U.N. Human Rights Council Members Call for Venezuela To Engage with Political Opposition   

At the September 29 meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, Paraguay led 29 countries, including the U.S. and the U.K., in presenting a statement that reiterated their “commitment to assist, within the framework of international law, to ensuring that Venezuelans fully enjoyed their civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights.  The disposition of the Holy See to contribute to facilitating dialogue was welcomed.  Concern was expressed at reports of repression of the voices of the opposition and excessive force used against peaceful protesters and journalists.” The statement also urged all parties in Venezuela to hold a “timely and effective dialogue,” either directly or via facilitators, “to preserve peace and safety, to ensure the full respect of human rights, due process, the separation of powers and the consolidation of a representative democracy” and to release political prisoners.[1]

Not surprisingly Venezuela opposed this statement. It alleged that “the statement [was] authored by the United States . . . [and] constituted a brazen interference into the internal affairs of Venezuela, which had been chosen as a new imperial target.”

Cuba, an ally of Venezuela and on behalf of another group of countries, opposed the statement and instead “called for respect for the sovereignty of Venezuela, in recognition of the right to choose one’s own political system, and expressed support for the Government of Venezuela in ensuring the democratic institutions of the country’s functioning.  An appeal was made to all responsible members of the international community to refrain from manifestations of interference in the internal affairs of Venezuela.” In addition, Cuba alleged that “many countries were meddling into the internal affairs of Venezuela, and Cuba would continue to oppose such attempts and to support the Constitutional President Nicolas Maduro.”

Another opponent, Nicaragua, speaking on behalf of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, asserted, “Venezuela had been a victim of an unprecedented media campaign, which aimed to disregard and hide the achievements of the Bolivarian revolution.  Those who promoted that campaign used human rights in a selective and political manner as an excuse to create conditions to destabilize the participative democracy in Venezuela.  The Group demanded full respect for Venezuela’s sovereignty.”

Two other countries spoke on the Venezuela issue. Bolivia said Venezuela “had shown the world its ability to solve differences in compliance with the principle of sovereignty” and “warned against economic sabotage of Venezuela and guarded against violence and destabilization of that country.” Ecuador encouraged the “dialogue [already] underway in Venezuela,” which “should sovereignly and freely arrive at a solution.”

At the opening of this session of the Council on September 13, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein delivered his global update on human rights that included the following lengthy comments about Venezuela:

  • “For the past two and a half years, Venezuela has refused even to issue a visa to my Regional Representative. Its comprehensive denial of access to my staff is particularly shocking in the light of our acute concerns regarding allegations of repression of opposition voices and civil society groups; arbitrary arrests; excessive use of force against peaceful protests; the erosion of independence of rule of law institutions; and a dramatic decline in enjoyment of economic and social rights, with increasingly widespread hunger and sharply deteriorating health-care. My Office will continue to follow the situation in the country very closely, and we will state our concerns for the human rights of Venezuela’s people at every opportunity. Respect for international human rights norms can create a narrow path upon which the Government and the opposition can both tread, to address and resolve peacefully the country’s current challenges – particularly through meaningful dialogue, respecting the rule of the law and the Constitution. My Office stands ready to assist in addressing the current human rights challenges, and I thank the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States for recommending that Venezuela work with my Office on a Truth Commission, which could indeed offer the people an important voice.”[2]

Any casual observer from the U.S. and elsewhere should know that Venezuela has been experiencing exceedingly difficult economic and political problems and that most of its people are desperate for food and other essentials. Its government’s attempt to gain international support by calling and hosting a sparsely attended Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement, as discussed in a prior post, was an embarrassing failure.

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[1] U.N. Hum. Rts. Council, Human Rights Council holds general debate on technical assistance and capacity building in the field of human rights (Sept. 29, 2016); Reuters, Venezuela Urged at U.N. to Seek National Dialogue, Free Inmates, N.Y. Times (Sept. 29, 2016).

[2] Zeid’s global human rights update, U.N. Hum. Rts. Council (Sept. 13, 2016).

