Professor Gabor Rona addresses the Guarani-Kaiowa leadership at a visit to Caarapo, Mato Grosso do Sul.

From May 16 to 24, 2018, Cardozo Law’s Benjamin B. Ferencz Human Rights and Atrocity Prevention Clinic accompanied Professor Jocelyn Getgen Kestenbaum and Visiting Professor Gabor Rona, Chair of the UN Working Group on Mercenaries, on an unofficial visit to Brazil. The visit’s purpose was to understand the human rights concerns related to operations of private militias, as well as private military and private security contractors. The team spoke with more than 100 civil society leaders—including human rights defenders, victims and survivors of human rights violations, indigenous community leaders, Afro-descendant community leaders, members of impoverished and excluded neighborhoods—and other concerned citizens from both urban and rural contexts in Rio de Janeiro (RJ), Dourados (MS), and Belém do Pará. From these discussions, the team has made observations for possible follow up and coordinated action of various UN human rights Special Procedure mandate holders.

The team was informed of numerous acts of violence committed by members of private militias and private security contractors in both rural and urban settings. Forced evictions/forced removals, intimidation and threats to human rights defenders, assassinations of community leaders, and mass killings are among the most common concerns about which individuals spoke. In both contexts, individuals cited control over territories and occupation or demarcation of lands as motives for violence. In rural settings, land conflicts stem mainly from increasing large-scale extractive industries and agribusiness interests; in the favelas, the turf wars result largely from fights to control illegal provisions of basic services to communities (that the state fails to provide) and/or to control the illegal drug trade and its routes. Victims of these land conflicts include indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, the poor, women and LGBT activists, human rights defenders, and men, women and children caught in the crossfire. 

The team's findings will be shared with UN human rights "special procedures" experts, including the UN Working Group on Mercenaries chaired by Rona, and civil society actors. The goal is to build a strategy for bringing international scrutiny about these issues to the attention of Brazilian authorities. A coordinated response and action would support a reduction of violence and promotion of human rights.

"The work we did in Brazil was a great opportunity for our terrific clinic students to get some first hand experience in human rights investigation and advocacy,” said Rona. "They're learning not just to make a point, but to make a difference."