UN Human Rights Expert: Statement on Venezuela & Ecuador

In the following press release, United Nations Human Rights expert Alfred de Zayas comments on his recent trip to Venezuela, the dangers of politicizing the country's crisis, and the "worrying media campaign" against the government.

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Alfred de Zayas
UN Human Rights expert, Alfred de Zayas. (EFE)
By Alfred de Zayas
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INDEPENDENT EXPERT ON THE PROMOTION OF A DEMOCRATIC AND EQUITABLE INTERNATIONAL ORDER, ALFRED-MAURICE DE ZAYAS

MISSION TO VENEZUELA AND ECUADOR 26 NOVEMBER – 9 DECEMBER 2017

As the first Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order, I have had the opportunity of defining the mandate and the methodology. I have produced six reports for the Human Rights Council and six reports for the General Assembly, all covering issues of international order including tax havens, investor-state-dispute settlement, bilateral investment treaties, free trade agreements, World Bank projects, the International Monetary Fund and its loan conditionalities, disarmament for development, the self-determination of peoples and the reform of the Security Council. The object and purpose of my mandate is laid down in resolution 18/6 of the Human Rights Council, and the parameters of my visit are described in a media statement issued on 27 November 2017[1].

The function of rapporteurs and independent experts is to ask questions, listen to all stakeholders, evaluate documents, and issue constructive recommendations to States.  We come in order to help populations better realize their human rights.  In order to do so, we try to convince governments that it is in their own interest to cooperate with the United Nations, and we offer them our advisory services and technical assistance.  Our function cannot be reduced to condemning governments.

Some observers and civil society activists mistakenly consider rapporteurs as special envoys or plenipotentiaries.  Personally, I have been entrusted with a limited mandate and should not be seen as a super-rapporteur or commissioner.  I cannot usurp the functions of the rapporteurs on freedom of expression, on the right of peaceful assembly and association, on the independence of judges and lawyers, on food, health or on arbitrary detention. Thus, I could not fulfil the expectations of some sectors of civil society, although I did assure my interlocutors that I would transmit their concerns to the pertinent rapporteurs.  I also endeavoured to incorporate some of their concerns into the narrative of my preliminary recommendations to the States.  Where relevant, I will reflect their input in the final report to the submitted to the Council in 2018.

I understand country missions as good will missions. I have listened to hundreds of stakeholders and received a wealth of information from them, which I still must study and digest before I give final form to the reports.  One thing should be clear to you, my approach is not “naming and shaming”, but listening and offering constructive suggestions how to reform legislation, regulations and practices that result in violations of human rights.

I have endeavoured to give a fresh look at the realities of Venezuela and Ecuador, aware of problems of poverty, corruption, scarcity of certain food items and medicines, failure to ensure free, prior and informed consent in the extractive field, inflation, inefficient distribution, inaction by government, repression of dissent.  There are many diagnoses of the problems and many causes.   My intention is to recommend viable solutions, within the limits of my mandate, and my approach has always been result-oriented.

This visit included a very high number of meetings with ministers of both countries, ambassadors, diplomats, church leaders, academics, economists, professors, students, civil society organizations, individual victims, who told heart-rending stories, with relatives of persons in detention, who delivered petitions for transmittal to pertinent actors.  I have made an effort to balance my meetings between different groups and was not only passive in receiving information but proactive in the search of truth and demanding targeted information.

The mission has focused on examining joint efforts to promote social progress and better standards of living consistent with the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the agendas of the world social forums since Porto Alegre.

It bears repeating that the World Summit in September 2005 reaffirmed that “democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.” The Summit Outcome Document also stressed that “democracy, development and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms are interdependent and mutually reinforcing,” and pointed out that “while democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy.”  Accordingly, the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian models deserve attention.

The impacts of social models prevalent in both countries, as well as in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Cuba, on the international order reveal possibilities of greater regional integration and cooperation with international organizations, particularly the United Nations system, which can offer advisory services and technical assistance to States to ensure that social progress is not achieved at the expense of civil liberties. I looked at progress in the field of the elimination of illiteracy, free education from primary schools to university, programmes to reduce extreme poverty, provide housing to the homeless and vulnerable, phase-out privilege and discrimination, expand medical care for all, including the very young and the elderly.