U.N. Human Rights Council Is Warned About Human Rights Violations

The U.N. Human Rights Council, which is responsible for strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe, addressing situations of human rights violations and making recommendations on the subject, [1] is in the midst of its 28th regular session at its headquarters in Geneva Switzerland with the session ending on March 27th. [2]

Zeid Ra-al Al Hussein
Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein

At the opening of the session on March 2 the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, [3] set forth his concerns on human rights. Three days later, on March 5th, he commented on his annual report on human rights. This post will examine both of these speeches.

From March 2 through 5, the Council conducted what it called its High Level Segment, in which national leaders addressed the Council on the overall subject of human rights. Two of those national leaders were U.S. Secretary of State john Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Their remarks will be covered in subsequent posts while another post will analyze those remarks and the speeches of the High Commissioner.

High Commissioner’s Speech, March 2nd [4]

The “cruelty and moral bankruptcy of violent extremists . . . continue daily, and we condemn their merciless conduct daily.”

“And yet, if we are not careful, if we are not completely principled and cunning in our collective attempt to defang them, we will, unwittingly and inexcusably, be advancing their interests. How we define the opening chapters of this already agitated century depends heavily on us not becoming like them.  For us, international humanitarian law and international human rights law cannot be trifled with or circumvented, but must be fully observed.”

“It has been 70 years since the great Charter of the [U.N.] was drawn up, and since then States have also written and agreed to a range of strong international treaties, to establish in binding law the legal principles of human rights. They are a distillation of all human experience, all the warnings and screams of our combined human history.” By “ratifying the U.N. Charter, [states] have made a clear commitment [in the words of its Preamble] to ‘reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights; in the dignity and worth of the human person; in the equal rights of men and women, and of nations large and small; and to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties, and other sources of international law, can be maintained; and to promote social progress, and better standards of life in larger freedom.’”

“And yet, with alarming regularity, human rights are disregarded, and violated, sometimes to a shocking degree.”

“States claim exceptional circumstances. They pick and choose between rights. One Government will thoroughly support women’s human rights and those of the LGBT communities, but will balk at any suggestion that those rights be extended to migrants of irregular status. [U.S.?] Another State may observe scrupulously the right to education, but will brutally stamp out opposing political views. [Cuba?] A third State comprehensively violates the political, civil, economic, social and cultural rights of its people, while vigorously defending the ideals of human rights before its peers.”

“In recent months I have been disturbed deeply by the contempt and disregard displayed by several States towards the women and men appointed by [the Council] as [its] independent experts – and also by the reprisals and smear campaigns that are all too frequently exercised against representatives of civil society, including those who engage with the Council and its bodies.  I appeal to all of you, once again, to focus on the substance of the complaint, rather than lash out at the critic – whether that person is mandated by States, is a member of my Office, or is a human rights defender.”

“The overwhelming majority of victims of human rights abuses around the world share two characteristics: Deprivation, and discrimination – whether it is based on race or ethnicity, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, caste or class. From hunger to massacres, sexual violence and slavery, human rights violations are rooted in these hidden, and sometimes not so hidden, factors.”

“They are not spontaneously generated. Most violations of human rights result from policy choices, which limit freedom and participation, and create obstacles to the fair sharing of resources and opportunities.”

“The most powerful instrument in the arsenal we have against poverty and conflict is the weapon of massive instruction. Respect for the human rights of all, justice, education, equality – these are the strongly interlocking elements that will build fair, confident and resilient societies; true development; and a permanent peace.”

“Everybody knows when police use torture, and when tweets are brutally suppressed.  Everybody knows when discrimination means poverty, while corrupt elites gorge on public goods, supported by a corrupt judiciary.  Everybody knows when women are treated like property, and children go hungry, and unschooled, in squalid neighborhoods.”

“Some of the evidence may be hidden. But the reality, in far too many countries, of massacres and sexual violence; crushing poverty; the exclusive bestowal of health-care and other vital resources to the wealthy and well-connected; the torture of powerless detainees [U.S.?]; the denial of human dignity – these things are known. . . . [T]hey are what truly make up a State’s reputation; together with the real steps – if any – taken by the State to prevent abuses and address social inequalities, and whether it honors the dignity of its people.”

“The only real measure of a Government’s worth is . . . the extent to which it is sensitive to the needs – and protects the rights – of its nationals and other people who fall under its jurisdiction, or over whom it has physical control.”

