#123 The G|O Briefing, January 12, 2023

After the capital's riots, Brazil deploys intense diplomatic activity in Geneva and around the world | No impunity for insurrectionists |

This is an onsite, slightly edited republication of the complete G|O Briefing newsletter

Today in The Geneva Observer, our focus, once more, is on Brazil. Lula’s election marks the return of Brazil as a regional leader in Latin America and as an active player on the world stage—and, thus, at the multilateral table. The storming of the country’s political nerve center by Jair Bolsonaro’s supporters illustrates the deep division in the country. The response to the events will determine Lula’s government’s ability to implement its program, both domestically and abroad. Therein lies an opportunity to turn the crisis into success. Brazil’s international ambitions include a strong re-engagement in human rights, global health, trade, and of course climate issues. As Jamil Chade reports, the new administration has lost no time in deploying intense diplomatic efforts, including in Geneva, to reassure its partners that its foreign policy objectives won’t be derailed.

How to respond to political violence and make its perpetrators accountable for their crimes is the subject of our guest essay today, by Susan Stokes, Director of the Chicago Center on Democracy. Drawing a parallel with the US situation and Donald Trump, she makes the point forcefully that when autocrats and strongmen are voted out but not held accountable for attempting to overthrow or undermine democratic governments, they tend to be emboldened; arguing that a credible threat of accountability can act as a deterrent.

Judging by the response to the recent events, Bolsonaro and his supporters seem only to have angered the Brazilian political establishment and reinforce the international community’s resolve to support Lula’s government.

From Putin’s horrific decision to invade Ukraine, Xi’s failed zero COVID policy and Bolsonaro’s suspected remote-controlled coup attempt, 2022 turned out to be a lousy year for autocrats.

And with that, a sliver of a silver lining has appeared: renewed opportunities to strengthen multilateralism.

Elsewhere in the Ecosystem

Our colleagues at Devex have a disturbing piece about some very serious allegations of gross management abuses at the International Trade Center: “Abuse of power. Toxic work culture. Harassment. Discriminatory bias. These are just a sample of the allegations that scores of staffers at the International Trade Centre leveled at senior management in a survey produced by the Geneva-based United Nations Staff Union in December,” writes senior reporter Colum Lynch. You can read his piece here.

If you have been following the Qatargate story, Politico Europe has a revelation-filled investigation on how Qatar managed to infiltrate the Human Rights Committee of the European Parliament in allegedly corrupting some of its prominent members.

The first Map of the Month for 2023 from our sponsor KAS visualises an analysis of the voting behavior of the Members of the UN Human Rights Council in 2022, focusing on alignment with Germany and China.

Last year, a total of 97 resolutions were adopted in the Council, 33 of which had to be put to a vote due to a lack of consensus. Follow this link to explore the two maps. For a comparison, the maps from 2021 are available here.

Finally, Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies was one of 2021’s most praised novels. It was on the list of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books, one of the New York Times’ 10 best books of 2021—“coolly written and casts a spell,” writes its reviewer—and was longlisted for the National Book Award.

Set in The Hague and inspired by the Charles Taylor trial, Intimacies tells the tale of an unnamed young woman working as an interpreter at the International Criminal Court. It is a superb, complex, and finally crafted novel, which, given its subject, has deep resonance in Geneva. On Monday evening (January 16), I’ll have the great pleasure of talking to Katie Kitamura at the Société de Lecture as part of the Société’s English program, in partnership with the G|O. You can register for the event on the SDL site. I hope you will join us.



By Jamil Chade

Geneva and Davos are at the heart of the Lula administration’s global diplomatic efforts here to reassure the international community that the assault on Brazil’s political institutions will not derail the country’s foreign political agenda and that even if it faces an emergency, the new administration itself is not in a crisis mode.

Brazilian senior government officials and diplomats readily admit that having Brazil perceived as a “problem democracy” could undermine the new government’s ability to play an active role on the multilateral scene.

