UN Expert: Crisis in Venezuela Is Economic, Not Humanitarian

Having visited the country in late 2017, UN Expert Alfred de Zayas reports on what he found and counters some of the arguments used against Venezuela.


The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published today, 30 August 2018, the long-delayed report of the Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, Alfred-Maurice de Zayas (United States of America, Switzerland) on his visit to Venezuela and Ecuador form 26 November to 9 December 2017.

Professor de Zayas was the first UN rapporteur to visit Venezuela since 1996.  He is also one of the few rapporteurs to have recently visited Ecuador. The mission aimed at examining the social and economic models prevalent in ALBA countries so as to formulate constructive proposals to improve the human rights situation and issue pragmatic recommendations how to solve economic and political tensions. He conducted the mission pursuant to the terms of reference of the international order mandate.  Bearing in mind that the expert is not a “super rapporteur” or a plenipotentiary, his mission could not focus on violations of freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary, or right to peaceful assembly and association. Nevertheless, the expert received and transmitted pertinent petitions to the rapporteurs concerned and recommended to the Venezuelan government that other rapporteurs be invited.

Reports by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have issued reports on certain democratic and human rights deficits, constitutional and para-institutional problems, drawing attention on the economic crisis affecting Venezuela, characterized by hyperinflation, scarcity of foods and medicines, and mass emigration.

In his report the independent expert expresses the view that the raison d’être of the Human Rights Council and of UN rapporteurs is to help all peoples realize their human rights in larger freedom. Therefore, his task consisted in evaluating the situation objectively with a view to helping all the peoples concerned, without discrimination, offering them the advisory services and technical assistance of UN agencies and effective relief through humanitarian assistance. His priority was not and could not have been “naming and shaming”, but rather listening and mediating.

Prior to his visit the independent expert studied all relevant reports and double-checked their sources. During the visit, with the professional assistance of UNDP, he endeavoured to meet with as many stakeholders as he could reach, receiving all information and listening to all sides pursuant to the principle audiatur et altera pars. He met with members of the opposition, National Assembly, chamber of commerce (Fedecameras), opposition ngo’s, pro-government ngo’s, churches, diplomats, professors, academics, students, families of detainees and victims of violence during the “guarimbas”.

The report looks for the causes of the economic crisis, considering the evidence proffered for the main opposition argument that the socialist model has failed and that currently there are too many ideologues and not enough technocrats in government.  The expert proposes a more nuanced view, observing that among the multiple factors affecting the crisis one must also consider 1) the century-old dependence on the sale of petroleum and the devastating effect of the sharp fall of oil prices , 2) the cumulative effect of 19 years of economic war conducted against the socialist regime, comparable to the measures adopted 1970-73 against the government of Salvador Allende in Chile and in the 1980’s against the government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, 3) the financial blockade, comparable to that suffered by Cuba since 1960, and 4) the effects of the economic sanctions imposed since 2015, which have immensely aggravated the scarcity of foods and medicines, caused serious delays in distribution, and triggered the phenomenon of mass emigration to neighbouring countries.

In paragraph 34 of the report, the independent expert writes: “While arms sales embargoes may be justifiable against some countries, especially to facilitate dialogue and peacemaking, economic sanctions that hurt innocent populations contravene the spirit and letter of the Charter of the United Nations. Over decades, United Nations bodies have condemned unilateral coercive measures, notably in the landmark 2000 study of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, documenting the adverse human rights impact of those measures.”

In paragraph 35 he continues: “On 23 March 2018, the Human Rights Council condemned unilateral coercive measures by a vote of 28 in favour, 15 against and 3 abstentions, because economic sanctions demonstrably cause death, aggravate economic crises, disrupt the production and distribution of food and medicine, constitute a push factor generating emigration, and lead to violations of human rights. The refusal of Colombia to deliver anti-malaria medicine that had been ordered to combat an outbreak in November 2017, as well as the absence of condemnation from the international community, entails joint responsibility for the aggravation of the crisis. In that case, the anti-malaria medicine had to be imported from India.”

In paragraph 36: “The effects of sanctions imposed by Presidents Obama and Trump and unilateral measures by Canada and the European Union have directly and indirectly aggravated the shortages in medicines such as insulin and anti-retroviral drugs. To the extent that economic sanctions have caused delays in distribution and thus contributed to many deaths, sanctions contravene the human rights obligations of the countries imposing them. Moreover, sanctions can amount to crimes against humanity under Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. An investigation by that Court would be appropriate, but the geopolitical submissiveness of the Court may prevent this.”

In paragraph 37. “Modern-day economic sanctions and blockades are comparable with medieval sieges of towns with the intention of forcing them to surrender. Twenty-first century sanctions attempt to bring not just a town, but sovereign countries to their knees. A difference, perhaps, is that twenty-first century sanctions are accompanied by the manipulation of public opinion through ‘fake news’, aggressive public relations and a pseudo-human rights rhetoric so as to give the impression that a human rights ‘end’ justifies the criminal means. There is not only a horizontal juridical world order governed by the Charter of the United Nations and principles of sovereign equality, but also a vertical world order reflecting the hierarchy of a geopolitical system that links dominant States with the rest of the world according to military and economic power. It is the latter, geopolitical system that generates geopolitical crimes, hitherto in total impunity….”  He concludes:  “Economic sanctions kill.”

