Brazil’s coming human rights shift

Brazilian President Luiz Inicio Lula da Silva has not been much of a champion of human rights on the world stage, with his government routinely abstaining on important U.N. votes that criticize abuses in Cuba, Iran and North Korea. But in an interview with the Washington Post, Brazil’s president-elect, Dilma Rousseff, citing concern about the ...

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Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (R) and president-elect Dilma Rousseff (L) arrive at the opening plenary session of the G20 Summit in Seoul on November 12, 2010. G20 leaders began a second day of talks on resolving bitter trade and currency disputes with the host South Korea saying it expected some sort of agreement to be reached. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Michel Euler (Photo credit should read MICHEL EULER/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazilian President Luiz Inicio Lula da Silva has not been much of a champion of human rights on the world stage, with his government routinely abstaining on important U.N. votes that criticize abuses in Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

But in an interview with the Washington Post, Brazil's president-elect, Dilma Rousseff, citing concern about the mistreatment of women in Iran, has signaled she will initiate a policy shift by taking a tougher line on human rights.

Brazilian President Luiz Inicio Lula da Silva has not been much of a champion of human rights on the world stage, with his government routinely abstaining on important U.N. votes that criticize abuses in Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

But in an interview with the Washington Post, Brazil’s president-elect, Dilma Rousseff, citing concern about the mistreatment of women in Iran, has signaled she will initiate a policy shift by taking a tougher line on human rights.

Rousseff told the Post’s senior associate editor Lally Weymouth that while she still views U.S. military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to be at the heart of the region’s troubles, she was also troubled by reports of the stoning of women in Iran.

Roussef expressed disappointment with her government’s decision last month to abstain on a vote on a U.N. resolution condemning Iran human rights record. The resolution — which passed by a vote of 80 to 44, with 57 abstentions — sharply criticized Iran’s human rights record, citing the use of torture, and other forms of inhumane practices, including flogging, amputations and stoning.

“I am not the president of Brazil [today], but I would feel uncomfortable as a woman president-elect not to say anything against the stoning,” Rousseff told Weymouth. “My position will not change when I take office. I do not agree with the way Brazil voted. It’s not my position.”

“I do not endorse stoning,” Rousseff said. “I do not agree with practices that have medieval characteristics [when it comes] to women. There is no nuance; I will not make any concessions on that matter.

The remarks have buoyed human rights advocates who had grown frustrated with Brazil’s performance on human rights in the U.N. system. Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, told Turtle Bay that Rousseff’s remarks “are very encouraging.”

“They demonstrate an openness to a more consistently [pro-human rights agenda] in Brazil’s foreign policy than has been the case to date,” Roth said. “Brazil has been an anomaly: it is a strong democracy at home but it often votes in ways that are not fully supportive of human rights in various U.N. fora.”

Like other emerging powers, including India and South Africa, Brazil has placed less emphasis on the promotion of human rights than on the establishment of political and commercial relations with other developing powers, many of whom have abysmal rights records. Roth said it is “too early to say whether” Rousseff’s comments would lead to a fundamental shift in Brazil’s human rights policies, but it “indicates greater receptivity to promoting human rights in Brazil’s foreign policy, and that would be a very positive development.”

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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