Lula took office with the promise of rebuilding the country’s credibility in the international arena. An ambition that can only be achieved by reassuring Brazil’s partners about the solidity of the country’s institutions and by making clear that despite deep divisions in the country, the new government is not under any kind of threat.

Brasilia’s message is thus firm and loud. The G|O was told it was relayed by Lula himself and his ministers during the more than 50 conversations and exchanges they had with foreign leaders following the assault on the National Congress, the Supreme Court and the Planalto Presidential Palace.

Brazil’s global diplomatic offensive is coordinated by Mauro Vieira, the country’s new foreign minister, a seasoned multilateral diplomat. Senior Brazilian officials and diplomats told The G|O that stressing the solidity and resilience of Brazil’s democratic institutions was key and that they intended to immediately restore some the institutions dismantled by Jair Bolsonaro during his tenure.

On the multilateral front, one of the first measures taken by the new government was to announce Brazil’s adhesion to the Global Compact for Migration, a UN mechanism shunned and criticized by the Bolsonaro government.

And during the Third Committee of the 77th Session of the UN General Assembly which took place last week at the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Tovar Nunes, Brazil’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, informed the body that the new administration has reestablished the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry for Racial Equality, the Ministry of Women, and, for the first time, created a Ministry of Indigenous Peoples.

“These changes are required for the advancement of policies in Brazil, in particular protecting the rights of vulnerable groups. My country will also work to see these rights advancing abroad within the UN system and in the Member States,” the Brazilian ambassador stated, denying importance to the coup plotters by never mentioning them.
Strong assurances were sent to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that the rule of law and due process will be applied in holding the perpetrators of the assault accountable, and that the investigation into the riot will be fully transparent.

Volker Türk, the UN human rights chief, offered immediate support: “My Office is ready to support the new Government in tackling the human rights issues Brazil is facing,” he said in a statement. Türk also made clear that the responsibility for the assault lies with Jair Bolsonaro.

“Sunday’s violence was the culmination of the sustained distortion of facts and incitement to violence and hatred by political, social and economic actors who have been fueling an atmosphere of distrust, division, and destruction by rejecting the result of democratic elections,” he said, adding that “accepting the outcome of free, fair and transparent elections is at the heart of fundamental democratic principles. Baseless allegations of electoral fraud undermine the right to political participation.”

Antonio Guterres himself, in Geneva last Monday (January 6) for the International Conference on Climate Resilient Pakistan, voiced his strong support to the new government, telling The G|O he had “full confidence” in Lula’s government to respond to the crisis.

Environment Minister Marina Silva and Finance Minister Fernando Haddad will be attending the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos next week, carrying with them the new government’s message. Courted by the WEF, Lula himself decided to give priority to Latin America, as he intends to play a strong role as a regional leader.

Brazil was able to avoid the possibility that an emergency meeting called by the Organization of American States to discuss the situation in the country could be perceived as a sign that Brazil was in crisis. Led by Colombia and Chile, some Latin American countries had pushed the idea of passing a resolution supporting the rule of law in Brazil and condemning the coup. However, instead of having national foreign ministers travel to the OAS in Washington, as the resolution’s proponents had suggested, the meeting was downgraded to ambassadorial level. And no resolution was passed.


No Impunity for Insurrectionists

By Susan Stokes*

Brazil now has its own version of the January 6, 2021, assault on the US Capitol by supporters of the defeated president, Donald Trump. Two years and two days later, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro stormedthe National Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidential palace in Brasília, solidifying Bolsonaro’s credentials as the “Trump of the Tropics.”

The uncanny similarity between Brazil’s failed insurrection and the attack on the US Capitol highlights the many parallels between Bolsonaro and Trump. Both are far-right, antidemocratic one-term presidents who offered only disinformation and bravado during the COVID-19 pandemic, costing hundreds of thousands of lives. Both harangued the press and challengedtheir judiciaries’ independence. Both claimed that only massive fraud and rigged voting machines could defeat their re-election bids. Their legacies are the millions of citizens who doubt the integrity of their countries’ elections and the thousands who sacked their own capitals and brutalized police officers in a futile effort to overthrow democracy.

