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Coronavirus Criminality: Bolsonaro and the International Criminal Court

This could be the stuff of fiction. But then again, many legal principles began, at some point or rather, in the sludge of speculation before hardening into legal briefs and prosecutorial documents. Holding heads of state to account for crimes against their people remains a perennial project with a patchy record. This is particularly the case when it comes to international tribunals vested with jurisdiction to try such figures. It all reads well in the statute, but when it comes to testing it, the will is often lacking.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, along with a set of other leaders, offers an excellent case in point. With many fingers pointing at Chinese culpability for the coronavirus and seeking some legal forum to test Beijing’s “wrongs”, there is a double play at stake. For figures such as US President Donald Trump, the coronavirus is only serious if the light is shone on Chinese wickedness and economic wrongs. Arguments have been made by his administration that Beijing fork out “very substantial damages” by way of compensation. An energetic number of lawmakers in the US Congress have been trying to strip China of its sovereign immunity in US courts. The China Compensation Cart has become a heavy one, indeed.

The other side of the play is one of lessening the effects of the virus, which would seem to undermine the argument of Chinese malice. (Can you be malicious in spreading something ineffectual?) The US commander-in-chief insists on ignoring the seriousness of it all; the disease it causes is merely a sniffle which will go away.

Bolsonaro’s method has been similar, with its inevitable local twist. Be it managing or spreading the coronavirus, everyone else shoulders blame, be it irritating governors, querulous medical advisers and ministers, or a lurking firth column of hysterics. When asked about Brazil’s soaring death toll as it passed China’s, he was nonplussed. “I don’t work miracles. What do you want me to do?” He has been the physical exemplar of repudiation: defying social distancing in meeting supporters in public, attending gatherings without protection; contracting the virus and promoting the snake oil properties of the antimalarial drug, hydroxychloroquine.



When he has gotten on board sanctioning laws ostensibly made to slow viral spread, he has limited their effect. In early July, for instance, he accepted the bill passed by the Chamber of Deputies that masks be made obligatory when in public but vetoed their use in shops, churches and schools.

In the country, the Brazilian Union Network UNISaúde, an umbrella group of social organisations and unions representing health workers decided to take the matter of command responsibility that one step further. On Monday, the group filed a complaint with the ICC claiming that the government had been “criminally negligent in its management of the COVID-19 pandemic – risking the lives of healthcare professionals and of members of Brazilian society.”

According to the filed document, certain “government leaders have underestimated the seriousness of the pandemic, and one of them is the president of Brazil.” Bolsonaro’s “attitude of contempt, neglect, and denial, has brought disastrous consequences, with the resulting intensification of the spread of the illness, completely straining the health services, which were unable to meet the minimum conditions to assist the population, causing deaths without further controls.”

The president’s accusers go further, suggesting, somewhat fancifully, that he might also be guilty of that gravest of crimes. “The failure of the Brazilian government amounts to a crime against humanity – genocide.” The problem with that accusation is that genocide can never be the outcome of negligence or pig headed stupidity, being the cold blooded intention of killing members of a group for reasons of race, ethnicity or religion. Millions have perished because of the colossal ignorance and incompetence of their leaders without making the grade of an Eichmann.

Marcio Monzane of UNI Americas, a key organisation leading the charge to The Hague, acknowledged that it was “a drastic measure, but Brazilians face an extremely dire and dangerous situation created by Bolsonaro’s deliberate decisions.”

This effort to draw attention to the fallible, dangerous leadership of Bolsonaro is not new. Such a figure has an innate capacity to add fuel to the engine of resentment. The number of complaints filed against Brazil’s head of state is starting to bulk in the office of the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda. In November 2019, the Brazilian Bar Association for Human Rights and the Arms Commission for Human Rights Defence accused Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity and incitement to genocide of the Amazon indigenous populace. Their preferred choice for investigating such claims? The ICC.

On April 3 this year, the Brazilian Association of Jurists for Democracy filed a complaint with the ICC similarly claiming that the president had committed crimes against humanity. The accusations then focused on shrugging off the “seriousness of COVID-19 and encouraging activities that can only result in the rapid and uncontrolled spread of this deadly illness.” The complainants claimed that a million Brazilians would perish were the WHO recommendations not be met.

The document notes that Bolsonaro’s actions have received the opprobrium of numerous health institutes. In defiance of medical guidance provided by global authorities, the president, in his capacity as head of state, did “everything in his power to minimize the severity of the pandemic and to encourage the spread of COVID-19 by instructing the nation of Brazil to act in a manner inconsistent with the sound recommendations of the health professionals.”