“Some policy-makers persuade themselves that their circumstances are exceptional, creating a wholly new reality unforeseen by the law. This logic is abundant around the world today:  ‘I arrest arbitrarily and torture because a new type of war justifies it. I spy on my citizens because the fight against terrorism requires it. I don’t want new immigrants, or I discriminate against minorities, because our communal identity is being threatened now as never before. I kill without any form of due process, because if I do not, others will kill me.’ “

“I must remind you of the enduring and universal validity of the international human rights treaties that your States wrote and ratified. In reality, neither terrorism, nor globalization, nor migration are qualitatively new threats that can justify overturning the legal foundations of life on Earth.  They are not new.”

“At a time of intensifying global anxiety, I believe the people of the world are crying out for profound and inspiring leadership equal to the challenges we face.  We must therefore renew, by the strongest action, our dedication to the reality of inalienable and universal human rights, to end discrimination, deprivation, and the seemingly inexhaustible litany of conflicts and crises that generate such terrible, and needless, suffering.”

“What will become of us, of our world, if we ignore our treaties and principles? Can we be so stupid as to repeat scenes from the twentieth century, punctured as it was by such awful inhumanity?  You must not make it so.  This is principally your burden, and ours.  Together, if we succeed in turning the corner, in improving our global condition, we can then say the screams of history and of the millions upon millions of victims, have been heard, finally.  Let us make it so.”

High Commissioner’s Speech, March 5th [5]

The High Commissioner was “appalled by the massive suffering ISIL provokes [in Syria, Iraq and Libya]: from the murders, torture, rape and sale of children . . . ; to mass beheadings; burning people alive in cages; seemingly genocidal attacks on ethnic and religious groups; the obliteration of due process; torture; deprivation of income and every kind of service and resource; recruitment of children; the destruction of elements of the cultural heritage of humanity; and, not least, particularly vicious and comprehensive attacks on the rights of women and girls.” [Similar horrible actshe said, were perpetrated in Nigeria by Boko Haram and in Yemen and Somalia by other groups.]

“My Office strongly supports efforts by States around the world to prevent and combat terrorism, and to ensure that the perpetrators of terrorism, as well as their financiers and suppliers of arms, are brought to justice.”

“Terrorist attacks [,however,] cannot destroy the values on which our societies are grounded – but laws and policies can. Measures that build what has been termed the ‘national security state’ – such as arbitrary or prolonged detention; torture and ill-treatment; massive surveillance that contravenes the right to privacy; unfair trials; discriminatory policing; and the abusive use of legislation to curb legitimate rights to peaceful protest and to freedom of expression – are human rights violations. They generate legitimate resentment, harm social cohesion, and undermine the essential values of the international community.”

“There is real danger that in their reaction to extremist violence, opinion-leaders and decision-makers will lose their grasp of the deeper principles that underpin the system for global security which States built 70 years ago to ward off the horror of war. The fight against terror is a struggle to uphold the values of democracy and human rights – not undermine them. . . [C]ounter-terrorist operations that are non-specific, disproportionate, brutal and inadequately supervised violate the very norms that we seek to defend. They also risk handing the terrorists a propaganda tool – thus making our societies neither free nor safe. The use of torture, neglect of due process and collective punishment do not make the world any safer.”

“To be truly effective, any response to extremist violence must be targeted, proportionate, and legal. Military campaigns, financial sanctions and attempts to staunch the inflow of weapons – such as the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty – may be part of the solution.”

“But other actions are needed to stem the root causes that feed into these conflicts. We must acknowledge that large numbers of people do not join such extremist movements en masse because they have been suddenly and inexplicably hypnotized. Extremism – however repugnant – is nurtured by ideology, and by alienation fed by years of tyranny, corruption, repression, discrimination, deprivation and neglect of the legitimate rights of communities.”

He especially was “disturbed by a continuing trend of harsh restrictions on public freedoms by States across all regions. I refer to military crackdowns on demonstrations; harsh sentencing of human rights defenders, journalists and dissidents in politically motivated trials; brutal punishments for simple tweets; censorship; oppressive and illegitimate regulations of civil society movements; the use of new technologies to stifle human rights in the virtual space; and new security laws that are unjustly broad, endangering civil liberties and human rights.”

