting as if it was eager to acknowledge itself as the world’s most perfected banana republic. President Dilma Rousseff immediately broke off formal relations with the body by recalling Ruy Casaes, Brazil’s ambassador to the Organization of American States, and halting its annual USD 800,000 contribution to the IACHR. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs called the criticism “unjustifiable,” and Senator Flexa Ribeiro, the president of the Senate Subcommittee overseeing the dam, argued that “The request is absurd. It even threatens Brazilian sovereignty.” The Brazilian government defended its construction project in a 52-page statement, and work on the facilities continues despite the IACHR’s motion to temporarily freeze the project.
The repercussions are enormous and could extend far beyond the issues ostensibly at play. Brazil is an ascending world power with enormous economic prospects due to recent fossil fuel discoveries, agricultural production, and bounteous mineral extraction sites. However, the recent decision may affect Brazil’s ability to play the “prestige” card in its campaign to acquire a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Additionally, after the country’s decision to rebuke the IACHR, we must now reconsider the extent of the gravities Brazil may bring to its flag. We must also reassess its overall capacity to resolve disputes, contribute to peacekeeping missions, allocate resources, aspire for regional leadership, and plead the case for Latin American participation in a number of international financial organizations.
A Legacy of Controversy
The gargantuan USD 17 billion Belo Monte hydroelectric facility has been a source of controversy ever since construction was initially proposed in 1975. Indigenous and environmental groups have rallied repeatedly against the expected destructive impact of the dam. The project will flood nearly 200 square miles along the Xingu River in the Amazon, while displacing an estimated 50,000 people.
In addition to the anticipated disastrous consequences that will befall the 24 indigenous tribes and thousands of other Brazilian citizens located along the river, the dam will pose a menacing danger to the biodiversity of the area. The region surrounding the dam houses at least four times the biodiversity as the entire continent of Europe, with many plants and animals being unique to the region. However, the hydroelectric project is predicted to bring about the devastating disappearance of approximately 1,000 species.
Due to the enormity of the likely damage to the immediate area, several environmental and indigenous groups have rallied against the dam. FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation of Brazil, and Amazon Watch, which works to protect the Amazon as well as indigenous rights, have been fighting the proposed construction site for years. The involvement of celebrities, including the vocalist Sting and director James Cameron, has proven beneficial by attracting a good deal of publicity to the movement. Various opposition groups have joined forces and formed the Xingu Alive Forever Movement, a coalition of international and Brazilian human rights, indigenous, and environmental organizations.
Several legal initiatives preceded the IACHR’s request to Brasília, which is only the latest attempt to stave off the expected wave of destruction likely to be caused by the dam. For instance, the Brazilian Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Pará had several lawsuits against the dam, with environmental and indigenous groups arguing that the dam fails to meet certain mandated requirements governing health, safety, environmental, and human rights standards. One of these lawsuits met with success this past February, when Federal Judge Destêrro blocked construction of the dam based on findings that 29 environmental conditions had not been met. However, the success of the opposition movement proved to be short-lived, as a regional court overturned Judge Destêrro’s decision to suspend the project.
Involvement of the IACHR
In light of the Brazilian government’s continued disregard for the petitioners’ complaints, the Xingu Alive Forever Movement filed a motion to seek relief from the IACHR in November 2010. Upon receiving this initiative, which alleged that the dam’s ongoing construction is resulting in tangible human rights violations, the IACHR investigated the details concerning the project. The Commission concluded that the dam indeed fringed upon international human rights standards. On April 1, the IACHR requested that Brazil “immediately suspend the licensing process for the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant project and stop any construction work from moving forward until certain minimum conditions are met.” These “minimum conditions” include measures to protect the affected indigenous populations, provide vital information in indigenous languages, and consult with affected groups about the dam’s predicted negative impact. If Brazil fails to adopt these recommended measures, the country could stand trial in the Inter-American Court.
Economic Goals Take Precedence
The Brazilian government argues that construction of the dam is necessary for national development. As one of the most extreme nations in the world in terms of its skewed distribution of wealth, rapid economic growth was one of the most important issues for former President Lula and his successor, President Rousseff, to tackle. Once completed, the dam will be the third largest in the world, after the Three Gorges hydropower plant in China and the Brazil-Paraguay Itaipú dam. Incontestably, the dam would be economically beneficial to this distant frontier region, an area that has yet to feel the impact of Brazil’s recent economic success. The dam is projected to provide thousands of construction jobs and eventually supply electricity to 23 million homes. Furthermore, the dam should be able to satisfy demands for clean and renewable energy sources. The huge hydroelectric plant is therefore one of the most important components making up President Rousseff’s economic growth program.