But the subtle differences between the post-presidencies of Bolsonaro and Trump underscore the importance of prosecuting antidemocratic former leaders. Many Americans fear that indicting Trump for inciting an insurrection would produce a tit-for-tat dynamic in which each succeeding administration used the courts to settle political scores. But Brazil’s history since the restoration of democracy in 1989 suggests otherwise.

Fernando Collor, Brazil’s first democratically elected president after the end of the military regime, resigned in 1992 after being accused of influence peddling. He was impeached anyway, and thus disqualified from holding elected office again. Collor was later acquitted of criminal charges and eventually had his political rights restored, allowing him to run for lower offices (and win).

Subsequent Brazilian presidents have been indicted, and some have faced judicial abuses, yet Brazil did not descend into an endless cycle of retaliatory prosecutions. Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who succeeded Collor, was a frequent critic of his own successor (and current president), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But Lula’s administration did not use the judicial system to settle scores. Lula himself was convicted of corruption and sentenced to 12 years in prison before his conviction was annulled, and he was released in 2019 after serving less than two years. Lula eventually had his political rights restored and went on to run for president again, beating Bolsonaro, but the grounds for his indictment were not purely political or baseless.

Bolsonaro himself could face charges linked to a fake-news troll farm that operated out of the presidential palace, as well as for spreadingmisinformation about electronic voting. When Bolsonaro’s political party asked the electoral court to cancel millions of votes, the court fined it for trying to undermine the country’s electronic voting system and froze its assets. Brazilian media have reported that Bolsonaro is effectively trying to avoid prison, for himself and family members, by offering to stop attacking democracy in exchange for amnesty.

Some have speculated that his current sojourn in Florida is an attempt to escape potential charges at home.

Bolsonaro’s legal exposure may explain why he suddenly deviated from the Trump playbook after years following closely in his idol’s footsteps. Despite Bolsonaro’s refusal to concede the presidential election, his chief of staff acknowledged in early November that there would be a peaceful transition of power. Whereas Trump still claims to be the victim of massive electoral fraud, Bolsonaro has gone quiet. And while Trump rallied the rioters on January 6 and continues to defend their actions, Bolsonaro emerged from his redoubt near Disney World to decry this week’s violencein Brasília.

Venezuela, Brazil’s neighbor to the north, illustrates the dangers of allowing insurrectionists to get away with their actions. As the country’s experience shows, when aspiring dictators re-emerge, they tend to come back emboldened. In 1992, a lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chávez led two failed coup d’états against the elected Venezuelan government. Chávez was released early from prison by then-President Rafael Caldera before being elected president in 1998. He then presided over the destruction of Venezuelan democracy and crashed its economy.

Ecuador offers another cautionary tale. In 2000, a severe economic crisis led to mass protests against the country’s elected president, Jamil Mahuad. An army colonel at the scene, Lucio Gutiérrez, stood by and watched while demonstrators swarmed the National Congress. The protests then morphed into a coup attempt led by Gutiérrez and other military officers. Gutiérrez never faced criminal prosecution for the attempted coup in either military or civilian courts.

In 2002, Gutiérrez ran for president and won. The disdain for democratic institutions that he had previously displayed became the defining feature of his presidency, during which he suspended the Supreme Court and later declared a state of emergency. His term ended with him fleeingEcuador by helicopter after Brazil offered him political asylum.

The final chapter of Bolsonaro’s story has yet to be written. But we already see hints that the fear of indictment has chastened him. Americans should take this lesson to heart: though prosecuting former presidents carries risks, the cost of letting insurrectionists and would-be autocrats escape accountability could be too high.

*Susan Stokes is Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and Faculty Director of the Chicago Center on Democracy. She is the co-author, most recently, of Why Bother? Rethinking Participation in Elections and Protests (Cambridge University Press, 2019).

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade

Guest essay: Susan Stokes

Edited by: Dan Wheeler