The most serious of crimes

Image: Alvin & Chelsea


There is no doubt that the humanity of the Yanomami was denied

Genocide and denialism go together. Especially in the twentieth century, the ways of partially or totally destroying certain human groups have evolved as much as the ways of denying the occurrence of these crimes. It is important to remember that the best-known denialism, that of the Holocaust, was not invented by Nazi leaders and collaborators when they were tried shortly after the end of World War II. In these cases, the defendants claimed to ignore or not be responsible for the crimes committed, but did not deny their occurrence.

The first forms of holocaust denial emerged in a community of intellectuals that had no direct involvement in the crimes, for essentially ideological and post-war reasons. Thanks to various ways of recovering memory, the atrocities committed by Nazis and collaborators against Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and people with special needs have emerged before the new generations. According to historian Henry Rousso, the political need to overcome the holocaust arose to allow the rebirth of the extreme right in European countries.

In other words, for direct or indirect collaborators of such monstrosity to be accepted in the public space, it was necessary to deny or relativize the existence of crimes, raising controversies where they do not exist, hiding or forging documents, distorting facts and discourses. Rescuing the origins of denialism is essential for the debate on genocide that involves actions and omissions practiced by Jair Bolsonaro and several of his collaborators to be waged with due depth.

While logically different from simple denial, the trivialization of crimes is an important part of the denialist movement surrounding genocides, not just the holocaust. This means saying that the violations “were not as serious” as they say, questioning the number of victims or even blaming them for what happened; minimizing the damage suffered; and invariably claiming that those investigated, prosecuted or convicted are victims of “hoaxes”, “witch hunts” or any form of political persecution.

Faced with the enormous suffering caused by news, mainly images, related to serious crimes, denialist movements can be favored by a tendency towards denial. I am now referring to the individual defense mechanism which, in a rudimentary way, leads a person to substitute a certain reality, which seems unbearable, for a fiction with which he can deal. Fanciful versions, by the way, are available in abundance in the “infodemic” era. According to the World Health Organization, this phenomenon consists of a large increase in the volume of information associated with a specific subject, which can multiply exponentially in a short time, with rumors, misinformation and manipulation of facts with dubious intent.

However, for a denial to have major social repercussions, people need to avoid those who contradict their interpretations of reality, joining those who think the same way, as taught by psychoanalyst Vera Iaconelli. The spread of scientific denialism during the covid-19 pandemic leaves no doubt about the remarkable potential of these movements, including as a social amalgam – there are those who gather and stick together to deny.

Faced with the most recent images of the serious violations of the rights of the Yanomami peoples and, above all, the reaction of the newly invested federal authorities who simply guided their actions by Brazilian law and by the international treaties in force in Brazil, a part of Brazilian society directed its attention to the use of the word genocide by members of the current government, and not for the inadmissible nature of the situation revealed.

What makes genocide the most serious of crimes is the intention to totally or partially decimate a certain human group. There is no doubt that the humanity of the Yanomami was denied – the federal authorities were fully aware of what was happening in the territories in question, including the number and causes of deaths. Thus, they deliberately breached their legal duty to protect the life and health of indigenous peoples. They also failed to comply with the duty to stop the illegal activities of third parties that ostensibly threaten the survival of the victims, by obstructing access to health and destroying the natural resources essential to their existence, among other forms of violence.

However, as happened during the covid-19 pandemic, many prefer to perceive actions and omissions by the federal government in relation to the Yanomami as negligence or inefficiency, refusing to see in them the intention of causing the death of hundreds of indigenous people. Many others consider that indigenous peoples are responsible for their own misfortune by resisting the predatory occupation of their territories. But even among those who recognize legitimate resistance in indigenous peoples, the idea seems to predominate that genocides only occur during armed conflicts, and exclusively through mass murders, such as firing squads or gas chambers.

However, this view is not supported by Brazilian law, nor by international law. According to article 6o of the 1998 Rome Statute, which created the International Criminal Court, to which Brazil voluntarily adhered, “genocide means any of the acts listed below, committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) serious offenses to the physical or mental integrity of group members; (c) intentional subjection of the group to conditions of life with a view to bringing about its physical destruction, in whole or in part; (d) imposition of measures aimed at preventing births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children from the group to another group.

In Brazil, especially Law n. 2889 of 1956, provides for almost identical hypotheses. There has already been a conviction for indigenous genocide in Brazil. This is the Massacre of Haximu, also perpetrated against the Yanomami people, in 1993, whose classification as a crime of genocide was confirmed by the Federal Supreme Court in 2006.

It also discusses the responsibility of public agents for illegal actions that could even amount to genocide, but would supposedly be carried out by miners and other criminals in an autonomous and fragmented way. It so happens that the Rome Statute, in its article 25, leaves no doubt about the criminal responsibility of those who instigate the practice of crimes typified by the treaty, including the attempt; who, with the purpose of facilitating the commission of these crimes, is an accomplice or cover-up, or collaborates in any way in the commission or attempt to commit the crime, among other prescriptions. The least that could be expected is, therefore, an accurate investigation into the role played by the federal authorities since the first information came to their knowledge, in order to ascertain their responsibilities.

