Fifty thousand homicides

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On Tuesday, the Brazilian government will release its 2012 crime statistics. As a newspaper that had previous access to the data confirmed,  51,108 people were murdered in Brazil in 2012, 7.6% more than in 2011. The number of murders in Brazil increased over 250 percent in the three decades, jumping from 13,910 in 1980 to above 50,000 in 2012. Some say that the rate could be even higher, arguing that up to 15% of murders go unreported, particularly in Brazil's rural areas. This is particularly noteworthy because contrary to many other violent countries, Brazil, with its almost 200 million inhabitants, has no territorial disputes, emancipation movements, or civil, religious, racial, or ethnic wars. By comparison, in the United States, a country of 315 million inhabitants, around 16,000 are murdered per year. Brazil has more homicides than China, even though China's population is almost seven times higher than Brazil's. 

In addition, more people are killed in Brazil than in any of the world's most lethal war zones. Between 2004 and 2007, almost 200,000 people died of homicide in Brazil, exceeding the 169,574 people killed in the twelve largest armed conflicts in the world during the same period. Iraq in 2006, at the height of the insurgency, saw only half as many homicides as Brazil in any given year. 

Whenever they hear of such horrific statistics, many friends criticize me for supporting Brazil's greater political involvement in global affairs. Why seek a permanent seat in the UN Security Council if we cannot get our own house in order? Why send peacekeepers to Haiti if they should patrol our own streets? Why rub shoulders with the world's greatest powers at the yearly BRICS Summits if Brazilian cities remain plagued by crime? This argument, alas, is not made by Brazilians alone, but by international observers as well. Indeed, Brazil's absurd levels of violence very much undermine its international credibility and capacity to project itself as an emerging power with global ambitions. 

Yet to my mind, such criticism fails to grasp the purpose of foreign policy. While diplomats are often seen as working on abstract issues of little interest to the public, quite the opposite is true - foreign policy can directly contribute to solving domestic problems. Take gun violence: As Matias Spektor pointed out in an op-ed in Folha de São Paulo earlier this year, arms trafficking is a regional problem in Latin America, and part of the 16 million arms circulating in Brazil are smuggled in from neighbouring countries (even though the majority is produced in Brazil). Working together with governments in Paraguay, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela and those in Central America, for example, is crucial to establish a more potent mechanism that combats the illegal arms trade and enhances border security. Most of the world's ten most violent countries are located in Latin America, so Brazilian intellectual leadership on the matter would also strengthen Brasilia's regional leadership ambitions. IBSA, a trilateral grouping that includes Brazil and South Africa, another victim of high-level crime, could serve as a platform to discuss ways to deal with the problem. 

There are many other examples - ranging from climate change, failed states, financial instability - that show how national problems cannot be addressed with national solutions alone - foreign policy must play its part. 

Read also: 

Is Brazil a regional hegemon?

Humanitarian aid: Is Brazil a force to reckon with?

Can Brazil assume leadership in the debate about internet governance?

Photo credit: YASUYOSHI CHIBA / AFP