In paragraph 40 the independent expert calls for a renewal of dialogue between the government and the opposition parties. “There is nothing more in keeping with the letter and spirit of the Charter of the United Nations than mediation. For two years, the former Spanish Prime Minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero (quoted in full in annex IV), with the support of the Vatican, headed a negotiating team in the Dominican Republic which facilitated talks between the Government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and the opposition. Negotiations advanced to a balanced document entitled “Agreement of Democratic Coexistence” (quoted in full in annex III) that should have been signed by all sides on 7 February 2018. The Government signed, but, as was reported, a telephone call from Colombia frustrated the two-year negotiating process with the instruction: “Don’t sign”. Some believe that certain countries do not want to see a peaceful solution of the Venezuelan conflict and prefer to prolong the suffering of the Venezuelan people, expecting that the situation will reach the “humanitarian crisis” threshold and trigger a military intervention.”

The Independent expert is concerned about the level of polarization and disinformation that surrounds every narrative about Venezuela.  In paragraph 42 he notes: “A disquieting media campaign seeks to force observers into a preconceived view that there is a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. An independent expert must be wary of hyperbole, bearing in mind that ‘humanitarian crisis’ is a terminus technicus that can be misused as a pretext for military intervention…”

In paragraph 43: “International solidarity with the Venezuelan people should facilitate the free flow of food and medicines in order to alleviate the current scarcity. Help should be genuinely humanitarian and not pursue ulterior political purposes. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Caritas and other organizations could assist in coordinating the importation and distribution of aid; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation could help wipe out malaria in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Thanks to UNDP, the Independent Expert was able to convene a meeting with all the United Nations agencies and other regional organizations in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela with a view to coordinating assistance, an initiative that bore fruit shortly thereafter.”

In paragraph 45: “The “crisis” in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is an economic crisis, which cannot be compared with the humanitarian crises in Gaza, Yemen, Libya, the Syrian Arab Republic, Iraq, Haiti, Mali, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Somalia, or Myanmar, among others. It is significant that when, in 2017, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela requested medical aid from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the plea was rejected, because it ‘is still a high-income country … and as such is not eligible’. During his mission, the Independent Expert discussed the issues of food and medicine scarcity with experts from FAO and obtained pertinent data from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The December 2017 FAO report and the March 2018 report list food crises in 37 countries. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is not among them.”

The report recalls in paragraph 29 that the “Charter of the United Nations rests on the philosophy of multilateralism, a commitment to international cooperation, and the sovereign equality of States. Countries must not be isolated and boycotted, but helped in strengthening their democratic institutions. Over the past sixty years, non-conventional economic wars have been waged against Cuba, Chile, Nicaragua, the Syrian Arab Republic, and the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela in order to make their economies fail, facilitate regime change and impose a neo-liberal socioeconomic model. In order to discredit selected governments, failures in the field of human rights are maximized so as to make violent overthrow more palatable. Human rights are being ‘weaponized’ against rivals. Yet, human rights are the heritage of every human being and should never be instrumentalized as weapons of demonization. Instead, measures of inclusion are necessary, as is reliance on the expertise of international organizations…

In paragraph 30 the expert notes: “The principles of non-intervention and non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign States belong to customary international law and have been reaffirmed in General Assembly resolutions, notably 2625 (XXV) and 3314 (XXIX), and in the 1993 Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action. Article 32 of the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, adopted by the General Assembly in 1974, stipulates that no State may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights.”  In paragraph 31 he highlights chapter 4, article 19, of the Charter of the OAS, which stipulates that “No State or group of States has the right to intervene, directly or indirectly, for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other State. The foregoing principle prohibits not only armed force but also any other form of interference or attempted threat against the personality of the State or against its political, economic, and cultural elements”.

The independent expert concludes in paragraph 62 that “The solution to the Venezuelan crisis lies in good faith negotiations between the Government and the opposition, an end to the economic war, and the lifting of sanctions. In pursuance of the principle of international solidarity (see A/HRC/35/35), United Nations agencies should provide advisory services and technical assistance to the Government. The Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence may wish to address the interplay between State crime and international order, both from the positive and the natural law perspective, and formulate recommendations concerning reparations due to populations affected by sanctions and economic war. Rich States should facilitate humanitarian assistance in coordination with neutral organizations such as ICRC, the priority being how to effectively help Venezuelans while respecting State sovereignty.”

Among his recommendations the expert encouraged the Venezuelan authorities to “(a) Continue efforts at dialogue with opposition parties, revive the negotiations hosted in the Dominican Republic by the former prime minister of Spain, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, and promote national reconciliation by releasing detainees and granting commutations of sentence; (b) Invite other special procedures mandate holders to visit the country, besides the Special Rapporteurs on unilateral coercive measures and on the right to development, who have already been invited. The Special Rapporteurs on food, on health, on adequate housing, on the independence of judges and lawyers, the Independent Expert on foreign debt, the Special Rapporteurs on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and other experts would offer valuable expertise…

Bearing in mind that the Independent Expert was subjected to considerable pre-mission, during-mission and post-mission ad hominem attacks, he recommended in paragraph 68 that the Human Rights Council: “(a) Reaffirm the Code of Conduct for Special Procedures Mandate Holders, particularly paragraphs 3 and 6 concerning their independence and the commitment to evaluate all information in good faith…; (b) Defend experts against ad hominem attacks, intimidation and threats.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Venezuelanalysis editorial staff.