Why do high-income Brazilians distrust human rights?

Photo: Senado Federal/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Rhetoric that rejects human rights, and particularly human rights organizations and activists, has been rapidly gaining traction in Brazil in the last few years. Throughout 2016, during the controversial impeachment process of President Dilma Rousseff—a former political prisoner tortured during the dictatorship (1964-1985) and the first woman elected president of Brazil—, an anti-human rights discourse began rising more noticeably. For example, when former Deputy Jair Bolsonaro cast his vote for Rousseff’s impeachment, he dedicated it to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who was directly responsible for Rousseff’s torture and the first official of the Brazilian army to be convicted for this practice.

After Rousseff was impeached and Michel Temer, then vice president, instated as president, Bolsonaro started a presidential campaign that would prove successful three years later. A key feature of his campaign rhetoric and first months in office was the consent, support, and commitment to policies and language that rejected and outright derided human rights. For the first time since Brazil’s 1988 Constitution reinstated democracy, our country has a president placing “anti-human rights” values into the official discourse.

Against this controversial backdrop, Conectas and the Center for Public Administration and Government Studies (CEAPG) conducted a project called “Behavioral Research on High-income Donors” (PCDAR, in Portuguese) during the presidential campaign of 2018. This initiative was a partnership with CEAPG at the Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV), Conectas Human Rights, and funded by Fundo BIS and GVPesquisa. (The PCDAR’s full results are available here.)

PCDAR was an exploratory mixed-methods research about the socio-demographic and behavioral profile of Brazil’s high-income population. It focused on their habits, practices, and perceptions on donations in general and donations to human rights organizations in particular. The population consisted of high-income individuals with an average monthly income of 30 thousand reais (around 8,000 USD), corresponding to 1% of the Brazilian economically active population (more or less one million people). The project used public and secondary databases and carried out a focus group and a survey with 348 high-income individuals. While not statistically representative, the sample helps to identify key patterns and the various characteristics of the phenomena, as well as areas for further research.

One of the most interesting findings of PCDAR project is that the disapproval of “human rights”—and, as a consequence, of donations to organizations who advocate for them—at least among high-income individuals, is not as strong as circumstances (and the perception of human rights actors and fundraisers) might suggest. While overall this population seems skeptical about human rights, this view appears to be driven by uninformed preconceptions and a general lack of knowledge on human rights and the organizations that defend them. Notably, in our study, participants did not mention “human rights” as a cause affecting their lives, despite mentioning concern over a wide range of topics such as homelessness, security, women issues, corporate disrespect for rights, refugees, and so on—indicating a general lack of knowledge on the full range of themes human rights are about. Yet some respondents in the focus group had negative preconceptions, such as one who held the common stance in Brazil that human rights organizations “protect those who do not deserve protection”.

It is important to highlight that the results do not show a wide and complete dismissal of human rights. Only 8% of 348 high-income survey respondents openly dismissed “human rights”, while only 20% said they would not donate to human rights organizations under any circumstance. But a surprising 57% did not know how to answer the question about donations, or did not know whether they had ever donated to human rights organizations. In addition, respondents reported that they do not always trust human rights organizations (only 31% of survey respondents said they agree with the statement “human rights organizations are trustworthy”), but this may be simply because they do not know them or what they do. Conversely, the survey shows that high-income respondents tend to acknowledge that human rights organizations depend on donations from individuals and companies and that they are necessary for solving social and environmental problems (almost 60% of survey respondents said they agree with the statement “human rights organizations depends on donations from individuals or enterprises to keep functioning” and 52% said they agree with the statement “human rights organizations are necessary for helping solving social and environmental problems).

Thus, the existing rejection and distrust of human rights among high-income Brazilians seems to result primarily from lack of knowledge and reflection, rather than the open and a priori dismissal of the topic that contaminated the Brazilian political debate.

Lastly, we found out that a rational discussion about what “human rights” are, what causes they encompass, and what human rights organizations do, can overcome this initial rejection and build trusting relationships with current and potential donors. A successful starting point was the idea of human dignity—which came up in the focus group and to which two-thirds of survey respondents could relate. Clearly, there is room for human rights organizations and activists to explain and challenge ideas established among high-income Brazilians, as a long-term strategy. In other words, Brazilian rights activists could increase their support base through awareness-raising campaigns and challenging preconceived notions about human rights.

Support of torture, political persecution of the opposition and minorities, and the suppression of due process by public figures, is rising in Brazil, starting with the president. Vocal and influential groups are advocating for the use of violence as a means of political mediation and infecting public opinion. And yet, it appears that most high-income Brazilians do not know or think much about human rights. Our study suggests that winning hearts and minds, and improving perceptions about rights, is possible through rational discussion, investing in communication campaigns and promoting evidence-based results.