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UN human rights veteran is a target in his native Brazil

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, talks to reporters in Geneva in 2018 © Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

The Brazilian Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro is celebrating 25 years of service with the United Nations system. In that time Pinheiro has held several high-profile posts around the globe, with much of his work focused on violations of human rights. Yet it is in his native country that Pinheiro faces his greatest threat.

This content was published on September 20, 2020 - 12:00
Jamil Chade in Geneva

The legal scholar was recently included on a list of teachers, police officers and public figures the government and intelligence services consider to be “anti-fascists”.

In an interview with swissinfo.ch, Pinheiro talks about the challenges of the last 25 years, multilateralism, the central role victims play in the UN's work, and being a political target in Brazil.

swissinfo.ch: After 25 years of service at the UN, what role do you believe the international body can actually play to protect human rights? 

Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro: If we think of the United Nations as a whole, from the very beginning human rights have been at its core, starting with the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are present in decisions at the General Assembly and the Security Council. All UN agencies protect human rights around the world. But the most important body that ensures this is the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, with its special rapporteurs [in place] since 1979 examining the human rights situation in various countries, assisted by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Paulo Sergio Pinheiro (centre) listens to an official while visiting the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar, during his visit to the Asian country in November 2007 as an independent rights investigator. Keystone / Str


Have you experienced any frustrations because of the limits of the international role?

Only the victims – whom I prefer to call survivors – of human rights violations can feel frustration. Those of us who try to bring rights violations to light and seek justice are only frustrated by UN bodies that don’t function as they should. After more than 10 years of human rights violations and war crimes [in Syria, for example], the malfunctioning of the Security Council means that these crimes are not being tried at the International Criminal Court. This is not only frustrating but also inexplicable for survivors of the war.  

In Burundi, in your first assignment in 1995, there was a real expectation that progress would be made. Did it work out?

The special rapporteur has no magic wand to change the situation in a particular country. But it makes a difference that there were special rapporteurs and, after 2016, a commission of inquiry. Local civil society is stronger, and the government feels empowered in the area of human rights. My best interlocutor there was the human rights minister Eugene Nindorera, who later became a UN director of human rights for missions in Ivory Coast and South Sudan. 

You also spent years dealing with Myanmar and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, when she was still under house arrest. What were those meetings like?

Myanmar was an exceptional case, because it was a military government that wanted to get closer to UN human rights bodies and civil society. During the first four years, I got access to all the places and institutions I requested. But neither I nor the other UN representatives in the country responded satisfactorily to this openness. The government therefore was not able to justify our presence to the military junta [which effectively ruled the country] and was eventually ousted. I did not go back until four years later, in 2007, when there was an uprising by the [Buddhist] monks and civil society. 

The war in Syria is now nearly ten years old, and the inquiry you are leading has gathered an unprecedented amount of information on the crisis. What can you do with this information? 

The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic is not a court, and it doesn’t have any competence in political negotiations. The aim of these commissions is to investigate and document human rights violations, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. We work to address the right to truth of the Syrian people.

Our database has been used in investigations into human rights perpetrators of the conflict that were opened in several countries. Our data has also been used by the International Impartial and Independent Mechanism on Syria, which is preparing criminal cases to be brought before the courts in the future.  

2020 also marks the 75th anniversary of the UN. What is there to celebrate? 

There is more to commemorate than there is to regret. Let’s imagine that the UN did not exist. International conflicts would be much more intense, humanitarian crises would not be addressed, and there would be even fewer guarantees of economic and social rights. And the application, even if flawed, of the principles of the Universal Declaration and the human rights conventions would be even less effective. My assistant when I was working in Burundi, Brigitte Lacroix, said to me when she left: "Paulo, what really matters is what you will do for the victims. From the perspective of the survivors, we must be glad because they are at the centre of our actions." 

The UN and multilateralism are at a crossroads, and the response to the pandemic is showing that. Is there a real risk to the system?

The pandemic has clearly exposed the inequality, the concentration of income, and the racism that continue to prevail in almost all societies, both in the North and the South. No one has escaped. Those who were poor are getting poorer, the healthcare situation of the poor has gotten worse, not only in the lack of care for those affected by Covid-19, but in the right to healthcare in general.

I don't think that after the pandemic there will automatically be greater solidarity […] or better care for the disenfranchised. For this to happen, UN member states, instead of denying resources to the system – as they did with the WHO – have to increase their political support and financial resources to the UN.

Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro

Pinheiro, born in Rio de Janeiro, has held various appointments within the UN system, including special rapporteur for Burundi and special human rights rapporteur for Myanmar. Since 2011, he has headed the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria. Pinheiro served as secretary of state for human rights during the presidency of Fernando Henrique Cardoso in his native Brazil.

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Has your Brazilian citizenship helped you in your international work over the last 25 years?

Latin America, as a former French ambassador to Brazil, Alain Rouquié, says in one of his books, is the "Far West", a category apart from the western world. Because they are in this group, Brazilians are perceived as being independent. After the return to democracy in 1985 and until the Dilma Rousseff administration [in 2016], Brazil was considered an honest broker – a reliable negotiator. Because during this period we never denied serious human rights violations in Brazil. Every country wanted to be in the picture with Brazil – until the coup against President Dilma Rousseff took place. At the UN Human Rights Council, Brazil was always present for the most sensitive resolutions, such as on homosexuality, racism, and violence against women and children. I think that Brazil’s aura has certainly been of benefit to me. 

You were included in a list [of so-called “anti-fascists”] prepared by the Ministry of Justice in Brazil this summer – a dossier of sorts of those who question the government.

It was a strange honour to have been included, when it would have been enough to open Google to see what I think, say and do in Brazil, in UN bodies and around the world. It was a regrettable initiative to resurrect the abhorrent political espionage dossiers of the military dictatorship.

Fortunately, the Federal Supreme Court made a historic decision – in a 9-1 vote on August 21 – to prohibit the Ministry of Justice from distributing these reports on what certain citizens think and do. 

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