Kate Allen: President Lula's security problems begin at home


During his state visit to London, which begins today, Brazil's President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, will undoubtedly take time to discuss security issues with the British Government, be it related to terrorism or to the shocking levels of gun-related crime affecting his own country. For while the world has been focused on the global impact of the "war on terror", Brazil continues to fight what the authorities have defined as a "war on crime".

Brazil suffers some of the highest levels of criminal violence in the world. In 2002 there were nearly 50,000 murders across the country, the vast majority of which were gun-related. Brazil suffers more violent and gun-related deaths than certain countries at war. Yet Brazil is not at war, and its federal and state authorities need to recognise this if they are to ensure the protection of all their citizens.

In the wake of 11 September, the term "security" has been increasingly identified with the pushing back of human rights standards. Unfortunately, this is as true in Brazil today as it is around the globe. Policing in Brazil is now predominantly based on repression and human rights violations.

Despite the fact that people living in Brazil's favelas, or shanty towns, are the people most likely to be victims of violent crime, the police have resorted to the use of "invasions" against those people - collective warrants are used against whole communities, and extreme levels of violence and even extrajudicial executions are reported to be occurring in these raids. Between 2003 and 2005 police officers in Rio de Janeiro killed more than 3,000 civilians in situations defined as "acts of resistance", a euphemism often used to cover up these extrajudicial executions.

Elizabete Maria de Souza's 13-year-old brother was reportedly executed by police in January 2004. A witness said that police had rushed, shooting, towards the boy and his four friends while they were sitting in a bar. The boys tried to identify themselves, to no avail. A day later their bodies were found in a mud pit behind a garage near the favela. Elizabeth has told Amnesty International that because she is trying to pursue justice for her brother police patrols have slowed down outside her home, causing her to fear for her own safety.

President Lula's promised public security reforms based on social inclusions and rights-based policing were never implemented. To ensure the protection of the most vulnerable communities, his government will have to address the fact that freedom from want and freedom from fear are inseparable aspects of human security in the long term. However there are more immediate steps that the Brazilian government can take.

At home the Brazilian government has made notable steps in trying to disarm the Brazilian population. Disappointingly, in 2005 the population rejected a nationwide referendum calling for a total ban on the sale of guns to civilians, because the pro-gun lobby argued powerfully that if the sale of guns were banned, criminals would continue to source illegal guns. In fact research has consistently found that illegally owned guns often begin as legally produced and traded weapons and then enter the black market due to weaknesses in the legal control system. But when people are very afraid of the violence they see in their communities every day it is hard to make this argument.

Tackling poverty, reforming the justice system, controlling the sale of guns and community-based policing are all needed if people are to start to feel safer.

Beyond these national efforts an international arms trade treaty would significantly tighten legal controls over the transfer of weapons and go some way towards reducing the ready availability of weapons in Brazil. Brazil is one of the best examples of why the whole international community needs to get serious about regulating the arms trade and draw up a treaty that has teeth- to prevent deadly weapons ending up in the hands of those who will use them to commit human rights violations. President Lula's support for such a treaty, if he could be persuaded to make such a pledge, is vital if the more than 100 Brazilians dying from gun violence every day is to be reduced.

President Lula's meeting with Tony Blair may well be focused on tackling global security, but with staggering numbers of deaths in Brazil through lack of effective public security both men need to talk frankly about the domestic reforms Brazil needs to make, and about the international support, through an arms trade treaty, that is needed to support them, before thousands more die unnecessarily.

The author is the UK director of Amnesty International

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