Police Brutality in Brazil: A State of War?
João Pedro, a 14-year-old boy living in Rio de Janeiro, was fatally shot by police officers in his home during a raid on May 18th.[i] His story is not unlike others in Brazil, where excessive police force is endemic; in 2019 alone, there were 1,810 documented deaths attributed to the Brazilian police.[ii] Pedro’s death has led to nationwide protests, demanding for police reform – in direct opposition to one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s pillars.[iii]
Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro has attempted to legalize extrajudicial killings by minimizing or dismissing homicide sentences for police officers.[iv] Bolsonaro has proposed several bills that would alter the Brazilian Constitution and include different measures, such as establishing a judge’s ability to constitute whether an officer is acting in ‘self-defense’ or legalizing the use of force against anyone openly carrying a gun.[v] Currently, the legal status of these bills varies, with some having been defeated by Congress while others are still pending.[vi]
The proposal of these laws rests on Bolsonaro’s claims that they are vital to combat the high levels of violence within the country, as Brazil has the seventh highest crime rate in the world.[vii] Specifically, the high percentage of organized crime involving drug trafficking is used to justify this iron-fist approach, as these laws are intended to combat the ‘war on drugs.’[viii]
The proposed laws, however, diverge from the international human rights standards on the State’s acceptable exertion of force. Replacing top-down militarization with bottom-up social initiatives can instead become an effective strategy to address the root causes of drug-related crime, and therefore also address police brutality.
The ‘War on Drugs’
The ‘war on drugs’ is a campaign initially launched by the U.S. under former President Richard Nixon in the 1970s, and then exported to regions including Latin America. This campaign pits the State against the drug trade in a militarized manner.[ix] In the Brazilian context, the ‘war on drugs’ is used to legitimize police violence in two important ways.
First, the ‘war on drugs’ can be understood semantically, as Bolsonaro uses language to frame excessive police force as the ultimate solution in combatting drug-related crime. Bolsonaro, for example, has given speeches claiming the new laws will make criminals “die in the street like cockroaches.”[x] Given the high levels of violence in the country, these messages seem to resonate with Brazilian society: polls demonstrate that 50% of the population supports police torture as a tactic to end widespread violence, despite clear evidence that torture is ineffective and in violation of international human rights law.[xi]
Second, it can also be understood strategically, as government-led tactics surrounding the ‘war on drugs’ have resulted in multiple instances of extrajudicial killings, specifically within counter-narcotics operations.[xii] These operations disproportionately affect people living in favelas, socio-economically disadvantaged slums, where trafficking networks usually operate.[xiii] The demographics of the favelas means that most victims of police violence are poor, young, and dark-skinned. Statistics show that even though half the population of Rio de Janeiro is white, they made up only 12% of people killed by the police in early 2019.[xiv]
Between War and Peace?
Although the ‘war on drugs’ can be viewed as a discursive and strategic concept employed by Bolsonaro’s government, it is important to understand whether this so-called ‘war’ is actually defined as a non-international armed conflict in international humanitarian law. Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention uses two factors to make this distinction: the level of intensity of the hostilities and the level of organization by non-state actors.[xv] The ‘war on drugs’ within Brazil does not meet the threshold for either of these criteria. For example, the lack of a structured military unit within organized criminal networks falls short of the standards required to constitute a legitimate conflict.[xvi]
This classification has implications on the rights Bolsonaro can legally confer upon his police force, as Brazil must respect its obligations within the international legal human rights framework that addresses state conduct during peacetime. Brazil’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992 renders extrajudicial killings illegal.[xvii] Article 6 of this treaty, which the Brazilian government is subject to, states “every human being has the inherent right to life,” and Article 7 explicitly states “no one shall be subjected to torture.”[xviii]
However, a lack of international legal provisions directly regulating the State’s armed forces during instances of peacetime currently increase the difficulty in specifically targeting Brazil’s militarization. Although some instruments addressing this issue exist, such as the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, they are not directly binding and so are harder to enforce.[xix]
Militarization as a Failed Strategy
Owing to the slow and difficult process necessary for enforcing international human rights law, the UN should take an indirect approach to rapidly confront police brutality in Brazil. This can be done by pressuring Bolsonaro’s government to address a root cause driving drug-related crime: poverty. A sustainable development approach, modeled on the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), could become an alternative to militarization. The international community can ensure the success of these initiatives in the following ways: by co-funding localized development projects through specialized UN agencies; by continuously monitoring their outcomes through Brazil’s next Universal Periodic Review in 2022; and by addressing shortcomings in the context of Brazil’s next Voluntary National Review at the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development.
