In a recent provisional measure (currently only in Spanish), the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Brazilian government to take a variety of steps to address human rights violations at the notorious Curado prison complex. Such violations are pervasive: Shockingly, the Curado guards, in exchange for kickbacks or other illicit benefits, essentially handed over control of the prison (and other prisoners) to certain inmates (often the most violent or feared), turned a blind eye to or participated in the complex’s massive drugs and weapons trade, and repeatedly failed to stop prison breaks and riots.
Notably, among the steps in the Court’s order is a demand that the government investigate and report back to the Court on corruption, particularly on weapons and drugs trafficking, among officials at the prison. The Court—like its companion institution, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which investigates and reports to the Court—is not directly tasked with addressing corruption. However, its mandate includes protecting the right to humane treatment. At Curado, the prison guards, as agents of Brazil, affirmatively jeopardized the safety of prisoners with their corruption, and the Brazilian government failed to protect prisoners from abuses stemming from those actions. The Court’s measure, drawing from the Commission’s recommendations, emphasizes that the widespread corruption of the guards and other prison officials was one of the factors that allowed the inhumane conditions in the prison to continue.
The Court’s ruling seems to be one of the first times an international judicial body has ordered a country to undertake a review of corruption within its borders and then be held directly accountable to that international body. Thus, beyond its immediate significance to the Curado situation, the Court’s decision is a milestone in more directly recognizing and addressing corruption as a proximate cause of human rights violations. While this recognition will not by itself resolve the dire situation at Curado, it is an important step forward, and is notable for several reasons:
- First, unlike previous Court orders, the recent Curado order directly addresses corruption. The IACHR (the Commission) has previously mentioned corruption explicitly as a factor in the state of human rights in various member nations (see, for example, here and here). Meanwhile, the Court seems to have avoided the word, despite the apparent place of corruption in many situations, including police abuse cases like this or this.
- Second, the order provides a more direct, focused remedy. So far, where cases have involved corruption, the Court has tended to order specific reparations for the harmed individual along with vague motions toward preventing future recurrences. For example, when Peru revoked the citizenship of the director of a Peruvian television channel after he made statements about public corruption, the Court demanded a series of remedies for him, including damages. However, the Court found Peru had legislative remedies in place to prevent such retaliation and simply asked the country to “investigate the facts that resulted in the violations . . . to identify and punish those responsible.” There are a number of similar orders, for example here and here. This is true of the Commission’s statements too. When it dealt with Argentine judges who had been suspiciously dismissed, it advocated for very specific remedies for the judges themselves but otherwise offered only vaguely-worded recommendations to “bolster the judiciary’s independence.” The Curado order demands a report; that may not seem like much, but a report to an international body has greater prospects of preventing recurrence than more nebulous goals to be addressed unilaterally.
- Third, because the order demands a response and leaves open the possibility of future investigation, it provides an ongoing impetus, however small, for Brazil to be deliberate in looking at corruption as a source of human rights violations. Much of the critique of the Court has been the ease with which countries can ignore its rulings, and the Court itself is aware of the need for a “real possibility” that its measures are implemented. Here, the Court will continue to monitor the situation at Curado. Even if just an ongoing annoyance, the monitoring goes further than vague demands. In this case corruption is relatively easy to assess—if there are weapons in the prison (particularly guns), the guards have either failed to stop trafficking or have themselves been complicit in arms sales. Where guards continue to act without fear of reprisal, civil society or third-party observers can continue to petition the Court for a response.
If the horrendous stories from Curado can be addressed even in part by dealing with the corruption of prison officials, they should be addressed through more than a report. The system of allowing and actively introducing weapons into an already out-of-control situation is no one individual’s responsibility, nor is fixing it the singular responsibility of one entity, international or domestic. The Commission and the Court should continue to push Brazil to address the corruption of its prison staff. The state and local governments should also take their own responsibility in offering accountability and oversight going forward.
Meanwhile, this order should send a message to other members of the Organization of American States, and the wider international community, that corruption is implicated in human rights issues and can be a sticking point for international adjudicative bodies. Prisons around the world struggle to manage overcrowded, dangerous detainment conditions. Asking that the guards and other officials who run those prisons be kept in check offers some hope for improvement. International observers need not be included in every case of guard impropriety, but ongoing egregious harm can be highlighted through an order like the Court’s. After all, Curado means “cured”—a hope for a better future.
[Disclaimer: The Harvard International Human Rights Clinic has been involved with the investigation and complaint in the IACHR Curado matter. Its work on detention centers is detailed here.]