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ICC asked to probe Brazil's Bolsonaro over alleged genocide

Nadia Pontes
August 9, 2021

Indigenous groups have filed a request with the ICC in The Hague for it to investigate Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro over alleged genocide and crimes against humanity.

A woman wears a mask stamped with a message that reads in Portuguese 'Out Bolsonaro'
An Indigenous woman protests against Jair BolsonaroImage: Eraldo Peres/AP/picture alliance

President Jair Bolsonaro could become the first Brazilian to be tried at the International Criminal Court (ICC),  

The court received a request on Monday to investigate Bolsonaro’s alleged crimes against humanity and genocide against Indigenous peoples. It was filed by APIB, a coalition of Indigenous associations across Brazil. 

The extensive document sent to the ICC was drafted by Indigenous lawyers and presents several speeches and political decisions logged since January 1, 2019. 

That was when Bolsonaro, who has spoken about opening up the Amazon for commercial mining and has said that Indigenous lands could disrupt Brazil’s development, came into office. 

"We show that land isn't being demarcated [to guarantee Indigenous people’s right to it]. The president is incentivizing deforestation and illegal mining in Indigenous territories," the lawyer Samara Pataxo told DW. "This is evidence for the crime of genocide because these events fueled the destruction of communities and increased violence and deaths."

 Indigenous people march past the Cathedral in Brasilia
Indigenous activists have demanded that the government halt illegal mining and logging on their landImage: Ricardo Mazalan/AP/picture alliance

Genocide and crimes against humanity

The ICC, based in The Hague in the Netherlands, was established by a treaty called the Rome Statute in 2002 to try individuals for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and aggression. It does so independently of individual states. 

The statute defines genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” This can mean killing members of the group or subjecting the group to conditions that could destroy it. 

Crimes against humanity, on the other hand, encompass systemic attacks against civilian populations. That could be murder, torture or enslavement, for example. 

APIB’s lawyers argue that Bolsonaro committed such offenses by incentivizing miners and loggers to invade Indigenous territories even though it is illegal. The far-right leader has been outspoken about legalizing mining in these areas. 

His government has also stopped demarcating Indigenous lands, a practice meant to settle territorial disputes and protect native communities from invaders. On numerous occasions, Bolsonaro has said that giving Indigenous communities their own reserves is comparable to keeping "animals in a zoo."

Additionally, APIB lawyers argue Bolsonaro has committed such crimes by propagating the spread of COVID-19. 

"These politics affected the life, health, integrity and existence of Indigenous communities in Brazil, especially that of uncontacted or recently contacted peoples," the document said. 

Combatting illegal Amazon deforestation

What the data shows

Deforestation in Brazil has skyrocketed under Bolsonaro. Between 2019 and 2020, more than 11,000 square kilometers (4,247 square miles) were deforested in the Amazon, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

That’s 70% more than the average area that was deforested per year in the decade before Bolsonaro came into power.

As miners appear to be encouraged by the president’s support of their industry, attacks on Indigenous communities have also soared.

This has culminated in killings like the shooting of Paulo Paulino Guajajara in 2019. He was a member of the "Guardians of the Forest" who monitor the forest to protect it from land grabbers, miners and loggers. 

A close-up of Paulo Paulino Guajajara.
Paulo Paulino Guajajara was hunting in the Arariboia reservation when he was killed by illegal loggersImage: Reuters/U. Marcelino

Last March, miners raided and set the headquarters of a rights group for Munduruku Wakoborun women on fire in the northern state of Para. 

In Yanomami territory, also in the north, Indigenous leaders have said for months that more than 20,000 invaders have destroyed an area larger than 500 soccer fields in their search for gold. 

During one especially violent confrontation with illegal miners in May, two Yanomami children drowned as they tried to flee, The Associated Press reported.

Next steps

The ICC has been evaluating another request to investigate Bolsonaro since last December. After the massive fires in the Amazon in 2019 and the rise of illegal logging, rights groups accused the president of crimes against humanity and of inciting the genocide of Indigenous Brazilians. 

"Our understanding is that the president has only worsened his behavior toward the environment and Indigenous communities since then. We can’t speak of incitement anymore — it is genocide," said Eloisa Machado, a lawyer with the human rights group Cadu who also helped APIB. 

Monday’s request to the ICC will also have to be evaluated first. It will turn into a criminal case there only if the ICC agrees that the alleged crimes took place and that Brazil's own judiciary is unwilling or unable to hold a trial. 

Asking The Hague to investigate could work as a kind of alert for the Brazilian justice system to prioritize these demands, says Andre Carvalho, an international law professor at the University of Sao Paulo.

"Since it involves Indigenous peoples, the relevance is evident," he said. "It’s a question of survival for an important group."

For the lawyers taking their request to the ICC, it’s not about winning the case.

"We want Bolsonaro to stop promoting crimes against Indigenous peoples, to end the persecution, the extermination and these politics that devastate the environment," said Machado.