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Brazil's indigenous and Afro-Brazilian populations face serious discrimination

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Last week I made my first visit to Brazil as United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. It was a very full and fascinating week during which I held a series of frank and open discussions with the President, ministers, the judiciary, and many other officials at both federal and state levels. Unlike officials in many other countries, Brazilian ones did not hide or play down the nation's problems.

Brazil has an impressive array of laws and policies, designed to promote human rights and improve the socio-economic situation. But they are not being properly implemented with the result that indigenous people and Afro-Brazilians in particular are facing serious discrimination, injustice and violence.

Millions of Afro-Brazilians and indigenous people are mired in poverty and lack access to basic services and employment opportunities. Until that changes, it will hamper Brazil's progress on many other fronts.

The country's Constitution and fundamental legal framework form an impressive foundation of human rights protection. The government has taken a number of important measures, both at home and abroad, including the establishment of special Secretariats on human rights, women's policies and racial equality, and the adoption of ambitious programmes to reduce poverty, increase access to education, eliminate discrimination and fight against hunger.

Last week the Brazilian Congress passed an important constitutional amendment designed to provide free universal education to children aged 4-17 and to increase resources for education. Many of Brazil's biggest problems are rooted in poverty and discrimination, and a truly universal secondary education system is essential if there is to be major improvement in these areas.

However, the situation of indigenous people is astonishingly invisible. I did not see a single indigenous person among all the many state and federal officials I met during my visit. That is very indicative of their continued marginalization. There have been important advances in terms of legislation to protect the rights of indigenous people, but the implementation of that legislation at the state level, in particular, seems to be lagging badly. For the most part Brazil's indigenous people are not benefiting from the country's impressive economic progress, and are being held back by discrimination and indifference, chased out of their lands and into forced labour.

Brazil's sizeable Afro-Brazilian population is facing similar problems in terms of implementation of socio-economic programmes and discrimination which prevents them from competing on equal terms with other Brazilians. There are very few Afro-Brazilians in positions of authority. This was particularly striking in the country's northern Bahia state, where three-quarters of the population are Afro-Brazilian, but are in hardly any of the top administrator jobs.

The main victims of the violence plaguing Brazil's urban areas are Afro-Brazilians, and one of the main causes of their deaths is the use of excessive force by law enforcement officials, and rogue militias, as well as by the gangsters and drug dealers.

There are some welcomed new initiatives at Federal and State levels that prioritize working in partnership with communities affected by violence, but effective measures are urgently needed to combat extrajudicial executions, torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

Brazil's police faces a difficult task in trying to maintain law and order, and they too have been suffering far too many casualties.

But the way to stop violence is not by resorting to more violence. Instead it is to win the trust of the communities where the violence is taking place. That will never happen at the point of a gun. A key element to winning trust is applying justice fairly. The Government needs to establish a clear policy to combat impunity. All allegations of human rights violations need to be promptly and thoroughly investigated by independent authorities and, where there is sufficient evidence, perpetrators must be prosecuted - irrespective of whether they are gangsters or policemen.

The astonishingly high rate of homicides in Brazil's overcrowded prisons, and allegations of widespread torture and inhumane conditions are alarming and unacceptable. Equally disturbing is the fact that the vast majority of those incarcerated are Afro-Brazilians.

There are also very high levels of violence directed at Brazilian women, and more could be done to help women all across the country make use of the laws and projects designed to protect them.

Brazil is the only country in South America not to have taken action to confront abuses committed during the period of military rule. While I recognize that this is a politically sensitive subject, there are ways of dealing with it which avoid reopening the wounds of the past and help to heal them instead.

Torture, however, is an exception. International law is unequivocal: torture is a crime against humanity and cannot be left unpunished. The fact that the torture that took place in the military era has still not been dealt with by Brazil means that the proper, clear disincentives to commit torture now and in the future are not in place.

Brazil will invest heavily on infrastructure for the forthcoming World Cup and Olympics. This could be done in such a way that it will bring lasting benefits to the poorest and most marginalized urban inhabitants. For example, money could be spent on public transport systems that will help the inhabitants of favelas travel to places of employment long after the World Cup and Olympics are over.

This is an opportunity that Brazil should not miss to turn a vicious circle of violence and discrimination into a virtuous one. It may cost more initially, but in the long-term such investment could pay immense dividends for the country as a whole.