Group urges international court to probe Brazil’s president

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro flashes a thumbs up as he greets supporters after attending a Changing of the Guard at the Planalto Presidential Palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, Nov. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)
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A group of Brazilian lawyers and former ministers have requested that the International Criminal Court investigate President Jair Bolsonaro for allegedly inciting the genocide of indigenous people and failing to safeguard the forests and protected lands they live in.

They described in a press conference Thursday what they said were “widespread, systematic attacks” on indigenous tribes under the Bolsonaro administration, which is seeking to promote economic development in the Amazon often at the expense of environmental regulation.

The document the group sent to the court includes 33 actions and comments from Bolsonaro, said Eloísa Machado de Almeida, a law professor at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas university in Sao Paulo, who presented the details of the request.

The allegations range from the president’s vocal support of small-scale illegal mining in protected areas, to his criticism of some public servants working with environmental and indigenous affairs, and the data they produce.

Bolsonaro’s office declined to comment.

Experts say The Hague-based International Criminal Court receives thousands of similar communications each year. Most do not lead to investigations or indictments.

The complaint was co-authored by the Brazil-based Arns Commission for Human Rights Defense, which includes six former Cabinet ministers from previous administrations, as well as lawyers, philosophers, a journalist and an environmentalist.

“If the private groups are serious about pursuing an investigation, not simply drawing attention to the situation in Brazil, it should convince other states in the region to formally refer Brazil to the Court,” said Kevin Jon Heller, an associate professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam. This strategy was adopted for instance by some Venezuelan states, and is more likely to be successful, he said.

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has argued that environmental protections often become an obstacle to economic development in Brazil. His administration says it is working on new legislation that would regularize small-scale mining activities in protected areas.

Critics argue that the president’s comments are empowering land-grabbers and illegal loggers.

The fires that swept through the Amazon in July and August were mostly intentionally set to clear deforested land for soy production or pastures. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is also at its highest level in more than a decade, government data shows.

“It’s true that there have been environmental challenges for centuries in this country, but what is happening under President Bolsonaro is different,” argued de Almeida, the law professor. “The dismantling of public (environmental protection) policies, and the direct attack on indigenous peoples did not exist under previous administrations. And this is what motivated us to speak about the incitation to genocide.”q