Without accountability in the U.S., this won’t be the last January with an insurrection

Bolsonaro supporters storm Brazil’s National Congress building (Photo: AP)

Images of supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro storming the Congress buildings and Supreme Court in Brasília early this month were disturbing yet unsurprising. Many saw this coming. Numerous acolytes of Donald Trump encouraged and helped plan the attacks on Brazil’s democratic institutions. But blaming the Trump administration is too easy. The more difficult lesson is the failure of accountability. This is what happens when states like the U.S. fail to bring to justice those most responsible for insurrection and domestic terrorism. 

As mobs began their attack in Brasília, observers immediately made the connection to the 6 January 2021 riots in Washington. For example, Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes stated: “Nearly 2 years to the day the US Capitol was attacked by fascists, we see fascist movements abroad attempt to do the same in Brazil.” 

Right-wing America’s fingerprints were all over the events in Brazil. Trump sycophants like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller moonlight as Bolsonaro advisors, strategizing with the former leader on how to contest Bolsonaro’s October 2022 presidential election loss to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. They didn’t look far for their master plan, effectively lending Bolsonaro their own playbook. 

Bolsonaro has put his own spin on Trump’s “Stop the Steal” strategy, whereby the erstwhile Brazilian leader’s supporters reject the election results, spread disinformation about the integrity of the 2022 polls, and instigate an insurgence against democratic state institutions. Neither Bolsonaro nor his American friends tried to hide their nefarious scheming. According to Human Rights Watch, the assault on Brazil’s Congress and Supreme Court was the result of a “years-long campaign by former president Jair Bolsonaro and his allies”. As mayhem in Brasília unfolded, Bannon was ready; he called the mob in Brasília “freedom fighters”.

Two of the most important democracies in their regions and in the world – the U.S. and Brazil – have both now witnessed disenchanted former presidents incite mobs to undermine the rule of law. This won’t be the last January of insurrection unless ringleaders are held accountable.

When it comes to political violence – be it treasonous insurrections, domestic terrorism, or the perpetration of war crimes – it is well-understood that those most responsible must be held to account, and not just the foot soldiers. After all, it is leaders who orchestrate such violence and bend fragile, pliable, and confused minds to do their bidding. Prosecuting leaders might not deter all future forms of political violence, but it can send a clear message that certain behaviour won’t be tolerated and that there is a price to pay for those who actively violate basic norms – even if they enjoy spectacular power, wealth, and influence.

As famously proclaimed by Robert H. Jackson at the Nuremberg trial of former Nazi leaders following WWII, accountability can “stay the hand of vengeance”. This is, in effect, the same idea animates the rule of law. Without it, there would be mayhem, a spiral of intolerable violence. Legal accountability can help stop that cycle of atrocity. 

Prosecuting all those responsible for political violence is important. To date, some 900 participants have been charged for their roles in the 2021 riots on the Capitol. Hundreds of rioters have been prosecuted and convicted. U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland has insisted that “all January 6th perpetrators, at any level” will be held accountable. But the ringleaders have so far escaped justice. Those who planned and incited the mobs – the likes of Rudy Giuliani, Steve Bannon, and of course Donald Trump – have faced few legal consequences.

If a state like the U.S. fails to hold accountable those most responsible for insurrection and acts of domestic terrorism, others will take the cue, adopt similar strategies, and assault democratic institutions and norms elsewhere. If it can happen with few consequences in the U.S., why wouldn’t Bolsonaro and his cronies try to overturn election results and attempt to take power by force? Why wouldn’t Bolsonaro seek exile in Florida, where he may enjoy the protection of his dear ally and friend Trump? Why wouldn’t it be politically acceptable for Republican figures in Washington to insist that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was “stolen”? The legal repercussions for doing any of the above appear thin, even non-existent.

There is some hope that this might change soon. The Biden administration recently appointed Jack Smith as special counsel to investigate Trump’s role in the Capitol riot. Smith is a former war crimes prosecutor who knows well the lessons of post-conflict contexts that impunity breeds further violence. It will be his job to tackle one of the most sensitive and politically explosive files in American history. 

In the U.S., as in much of the Western world, it is common to point the finger to other states and demand accountability for political violence. But different rules do not apply to what happens in America. What happens in Washington never stays in Washington. It is amplified because so many people around the world watch – with fascination, admiration, and fear. 

Following the attacks in Brasília, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, tweeted that “using violence to attack democratic institutions is always unacceptable.” Always? 

Holding its most powerful perpetrators of political violence has never been an American strong suit. The sooner that changes, the better – for the U.S. and the rest of the democratic world.

About Mark Kersten

Mark Kersten is a consultant at the Wayamo Foundation, a Senior Researcher at the Munk School of Global Affairs, and a law student at McGill University Law School. He is also author of the book, 'Justice in Conflict - The Effects of the International Criminal Court's Interventions on Ending Wars and Building Peace' (Oxford University Press, 2016).
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2 Responses to Without accountability in the U.S., this won’t be the last January with an insurrection

  1. El roam says:

    Important post. No doubt.

    Just worth noting, the more important and striking similarity between them both ( Brasil and the US. Trump and Bolsonaro):

    They were both sitting president. Both in power in fact. So, despite this fact, they were both accusing parties, not in power. How come ? Well: is such systems (democracies) you can reach power, but, fundamentally, you can change nothing. The fact that you can change nothing, coupled with losing election, creates or makes you invent certain notion:

    Deep state.

    There is that monster, lurking within your administration, made of professional and not elected officials, causing you, not to be able to do nothing for causing or generating fundamental change. They intervene in your moves, and aborting every move you try to play. Every policy you might try to implement.

    But, this is pure fiction. senseless notion. as such:

    Educating the people, is no less important than reaching and holding those responsible, accountable.

    Hereby for example, the use of that notion “Deep state” by Netanyahu, like Trump did:

    https://www.timesofisrael.com/netanyahu-claims-habitual-liar-bennetts-coalition-in-league-with-deep-state/

    Thanks

  2. Thank you for your insight Mark

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