“And yet the great pillar of every resilient and participative society is freedom of expression. Freedom to formulate the ideas of equality led to the overthrow of colonialism, and has powered every movement against discrimination and injustice. To immunize against dictatorship or totalitarianism, to undo discrimination, to drive justice and accountability, we need freedom of expression – full and free and far-reaching. There is no good governance without free speech.”

The High Commissioner’s speech included specific criticisms of many countries. About the U.S., he said: “In the United States, the Senate report on torture in the context of counter-terrorism operations is courageous and commendable, but profoundly disturbing. For a country that believes so strongly in human rights to have swiftly abandoned their fundamentals at a time of crisis is as astonishing as it is deplorable. And yet few other countries have had the courage to likewise publicly investigate and publicly admit to rights abuses resulting from counter-terror operations – and many should.”

“Under international law, the [Senate] report’s recommendations must be followed through with real accountability. There is no prescription for torture, and torture cannot be amnestied. It should also lead to examination of the institutional and political causes that led the US to violate the absolute prohibition on torture, and measures to ensure this can never recur.”

“As the Senate report clearly demonstrates, the neglect of due process, use of torture and collective punishments that were permitted by US officials in the post-9/11 context did not make the world – or the US – any safer. On the contrary, they increased the threat of terrorism, by feeding into the grievances on which it thrives. The orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo are a recruitment tool for ISIL and other groups. As former President George W. Bush has conceded, Guantanamo became, I quote, ‘a propaganda tool for our enemies.’”

The High Commissioner also expressed regret at the renewed use of the death penalty in a number of countries – Jordan, Pakistan, and Indonesia – and “the continuing extensive use” of the death penalty in China, Iraq, Iran and the U.S.

In conclusion, he said, “It is the people who sustain government, create prosperity, heal and educate others and pay for governmental and other services with their labour. It is their struggles that have created and sustain States. Governments exist to serve the people – not the other way round.”

“Governments that protect human rights, combat discrimination and deprivation, and which are accountable to their people are more prosperous and more secure than those which stifle rights, hamper opportunities, and repress freedoms. When people’s rights are respected – when they are accorded dignity, have opportunities to express their skills and are given a fair share of resources – they form resilient societies. When they are wronged, their rights betrayed, there is a constant threat of turmoil. Respect for the human rights of the people is not destabilizing; but driving legitimate opposition underground is.”

 Conclusion

Speeches about human rights in international fora often are replete with platitudes. These speeches by the High Commissioner are not. While he condemns the horrible actions of ISIL and Boko Haram, these groups are not represented at the Council. Instead the countries that are represented are often the victims of their evil deeds. Therefore, the High Commissioner spent most of his time chastising the latter countries for failing to live up to the human rights commitments they have made as they are combatting terrorism. Moreover, these speeches address some countries by name and point our their failings.

In a later post we will look again at these speeches in the context of the issues of human rights in the process of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

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[1] The Human Rights Council has 47 member states elected by the U.N. General Assembly. Currently both the U.S. and Cuba are such members.

[2] Materials about the Council’s 28th session are available on its website.

[3] The High Commissioner for Human Rights is the principal human rights official of the U.N. and the head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, which “spearheads the [U.N.’s] human rights efforts . . . by strengthening international human rights mechanisms; enhancing equality and countering discrimination; combating impunity and strengthening accountability and the rule of law; integrating human rights in development and in the economic sphere; widening the democratic space; and early warning and protection of human rights in situations of conflict, violence and insecurity.”

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan was unanimously elected the High Commissioner by the U.N. General Assembly in June 2014. His many years of diplomatic service include being Jordan’s Ambassador to the U.S., his country’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. and his serving as an officer of the International Criminal Court. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from The Johns Hopkins University and a Doctorate in Philosophy from Cambridge University.

[4] Al Hussein, Opening Speech to the High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council, U.N. (Mar. 2, 2015); UN Human rights Council, Human Rights council opens twenty-eighth session (Mar. 2, 2015); Schlein, UN Council: Rights Being Violated to ‘Shocking Degree,’ VOA (Mar. 2, 2015).

[5] Al Hussein, Opening Statement, Item 2, High Commissioner’s Annual Report, U.N. (Mar. 5, 2015); Member States must enforce human rights amid rising tide of extremism—UN rights chief , UN News (Mar. 5, 2015); Human rights principles in struggle against extremism—Zaid, U.N. (Mar. 5, 2015).