Specific SDGs provide tangible examples of what interventions could look like. For example, SDG 17 encourages civil society partnerships, in which the government collaborates more closely with organizations in communities affected by drug-related crime. As socio-economic inequality is a primary driver of this violence, exemplified by the police’s targeting of favelas, this collaboration would allow knowledge to be shared on how best to address the socio-economic needs within marginalized neighborhoods. Possible solutions range from social investment and mobility projects to employment schemes. These grassroots approaches to the ‘war on drugs’ can effectively end the need to legitimize police brutality.[xx]
Photo by Rogério S. on Unsplash
[i] “A Teen’s Killing Stirs Black Lives Matter Protests in Brazil”, LA Times, 2020,
[ii] “Rio Violence: Police Killings Reach Record High in 2019”, BBC, 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-latin-america-51220364, accessed 13 April 2020.
[iv] “Brazil: Bill Could Shield Abusive Police”, Human Rights Watch, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/02/06/brazil-bill-could-shield-abusive-police, accessed 13 April 2020.
[v] Maria Laura Canineu, “One Year of Ruinous Anti-Rights Policies in Brazil”, Human Rights Watch, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/01/15/one-year-ruinous-anti-rights-policies-brazil.
[vii] “Crime Rate by Country 2020”, World Population Review, 2020, https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/crime-rate-by-country/, accessed 04 June 2020.
[viii] Paula Miraglia, “Drugs and Drug Trafficking in Brazil: Trends and Policies”, Foreign Policy at Brookings, 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/miraglia-brazil-final.pdf, accessed 04 June 2020.
[ix] Sven Peterke, “Regulating “Drug Wars” and Other Gray Zone Conflicts: Formal and Functional Approaches”, Humanitarian Actions in Situations Other than War: Discussion Paper 2, 2012, https://igarape.org.br/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Regulating-Drug-Wars.pdf, accessed 03 May 2020.
[x] Tom Phillips, “Jair Bolsonaro says Criminals will ‘Die Like Cockroaches’ Under Proposed New Laws”, The Guardian, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/06/jair-bolosonaro-says-criminals-will-die-like-cockroaches-under-proposed-new-laws, accessed 13 April 2020.
[xi] Travis Waldron, “How Police Violence Paves The Way To Authoritarianism”, The Huffington Post, 2019,
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/brazil-police-violence-jair-bolsonaro_n_5c475d0ae4b027c3bbc61a54, accessed 13 April 2020.
[xii]United Nations, General Assembly, “National Report Submitted in Accordance with Paragraph 5 of
the Annex to Human Rights Council Resolution 16/21: Brazil”, 2017, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G17/045/56/PDF/G1704556.pdf?OpenElement, accessed 13 April 2020.
[xiii] Alonso Gurmendi, “The Military Intervention in Rio de Janeiro and Human Rights”, Opinio Juris, 2018, http://opiniojuris.org/2018/10/22/the-military-intervention-in-rio-de-janeiro-and-human-rights/, accessed 13 April 2020.
[xiv] “Special Report: A Surge in Killings by Police Roils Bolsonaro’s Brazil”, Reuters, 2019,
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-violence-police-specialreport/special-report-a-surge-in-killings-by-police-roils-bolsonaros-brazil-idUSKBN1WO1EH, accessed 13 April 2020.
[xv] International Committee of the Red Cross, “How is the Term “Armed Conflict” Defined in
International Humanitarian Law?”, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Opinion Paper, 2008, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/opinion-paper-armed-conflict.pdf, accessed 04 June 2020.
[xvii] United Nations, “United Nations Treaty Collection”, 2020, https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?chapter=4&clang=_en&mtdsg_no=IV-4&src=IND, accessed 04 June 2020.
[xviii] United Nations, General Assembly, “International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”, 1966, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx, accessed 04 June 2020.
[xix] United Nations, General Assembly, “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials”, 1990, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/useofforceandfirearms.aspx, accessed 04 June 2020.
[xx] Alonso Gurmendi, “The Military Intervention in Rio de Janeiro and Human Rights”, Opinio Juris, 2018, http://opiniojuris.org/2018/10/22/the-military-intervention-in-rio-de-janeiro-and-human-rights/, accessed 13 April 2020.
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