The wheels of justice tend to be slow; that of international justice, slower. What Bensouda makes of these various promptings to launch an investigation into the conduct of the Brazilian government during the coronavirus epidemic may well make legal history. But even the activists concede that the longest of bows is being drawn.

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  1. Jack Cade

    Brazil had a military dictatorship within living memory, and elected Bolsanaro – a soldier – to the presidency. As the saying goes, if you ignore the lessons of the past you risk repeating it.

  2. Michael Taylor

    The low value bastards like Bolsonaro (and Trump) place on human lives is heartbreaking. I can’t wait for their presidencies to end.

  3. Phil Pryor

    Leaders of large nations and corporate heavies are usually executive murderers, as their decisions and actions lead, often deliberately, to death, destruction, misery, criminality. Thieves and murderers are quite rotten, and were usually dealt with terminally, as might be a just fate for Bolsonaro and other deviate defectives. There are still plenty of walls, weapons, keen avenging righteous types…

  4. mark delmege

    Bolsonaro of course came into govt with the connivance of the CIA and the Obama Presidency against the popular and leftist President Lula

  5. Roswell

    mark delmege, Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, when Obama was no longer in office. I fail to see the connection.

  6. Henry Rodrigues

    mark delmege………You’ve finally convinced me that you are an idiot. No, don’t bother abusing me, I’m not listening.

  7. Jack Cade

    What Mark delmege said was valid, though. Obama was the only word that changed – US policy in South America has never changed in 70 years. And Obama destroyed Libya. Just because he could. And things won’t change even if the mandarin-headed moron goes to gaol – or even jail, if that’s how YOU spell it.
    I don’t.

  8. mark delmege

    Operation Car Wash began in 2014.
    (Maybe you thought the eloquent smiling black man was above all that. He wasn’t. His first stop was Egypt. Look how that ended.)

  9. Brozza

    mark delmege – I refer to that “eloquent smiling black man” as obomba (the drone king), with his very evil offsider, killary.
    Both were only too happy to carry out U.$. policy of world terrorism, as were dumbbush, hornyclinton, greedybush, ronnyraygun, carter, ford, nixon, johnson etc,etc, etc, …………………………..

  10. Roswell

    mark delmege, I said I failed to see the connection, and I appreciate you explaining it to me.

    But I don’t need you to tell me what I think.

  11. mark delmege

    I would have felt better had you questioned my Egypt angle. It was after all Obamas foreign policy signature failure. The Arab Spring was an American Project and a disaster. It ushered in an era of militants terrorism and refugees and has probably set back the region for a generation.

  12. paul walter

    Haven’t read most of the post- have to be somewhere right now- but Bolsonaro is yet another puppet of a certain “foreign power” that spends much time, money and effort flogging its alibis and self image of benignity that obscures a darker nature and much outright and tawdry denialism on its own part.

    Bolsonaro is there to ensure an upgrade to organised looting from cold blooded, ruthless, Paul Singer type influences mainly based within that “foreign power”, as well as opportunist local collaborationist kleptocrats.

  13. Roswell

    I can’t argue with you over that, mark. The US has a miserable record on foreign policy.

  14. Phil

    ” The low value bastards like Bolsonaro (and Trump) place on human lives is heartbreaking. I can’t wait for their presidencies to end.”

    i presume you have heard the latest? Trump is going to try and delay the election. Thus far from what I’ve read, he can’t. I wonder how desperate he’ll become?

  15. Roswell

    Hi Phil, only Congress can do that. A point that Trump wouldn’t know. But he’s doing his best to undermine the credibility of the election.

    He’s such a pig.

  16. Roswell

    I fear that it’s going to get ugly over there. If Trump loses, the casualties will be more than just his presidency.

    Being American-born, the trouble brewing over there deeply saddens me.

  17. Phil

    ” I fear that it’s going to get ugly over there. If Trump loses, the casualties will be more than just his presidency.”

    I think a civil war not on the scale of the last one, is not beyond the realms of a possibility. I hope not. Trump is not only a danger to the USA. but the whole world.

  18. Henry Rodrigues

    The criminal in the White House and his enablers in congress and the senate, as well as the crinkled old bastard who spews bullshit to the gullible american voters, should all be prosecuted for treason. Nothing else will bring stability and accountability.

  19. paul walter

    Yes, Roswell. You can discern that sort consequent mentality developing here also. If only the greedy and the ratbags could have left it alone, to settle a bit, instead of playing their usual delinquent stupid games with it.

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