In a much-anticipated ruling issued in December, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights invalidated Brazil’s longstanding amnesty for “political offenses” committed during its 1970s military dictatorship. The decision in Gomes Lund v. Brazil strengthened jurisprudence on the right to the truth about gross human rights violations and clearly affirmed the fundamental right to government information. In a victory for transparency and accountability, the court’s ruling should force the Brazilian government to open its archives from the period to public scrutiny and accept responsibility for past abuses.
The court relied in part on arguments contained in an amicus curiae brief filed last year by the Open Society Justice Initiative with the Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Open Democracy Advice Centre of South Africa, and the South African History Archive. The brief argued that the right to the truth—for the victims or their family members as well as the general public—is now well established in international law and state practice. It is a broad right that guarantees the public’s right to know about the underlying conditions that led to past abuses, so that societies can prevent such problems from reoccurring in the future.
In its ruling, the court, echoing arguments made by the Justice Initiative and its partners, recognized for the first time that the right to information contained in Article 13 of the American Convention undergirds a legally enforceable right to the truth for victims and for society as a whole.
The Lund case relates to a small guerrilla movement of students and workers that emerged from the Araguaia River region of Brazil in 1972. Over the next two years, the Brazilian army brutally suppressed the movement, arresting and torturing members and local residents. More than 60 disappeared, their fate still unknown.
The new ruling is an extension of the Inter-American Court’s landmark 2006 judgment in Claude Reyes v. Chile, which recognized for the first time in international law a fundamental right of access to information held by public authorities, under Article 13 of the convention. This makes the Araguaia case only the second instance, after Claude Reyes, in which the court has found a violation of the right of access to state-held information.
The decision makes Brazil the third country in the region to have its dictatorship-era amnesty law invalidated by the court, following the precedents of Barrios Altos v. Peru (2001) and Almonacid-Arellano v. Chile (2006).
The Lund brief is available online in English, Portuguese, and Spanish. The court’s ruling is available in Spanish.