It is true that the outright denial of indigenous genocide is not surprising. But it should inspire caution. It is necessary to understand that this false debate, which leads public opinion to consider it technically inappropriate to talk about genocide in order to mitigate the seriousness of the violations committed and open the way for the persistent impunity of those responsible, has at least two major dimensions.

The first is the horror of mirrors and ricochets. What is tolerated today may become intolerable tomorrow, and someone close may be involved.

Brazil is a country where the trivialization of the use of words mobilizes much more than the trivialization of the most serious crimes. When it comes to a complaint of genocide or crimes against humanity, the focus of negative repercussions is usually placed on the whistleblowers, treated as suspects, and not on the possible criminals. Denouncing a genocide or a crime against humanity, whatever the background or history of the person denouncing, implies automatic conversion into a “militant”.

Immediately, the complainant's technical opinion, often presented in a stereotyped or incomplete way, will be treated as a political opinion and opposed to “unsuspecting” specialists. Often, the bastions of supposed impartiality represent the most conservative schools of law – either they have not studied the concrete case in depth, or they are not even specialists in this matter, or all of the previous alternatives. Little, if any, is heard from the victims and their defenders.

Among jurists, claiming technical rigor, always a sign of elegance and superiority, easy answers emerge, worthy of short courses for competitions. There is no opening for a real debate, because it is necessary to avoid creating an environment favorable to investigations endowed with resources compatible with the seriousness of the crimes in question. And competent inquiries are bound to cover a large list of suspects. How many employees, direct or indirect, in how many public and private spaces, are needed to commit crimes of this magnitude?

The result of this tension is the systematic disqualification of whistleblowers. Denouncement is socially punished, disregarded; the crime, if it wasn't genocide, what was it? Are those who denied the existence of genocide engaged in the struggle to investigate other crimes? Or, curiously, did he just appear in the public debate to say that it wasn't genocide?

It is necessary to recognize that, in the face of the vast repercussions of the most recent crisis of the Yanomami population, part of the legal community, belatedly and embarrassed, begins to babble: now, maybe... As if indications and even proof of the ongoing genocide were not already offered by the indigenous people for so many years!

Little by little, we witness the “discovery”, by laypeople and specialists, that the facts they became aware of are compatible with an intention to totally or partially destroy indigenous communities in Brazil. And this with relevant participation of the federal government, both by active and omissive conduct. They also discover that the criminal type of genocide does not only involve wars and walls, including, among other hypotheses, the submission of one or several people to certain conditions of existence that can lead to their total or partial destruction.

They also discover that, according to international criminal law, the expression “to kill” can be correlated to the term “to cause death”, and the presence of intent and knowledge of the crimes can be deduced from facts and circumstances. They finally discover that a certain behavior can correspond to several crimes, that large financial interests form an evident motivation for the crimes, that the region in question is occupied by criminal organizations, acting with total impunity, and perhaps with state sponsorship. Lessons were not learned before because it is necessary to want to learn what genocide is for it to be recognized.

Still on the mirror, it should be noted that, by naming crime and criminals, genocide and genocide, President Lula and other federal authorities break with a tradition related to the image of Brazil. Human rights activists say so. In general, anyone who denounces violations of rights that have occurred in Brazil is frowned upon and attacked by State agents because, supposedly, a denunciation would damage the country's image abroad. Unethical, this perception is also anachronistic in this time when, for better or for worse, images circulate without intermediaries and the control of international tribunes by diplomats has significantly eroded.

Lula understood that the commission of crimes is serious, not the denouncement. “Positive” is the image of a country that investigates, prosecutes and judges violators. The myth of cordiality needs, once and for all, to give way to the reality of the rule of law, in which rulers and the military are also subject to the law.

There is, however, a second dimension to the lie – this huge, historic, tremendous, shameful lie that is the denial of the indigenous genocide in Brazil.

Calling genocide by other names, without duly informed technical support, implies participating in the denialist movement that intends to rehabilitate the Brazilian extreme right in the institutional debate and in the Brazilian electoral process. It is necessary to understand the most recent images of an old crime in its historical context, taking into account the past, present and future times.

When the revolting images of emaciated Yanomami are replaced by new tragedies, we need to keep calling “genocide” and “genocidal” what has surfaced now and what has been happening for a long time. Complaining, crying and contributing to rescue actions is too little.

Naming the monstrosity is an important part of a broad movement that involves the protection of victims, the clear and definitive confrontation of the environmental and economic issues at stake in indigenous territories, with the recognition that the original peoples are today the last bastion of the protection of Amazon region. It also involves demanding investigations, processes and judgments, a struggle historically waged by indigenous movements and their supporters, and to which we have a duty to join.

It is also necessary to face all and all who feed, directly or indirectly, the movements that invariably result in the annihilation of human beings.

It is imperative to recognize the catastrophe that the rise of the extreme right represents in countries like Brazil, where different historical forms of authoritarianism and exclusion coexist – and all of them were never faced as they should have been. It's time to name the monster so that these crimes never happen again: the impact of the emergence of the Yanomami needs to be the end point of the indigenous genocide in Brazil.

*Daisy Ventura is a professor at USP, where she coordinates the doctorate in Global Health at the School of Public Health and is vice-director of the Institute of International Relations.

Originally published on the website SUMAUMA.

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