Last month, Brazil's Senate agreed to set up a Truth Commission to investigate human rights violations during the country’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship. While this represents an important step in the struggle against impunity, as Intlawgrrl Naomi Roht-Arriaza has recently noted, Brazil continues to be the “sole holdout” in this part of the continent to leave its amnesty law untouched. Indeed, despite a finding by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2008 that Brazil’s 1979 amnesty law – which exonerates those who committed political crimes during the dictatorship – violated petitioners’ right to justice and truth, Brazil’s Supreme Court upheld a broad interpretation of that law in April of 2010 , finding that the actions of the military were political in nature and, therefore, protected by it.
Interestingly, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights issued a decision in November 2010 holding the amnesty law incompatible with Brazil’s human rights obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights and urging Brazil to “adopt all … measures [necessary] to revoke” it. One of the interesting questions raised by this series of events is whether the recently established Truth Commission will be sufficient to satisfy those who have pressed for accountability for the abuses committed during Brazil’s military dictatorship.
Although state compliance with the decisions of the Inter-American system’s Commission and Court is far from automatic, the history of this issue in neighboring countries suggests that decisions by these bodies have been a catalyst for reform at home, even if reform has taken a long time to materialize. For instance, although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recommended repeal of Argentina’s amnesty laws as early as 1992 it was not until 2005 that the Argentine Supreme Court nullified the 1987 amnesty law protecting those who committed crimes during the rule of that country’s military junta. Although the Supreme Court’s decision to annul the law came 13 years after the Commission first recommended repeal, the move eventually prompted the government to establish a serious human rights violations unit in its prosecutor’s office and to reopen hundreds of human rights cases.
A similar situation occurred in the case of Uruguay. The Inter-American Commission found Uruguay’s amnesty law incompatible with the American Convention in 1992. Yet, it was not until September of this year that the Uruguayan Congress voted to repeal that law. The vote follows a decision issued by the Inter-American Court in February of this year ordering Uruguay to ensure that its 1986 Amnesty Law – which gave the President final say over which cases of human rights violations could be investigated – would no longer impede investigation of serious human rights violations that occurred between 1973 and 1985 (i.e. before the country’s return to democratic rule). Notably, the recent vote followed several failed attempts to repeal the law. Indeed, the law was supported in popular consultations in 1989 and 2009. And despite a decision by the Uruguayan Supreme Court suggesting that the Amnesty Law was unconstitutional, an attempt to annul the effects of the Law was defeated in Congress in May 2011. Still, reform seems afoot in Uruguay, even though it took nearly 20 years since the Commission’s original decision. As recent media reports note (here and here), victims are coming forward in droves to seek justice for crimes committed during the country’s dictatorship. It may only be a matter of time before Brazil follows suit.