Yet while Belo Monte is designed to meet these goals regarding economic growth, it is in fact detrimental to tens of thousands of people. Economic growth does not justify the damage this dam will bring in its wake. The Belo Monte dam would destroy an area the size of Chicago, washing away the livelihoods of thousands of Amazonian peoples. Even more disconcerting, this project is only the first of as many as seventy dams scheduled for construction in the region. No amount of economic “progress” can excuse the staggering degree of transformation that these hydroelectric power facilities could bring about in their destructive aftermath. As Antonio Melo, the Coordinator of the Xingu Alive Forever Movement, argues:
“Our leaders no longer can use economic ‘development’ as an excuse to ignore human rights and to push for projects of destruction and death to our natural heritage and to the peoples of Amazon, as is the case of Belo Monte.”
Brazil’s recent actions may represent a huge disappointment to many of those who have tenacious faith in the country’s future. It is a nation that shows the promise of a great power fully capable of beginning on a path where it can confront and eventually challenge the influence of the United States. The recent decision to ignore the request of the IACHR, however, casts Brazil as a candidate to be Latin America’s chump nation of the year. In its blatant flouting of the Inter-American Commission, Brazilian authorities are expressing almost no angst over inflicting crippling damage to the system of human rights protection in the Americas. The hemisphere’s well-developed tradition of human rights protection began with the 1948 American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. This document is the oldest international human rights proclamation in the world, even predating the U.N.’s Universal Declaration on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court are the two venerable judicial bodies charged with ensuring that these rights remain protected throughout the hemisphere. The history of these two bodies dates back to the 1969 American Convention on Human Rights, which specified their powers and duties while simultaneously redefining the human rights that American nations collectively agreed to safeguard.
Brazil’s dismissive rejection of the IACHR request is therefore a rebuke not only to the judicial body of the IACHR but also represents a lethal blow to the hemisphere’s entire international human rights system. By ratifying the American Convention on Human Rights, Brazil agreed to respect the rights outlined in the Convention. Brazil needs to comply not only with the commitment it has made to protect its own citizens’ rights but also with the obligation it has undertaken to the international community. It should honor its pledges to its neighbors and the region in general. The national government cannot simply overlook the rights of the Brazilian people or capriciously refuse to comply with international human rights standards simply because they interfere with projects for economic growth. It is alarming to think that Brazil, now a formidable regional leader, is prepared to disregard its commitment to the hemisphere’s human rights code merely because it is convenient for the government to do so. Furthermore, not only is Brazil undermining the stability of this hemispheric body, it is also threatening the nation’s extraordinary opportunity to make a qualitative leap into a new era of growth and leadership. It is not too much to ask that Brazil, while still “thinking big,” adhere to accepted international standards that will set an example for the region.
 Mari Hayman. “Brazil Breaks Relations With Human Rights Commission Over Belo Monte Dam.” Latin American News Dispatch. 3 May 2011. http://latindispatch.com/2011/05/03/brazil-breaks-relations-with-human-rights-commission-over-belo-monte-dam/
 “New rights challenge to Belo Monte dam in Brazil.” The Guardian. 12 April 2011. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/apr/12/belo-monte-dam-work-suspended
 “Brazil furious with Human Rights Commission decision cuts all relations.” Merco Press. 30 April 2011. http://en.mercopress.com/2011/04/30/brazil-furious-with-human-rights-commission-decision-cuts-all-relations
 “Precautionary Measures Granted by the Commission during 2011.” PM 382/10 – Indigenous Communities of the Xingu River Basin, Pará, Brazil. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. http://www.cidh.oas.org/medidas/2011.eng.htm
 Hayman. “Brazil Breaks Relations With Human Rights Commission Over Belo Monte Dam.”
 Margaret Swink. “Brazil Rebukes Human Rights Court, Continues Work on Mega-Dam.” 8 April 2011. http://news.change.org/stories/brazil-rebukes-human-rights-court-continues-work-on-mega-dam
 “Organization of American States Requests Immediate Suspension of Belo Monte Dam in the Brazilian Amazon.” Amazon Watch. 5 April 2011. http://amazonwatch.org/news/2011/0405-oas-requests-immediate-suspension-of-belo-monte-dam
 Organization of American States, American Convention on Human Rights, “Pact of San Jose”, Costa Rica, 22 November 1969, available at: http://www.unhcr.org/refworld/docid/3ae6b36510.html