Among the obstacles to the enjoyment of human rights I inquired about the adverse economic measures adopted by several states aimed at directly and indirectly affecting the good functioning of the targeted State or restricting its regulatory space.  The United Nations has condemned unilateral coercive measures for decades, notably since the landmark study of the Sub-commission on Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in the year 2000.  Currency speculation has been one of the preferred tools to destabilize targeted economies, so too the activities of credit rating organizations, which, although they have no democratic legitimacy, do severely impact the financial ability of States to issue bonds and obtain financing.  The escape of national funds into tax havens has negatively impacted the ability of States to meet their financial obligations, and international cooperation is necessary to ensure the repatriation of funds that were illicitly taken out of the respective countries. It also appears that international criminal groups are responsible for theft of public resources, food items and medicines, which have found their way into neighbouring countries, affecting the enjoyment of human rights by populations for whom these resources were originally intended. The UN Office on Drug and Crime can help states tackle some of these problems.  In Venezuela there is an additional problem of sabotage of public property, arson against public buildings, hospitals and other institutions, destruction of electricity and telephone lines, etc., sometimes associated with electoral campaigns.  I am concerned about reports I have received about these acts of sabotage, which could even be considered under the rubric “terrorism”.

I must express my appreciation to the Venezuelan and Ecuadorian governments, which made every effort to answer my questions and provided documentation and statistics, including through power-point presentations, which I am in the process to evaluate and compare with other sources of information.

Civil society organizations also provided very useful documentation, and I met with NGOs, indigenous, individuals and families of persons in detention and persons whose relatives died in connection with the scarcity of medicines.

Regrettably, it appears that a campaign was launched against my mission weeks before my arrival in Caracas and some even called the mission a “fake investigation”.  Similarly, in the social media the credibility of my person was put into question and I was subjected to ad hominem attacks, including insults and all sorts of accusations, even before I had spoken to a single journalist or given a press conference.  This reflects a high level of polarization and refusal to accept that an independent expert is independent, and that he comes to listen and evaluate, not to grandstand and condemn.

There is a worrying media campaign to force observers into a preconceived view, e.g. that there is a “humanitarian crisis” in Venezuela.  We should be wary of hyperbole and exaggeration, bearing in mind that “humanitarian crisis” is a terminus technicus and could be misused as a pretext for military intervention and regime change.

Of course, there should be free flow of food and medicines into Venezuela in order to alleviate the current scarcity of food and medicines.  But such help should be truly humanitarian and should not have ulterior political purposes.  The International Committee of the Red Cross, Caritas and other organizations could surely help in coordinating the importation and distributions of aid.

The situation in Venezuela does not reach the threshold of humanitarian crisis, even though there is scarcity in some sectors, malnutrition, insecurity, anguish.  When in Venezuela I also saw the measures taken by the government to address these problems and I made recommendations how to improve on those measures.  It is unhelpful simply to repeat that there is an unacceptable level of suffering in some sectors. What is crucial is to make constructive proposals.  In order to formulate such proposals, it is important to study the many causes of the problems. It is important to know the impact of sabotage, hoarding, black market activities, induced inflation, and contraband in food and medicines.

Countries must not be isolated and boycotted.  What is crucial is to demonstrate a level of international solidarity through measures of inclusion and a concerted effort through international organizations like UNDP, UNICEF, FAO, UNAIDS, etc. to help.  I specifically requested Venezuela to seek advisory services and technical assistance from the United Nations, and it appears that this call has been listened to[2].  I also recommended that seven other rapporteurs be invited.

UN Missions do not only look at negative aspects.  Rapporteurs can also honour good initiatives and recognize lessons learned.  In the case of Venezuela, I think that the Venezuelan program of building low-cost housing has proven a good thing and have saved millions of persons from poverty and homelessness.  In Ecuador I admire the Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2017-2021 and the initiatives to adopt a United Nations Treaty on the Social Responsibility of Transnational Corporations, and the creation of a United Nations Tax body that would coordinate tax policies with a view to phase out tax competition, tax havens and tax evasion.  The initiative for a financial transactions tax deserves universal support.

I also recognize that both countries are making a considerable effort to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals ahead of the 2030 deadline, and both devote a considerable percentage of national budgets to social services.

Most important is to ensure that social peace is maintained.  To promote dialogue among all sectors of the population, to reach out to the private sector and listen to their proposals.  In both Venezuela and Ecuador, there is a great aspiration for peace and justice, what the Ecuadorians call buen vivir.  This was reflected in the Interparliamentary Union’s 2014 Quito Declaration, which I wish to fully endorse, as I also endorse the CELAC 2014 resolution declaring Latin America and the Caribbean a “zone of peace”.  These are good practices to follow.  Pax optima rerum[3].

[1] http://www.ohchr.org/en/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=22457&LangID=E

[2] http://www.redpres.com/t26946-venezuela-ampliara-cooperacion-con-la-onu-para-fortalecer-abastecimiento-de-medicamentos#sthash.DYaKh5wI.dpbs

[3] Peace is the highest good.  Motto of the Peace of Westphalia, 1648.