Human rights and business: A necessary commitment for Brazil's new presidency in 2023
Brazil celebrates its bicentenary of independence this year as voters prepare to take to the polls for presidential elections. For 200 years the agenda in Brazil has been dominated by inequality, environmental exploitation, slavery, racism, patrimonialism and endemic violence. This anniversary, amid political uncertainty, offers an opportunity to question what happens next – and what role we should play in the political and economic emancipation of Brazil.
The country is facing a difficult time, with high unemployment rates and a crisis in health, education and housing standards. Deforestation has hit record levels, while intense forest fires have wreaked havoc and mining-related incidents have caused destruction. Experts point out the impacts of the environmental crisis may bring permanent damage.
The tension between business and human rights is not new. By their very nature, businesses operate for profit. However, the disrespect and violations of human rights by companies in our country have become a problem which demands a courageous and lucid response from government authorities. A large part of Brazil’s private sector is closely tied to the State, in compromising relations that affect the protection of human rights, the environment and the maintenance of a Democratic State of Law.
Brazil is the fourth most deadly country in the world for human rights defenders. The 2021 Global Witness Report tells us that three quarters of recorded lethal attacks against environmental and land rights activists occurred in Latin America.
Data collected by the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (the Resource Centre) tells a similar story. As of January 2022, half of all attacks recorded against business-related human rights defenders in Brazil are against indigenous people. These attacks include killings, intimidation and threats, violence and beatings, arbitrary arrests and rape.
We sustain record levels of deforestation, propped up by increasingly flexible and poorly-enforced environmental laws which hinder efforts to stop illegal destruction of our forests. Last year, only 41% of the government's inspection budget was used. The first two years of the Bolsonaro administration saw infra-legal setbacks, followed by a period of urgent votes, without debate, on bills that could generate irreversible effects.
In a country that was once considered a leader in efforts to fight modern slavery, with advanced laws and regulations, resources must be directed to prevent and address labour violations and ensure the social and economic protection of workers.
The present dismantling of policies and mechanisms to combat slave labour is a serious cause for concern. Drastic budget reductions have had an impact on labour inspections and, consequently, on progress towards better working conditions. In a country that was once considered a leader in efforts to fight modern slavery, with advanced laws and regulations, resources must be directed to prevent and address labour violations and ensure the social and economic protection of workers.
It is essential that we establish a legal framework for human rights and business. The National Council on Human Rights has published Resolution 5º of 2020, with guidelines for the elaboration of such public policies. We want the bill 572/2022, which creates the National Framework Law on Human Rights and Businesses and establishes guidelines for the promotion of public policies on the subject, to be approved in the next four years. In addition, effective mechanisms—in the form of human rights and environmental due diligence—are required to hold transnational companies accountable for abuse, requiring them to identify, prevent, mitigate and remedy damages they cause or to which they contribute, in all activities and operations throughout their production chain.
In August, two months before the elections, civil society called for the defence of democracy. Two important documents were published: a letter from the Law School of USP, signed by more than one million people, and a letter "In defence of Democracy and Justice", organised by the Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo (Fiesp). Workers and corporate actors united on an unprecedented level in defence of democracy.
The Resource Centre’s work monitoring corporate abuse and advocating for business respect for human rights has led us to join civil society organisations in several manifestos: Dismantling and setbacks in the anti-slavery system in Brazil, in which we point out the necessity of guaranteeing public policies and budgets to combat slave labour; Letter to Lula on Human Rights and Business, where we ask for the consideration and support of a law to regulate the topic of human rights and business and include due diligence; Letter of Commitment against Slave Labour (2022), presented to candidates for Executive positions, with 13 commitments to combat slave labour and; Guide - Corporate Social Responsibility in the 2022 Electoral Process, with recommendations and guidelines on socially responsible action by companies and organisations in electoral processes.
As we reflect on Brazil’s bicentenary, we must ensure we are not moving backwards. We cannot accept that companies and governments prevent us from voicing our concerns, from participating, from opining, from deciding, from respecting, from protesting. The protection of Brazilians from human rights violations resulting from the operations of companies is an urgent issue for the construction of a fair and sustainable country.
Marina Novaes is Brazil Researcher and Representative at the Business & Human Rights Resource Centre