In its November 2010 landmark decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Inter-American Court) invalidated Brazil’s 1979 Amnesty Law (Law No. 6683/79) protecting those who committed atrocities during the country’s military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985. In Gomes Lund v. Brazil, the Inter-American Court found that by impeding the investigation of grave human rights violations, the 1979 Amnesty Law contravenes the American Convention on Human Rights (American Convention), to which Brazil is a party.
In 1964, a military coup overthrew Brazil’s existing constitutional government. Under the ensuing military dictatorship, murders, torture, arbitrary detention, forced excile, and disappearances transpired regularly. For example, in the early 1970s, the Brazilian army arrested, tortured, and killed members of a small guerrilla uprising in the Araguaia River region (Guerrilha do Araguaia). The fate of many of the guerrilla members still remains unknown. In 1982, family members of 22 individuals disappeared during the Guerrilha do Araguaia uprising initiated legal proceedings in an attempt to discover what happened to their relatives. The lower court dismissed the case, but the court of appeals reversed the dismissal. In 2003, more than 20 years after the families initiated their suit, the First Federal Court ordered the Brazilian government to release information about the disappeared guerrilla members. Appeals ensued over the course of the next six years. In 2009, the same year the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Commission) submitted the case to the Inter-American Court, the Brazilian Supreme Court affirmed the federal court’s ruling and the government began releasing thousands of pages of records regarding the Guerrilha do Araguaia.
In Gomes Lund v. Brazil, the Inter-American Court found that Brazil breached its obligations under the American Convention, including the rights to life, liberty, and personal security (Articles 1, 4, and 7), juridical personality (Article 3), humane treatment (Article 5), fair trial (Article 8), and judicial protection (Article 25) by forcibly disappearing the victims and withholding access to truth and information from their families. Brazil’s 1979 Amnesty Law, which exonerates those who committed political crimes during the dictatorship, has also been interpreted by the Brazilian Supreme Court as pardoning government actors responsible for torture, murder, and forced disappearance. The Inter-American Court’s judgment requires Brazil to ensure that the Amnesty Law does not preclude the investigation and punishment of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship and to establish legislation criminalizing forced disappearances. Although Brazil has already taken steps to recognize the atrocities committed during the dictatorship, the Inter-American Court ordered the state to continue raising awareness about human rights and to acknowledge its acts of forced disappearance in the Araguaia River region.
The Court’s ruling against Brazil is the third such decision invalidating amnesty laws extending from periods of military dictatorship in the region; in 2001 and 2006, respectively, the Court found amnesty laws in Peru and Chile to be incompatible with the right to truth afforded by the American Convention. In January 2010, the Commission submitted a case against Uruguay to the Inter-American Court proposing that Uruguay’s similar amnesty law is blocking investigations of forced disappearances committed during the country’s military dictatorship.
With President Dilma Rousseff in office, formerly jailed for her involvement in 1970s guerilla operations, and with continued efforts to establish a truth commission to investigate crimes committed during the military dictatorship, Brazil appears to be on the way to uncovering secrets of its 21-year dictatorship that have remained hidden for over 30 years.