Under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil actively sought to become a leader in the region and of the Global South. In the case of the latter, it did this by both building formal and informal alliances with other emerging powers in the Global South and by seeking to represent the interests of developing countries in forums such as the World Trade Organization talks.
The states that Brazil allied itself with were also countries with whom Brazil soft-pedaled in raising political and civil rights in the UNHRC: China, Russia and Turkey. Beyond strategic alliances and interests, however, Brazil’s position under Lula and later his successor, Dilma Rousseff, reflected a larger vision against intervention (even in the name of human rights concerns) with a greater emphasis placed on national sovereignty. The result, not only in the UNHRC but also in the UN Security Council (UNSC) during Brazil’s turn on the Council, was abstention on key votes. Abstention often enables dictators and antidemocratic behavior and undermines liberal norms, even if unwittingly. In recent years under President Rousseff, Brazil has retreated from its international role, reflecting both Rousseff’s greater interest in domestic issues and the series of political and economic crises plaguing her administration.
In its regional relations, Brazil’s leadership aspirations have also undermined international and hemispheric liberal norms. Brazil was the founder and is the main underwriter of UNASUR. Brazil’s outsize role in the organization, which it promoted as a means to contain Venezuela and the ALBA group’s more radical ambitions, makes UNASUR’s weak commitment to legitimate electoral observation standards all the more perplexing. Indeed, when it became apparent that UNASUR was going to field a partisan, ineffective monitoring effort for the December 2015 legislative elections in Venezuela, Brazil reverted to its traditional international position. Rather than seek to strengthen the observation delegation or publicly level a constructive, substantive complaint about the mission, Brazil simply abstained, refusing to send a representative.
Despite a strong domestic human rights community and a reputation under the current government for being pro-human rights, Colombia’s record internationally on human rights is not strong, Colombia has never run for a seat on the UNHRC and only nominally participates in the UPR process. Colombia also issued only seven recommendations regarding civil and political rights concerns to other Latin American countries and accepted only 79% of political and civil rights recommendations from the rest of the region. Part of this reluctance to engage is likely the holdover from more than 50 years of internal civil war, during which the Colombian state and the guerrilla forces have often been a target of human rights complaints. In addition, as the government of President Juan Manuel Santos attempts to negotiate a peace agreement with the largest of the country’s two guerrilla groups, the FARC, the government is seeking to avoid international scrutiny and—in the case of Cuba and Venezuela, both crucial to the peace talks—unwilling to rock the boat.
Nevertheless, President Santos was one of the few regional leaders to call the trial of Venezuelan opposition leader Leopoldo López a sham and to speak out over the arrest of the mayor of Caracas, Antonio Ledezma. Unfortunately, the deeper dysfunction in the region’s multilateral system was on display again in the summer of 2015, when the OAS rejected a call by Colombia to serve as a broker over the sudden closing of the Colombia-Venezuela border by Venezuela and the expulsion of Colombian residents.