On 29 November I lectured for two hours at the Swedish Association for Foreign Affairs at the University of Lund. The students themselves asked me to speak on my Venezuela report. The inter-active dialogue was knowledgeable and open. Below is a short version of the lecture which I wrote for their publication “Perspectives”.
University of Lund, Sweden
29 November 2018 – Association for Foreign Affairs
First mission to Venezuela by a UN rapporteur in 21 years — by Alfred de Zayas
The UN Human Rights Council, a subsidiary organ of the General Assembly is the successor of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Commission on Human Rights, which on 10 December 1948 adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When the Council was established in 2006, it spearheaded new “Special Procedures” consisting of working groups, rapporteurs and independent experts, whose function is to monitor human rights situations worldwide and make constructive proposals. “Naming and shaming” is only one of many tools used by the rapporteurs, thus far with mitigated success. Advisory services and technical assistance has proven more sustainable.
The mandate of the independent expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order was created in 2011 and the Council appointed me the first mandate holder in May 2012, for two 3-year terms. My successor, Livingston Sewanyana (Uganda) is in function since May 2018.
During my tenure I presented 13 thematic reports to the HR Council and GA on a variety of international order topics, including tax havens, free trade agreements, bilateral investment treaties, ISDS, a world parliamentary assembly, disarmament and self-determination.
Bearing in mind that I had been a senior lawyer with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Chief of the Petitions Department, I was keenly aware of the economic crisis affecting the people of Venezuela, characterized by galloping inflation, scarcity of foods and medicines, unemployment and mass emigration. I knew that the Venezuela government had been criticized by the OAS and UN and that a dozen UN rapporteurs who had requested the opportunity to visit had their requests denied. I took it as a challenge to go to Venezuela before the end of my mandate. In August 2017 I requested from the government of Venezuela permission to carry out an independent assessment of the situation. Already in September I received a positive response, which was seen as a sensation by my colleague rapporteurs and OHCHR. Why did I get an invitation? Perhaps because my prior reports had not been confrontational but result-oriented and had formulated pragmatic solutions. I was not perceived as a priori hostile.
According to media reports, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, PROVEA and other civil society organizations, there was a “humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela requiring urgent action. I had also read reports by FAO and CEPAL according to which although there was scarcity and delays in distribution, the threshold of a humanitarian crisis had not been reached.
When in Venezuela I was determined to speak with as many stakeholders as possible – from the opposition, the press, ngo’s, entrepreneurs, chamber of commerce, professors, students, churches etc. Pretty soon I realized that the population was extremely polarized. Thanks to the cooperation of UNDP I successfully divided my time between the government and the opposition, listening to victims of human rights violations, but also speaking to the Attorney General, Defensor del Pueblo (Ombudsman), ministries of health and agriculture. etc.
Whereas the entrepreneurs attributed all the ills to the “failed socialistic model”, to “incompetence” and “corruption”, a considerable number of interlocutors, including the Venezuelan ngo’s Fundalatin (UN consultative status) and Grupo Sures, the Jesuit activist Father Nuno Molina, and economics Professor Pasqualina Curcio explained to me that the situation was not that simple and drew my attention to other contributing factors:
- the dramatic fall in oil prices in 2014. For 100 years Venezuelan economy had depended nearly 90% on the sale of petroleum. A drop in commodity prices necessarily had immediate impacts. Surely Chavez and Maduro should have diversified. But 80 years of neo-liberal governments in Venezuela before them had similarly failed to diversify.
- The non-conventional war waged by the US against Venezuela since 1999, similar to the economic warfare against Salvador Allende in Chile. Already in 1970 President Nixon had told Kissinger in no uncertain terms that the US would not tolerate an alternative socio-economic system in Latin America and that “the Chilean economy would be made to scream”. When this did not succeed in toppling Allende, the Pinochet coup ushered in 17 years of brutal dictatorship. Similar economic warfare is being conducted against Cuba and Nicaragua among others.
- The US financial and media support of the Venezuelan opposition and ngo’s has had a destabilizing impact, including the coup attempt of April 2002, the lock-out of the petroleum industry in 2003, which cost the Venezuelan economy an estimated 15 billion dollars, and the violence of the “guarimbas” (violent street demonstrations).
- Because of the sanctions imposed by the US since 2015, followed by the Trump sanctions of 2017/18 and the sanctions imposed by Canada and the European Union, investors and entrepreneurs have stopped doing business in Venezuela out of fear of penalties.
- The financial blockade, including the closing of 80% of Venezuela’s bank accounts abroad and the refusal of many banks, including Chase, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank etc . to transfer funds owed to the Venezuelan Government or to transfer payments that Venezuela attempts to make for the purchase of food and medicines, including insulin, anti-malaria drugs, anti-retroviral drugs, scanners and dialysis equipment. During my visit I obtained convincing evidence of the devastating effect of this financial embargo.
- The economic war is also conducted internally, since most of Venezuela’s importers and distributers are private sector and opponents of the socialist policies of Chavez/Maduro. Evidence of this disruption is found in the phenomenon of hoarding of food and medicines in warehouses, only to release them into the back market at exorbitant prices. (See my report to the Council A/HRC/39/47/Add.1, and the extensive comments and documentation submitted by Venezuela A/HRC/39/47/Add.2).
- Domestic and international smuggling rings have smuggled tons of subsidized foods and medicines into Colombia and Brazil, to sell them at ten times the price.
Notwithstanding the persuasiveness of the mainstream narrative that the crisis is primarily due to government mismanagement and that there are too many ideologues and too few technocrats in government, a rapporteur cannot ignore detailed evidence and statistics received demonstrating the impacts of the economic war. As an ngo told me: “economic sanctions kill”.
The problem with the concept of a humanitarian crisis is that it can be instrumentalized to make a military “humanitarian” intervention more palatable to world public opinion, although it would inevitably violate the prohibition of the use of force in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter and Chapter 4, Article 19 of the OAS Charter. The “humanitarian” intervention in Libya 2011 cost untold lives and has left the country in chaos. Is this the right recipe for Venezuela?
Although I was not a “super rapporteur” and my mandate did not authorize me to investigate issues of arbitrary detention and violation of press freedom, I did welcome reports given to me by relatives of victims and, after reviewing the evidence, transmitted their communications to the competent rapporteurs. I also incorporated meritorious cases into a six-page confidential memorandum, which I gave to the government. Shortly after my visit, 80 detainees were released, including persons on behalf of whom I had strongly interceded. Consistent with my recommendations, UN agencies in Caracas made new cooperation agreements with the government. Indeed, my concern as a rapporteur was to help the Venezuelan people and not to be a catalyst for regime change, which is a matter exclusively in the hands of the Venezuelans themselves.
Accordingly, I consider my mission to have had moderate success and conclude that our priority must be to remove obstacles so that Venezuela can import all the food and medicine that the people require. It is scandalous that when a malaria outbreak occurred in November 2017, Colombia refused to deliver the anti-malaria medicine, which Venezuela had to obtain instead in India. The best policy is to further mediation between the government and the opposition, as former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero did 2016-18. These negotiations should be revived in the name of international solidarity. An international commission of economists including e.g. Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty could help the government get the economy back on track.