Nothing but the Truth

Brazil's Truth Commission Looks Back

Brazillian President Dilma Rousseff receiving a copy of the truth commission report in Brasilia, December 2014. Joedson Alves / Courtesy Reuters

Some four decades ago, Brazil’s military government, which ruled from 1964 to 1985, arrested a 22-year-old Marxist guerilla named Dilma Rousseff. Over the course of nearly three years in captivity, she was subjected to electric shocks, beaten, and suspended from a rod bound to her hands and feet.

Rousseff, of course, became Brazil’s president in 2011, following Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who were also jailed during the same period for their dissent. But she rarely spoke publicly of her imprisonment. And thanks to a 1979 amnesty law, originally designed to protect dissidents in exile, many of those responsible moved on without fear of prosecution.

In December 2014, Brazil’s National Truth Commission, or Comissão Nacional da Verdade, challenged this state of affairs by completing what may be Latin America’s last major investigation into human rights abuses during the twentieth century. Announcing the release of the commission’s report in Brasilia, which recommended a repeal of the amnesty law and the prosecution of those culprits still living, Rouseff held back tears.

Many observers have noted that the commission, which the Brazilian legislature created in 2011, was remarkable mostly for its lateness, especially in a region that pioneered the use of truth commissions, establishing a total of 18, or 42 percent of all transitional truth commissions globally between 1972 and 2012. Argentina and Bolivia, for example, concluded truth processes in the early 1980s, soon after human rights violators lost power. And Brazil’s commission was late by global standards, too: It was the world’s 43rd since 1972, coming years after inquiries into abuses committed in such countries as, South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Peru.

In this context, Brazil, which launched its commission some 50 years after the start of the military regime, is indeed an outlier. Yet its truth commission stands out in another way: its quality. In terms of its thoroughness, its willingness to name names, and its call for prosecutions, the commission has done exemplary work. Whether its findings will lead to

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