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Bolivarian fury expels OHCHR from Venezuela, and now what?

EFE/ Rayner Peña

A few days after the arrest-disappearance of human rights defender Rocío San Miguel, the Maduro government added the word “disappeared” to the list of terms censored in the media. It is the same list that prevents talking about Alex Saab and that led to exile several journalists who investigated the connection between Saab and the corruption plot in the importation of food for the Local Supply and Production Committees (CLAP).

The UN human rights system fueled Bolivarian fury in just 48 hours, when, on the one hand, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva published a tweet in which expressed “deep concern” about the situation of San Miguel, stating that “her whereabouts remain unknown, which could qualify her detention as a forced disappearance.” On the other hand, the following day, the United Nations special rapporteur on the right to food, Michael Fakhri, gave a press conference at the end of his official visit to Venezuela in which he assured that CLAP became “a system of charitable handouts and have become susceptible to political patronage.”

Having touched on two such sensitive issues for the government explains, but does not justify, the disproportionate reaction that led to the expulsion of the OHCHR staff based in Caracas, giving them a period of 72 hours.

The order of the decision is, first, immediate departure, second, demand that the OHCHR retract its “insolent statements” and third, review the terms of the letter of understanding that allowed the OHCHR to operate with a limited presence in the country. Once the first step has been completed, it remains to be seen what will happen with the other two and what can be expected later.

The OHCHR spokesperson expressed that the Office “regrets” the government’s decision and that they continued to talk with this and other actors, based on the “guiding principles” of the organization. This being the case, retracting what was said about San Miguel does not seem to be on the table. On the other hand, the rapporteur on the right to food is an independent expert, so the OHCHR cannot be expected to reformulate his statements.

The most likely scenario then is to maintain the OHCHR monitoring operation from outside Venezuela and end the technical assistance, at least in the way it had been carried out. Furthermore, the review of the letter of understanding, whose text, we insist, has always been kept secret, could mean the end of the rare visits of the special procedures to the country. By the time the OHCHR presence in Venezuela began, at least eleven special procedures had requested to visit the country. The visits, however, began with invitations to procedures that were not on that list but that could serve to support the government’s political agenda, as in the case of the mandate on unilateral coercive measures. The short list of accommodating visits is coming to an end, while the commitment remains to allow other procedures to visit the country, on issues such as torture, disappearances, freedom of expression, judicial independence. The moment is opportune for Bolivarian fury to try to close that door.

For now, this is a defeat for a government that dedicated significant resources to making people believe that it was cooperating with the international system for the protection of human rights. The narrative of cooperation is crumbling, even though, as the chancellor himself acknowledged in his announcement, the government tried “again and again to redirect the actions” of the OHCHR in Venezuela.

Additionally, it remains to be seen, on the one hand, if the High Commissioner decides to raise the tone and, on the other, how the government will react to the next OHCHR reports, taking into account that they are produced by mandate of the Human Rights Council, based on resolution A/HRC/RES/51/29. An oral update is scheduled for March 19, 2024, and a “comprehensive report (…) that includes a detailed assessment of the implementation of the recommendations formulated in the Council’s previous reports” is due for the 56th session (June – July 2024). Anything less than what has been produced so far would be unacceptable.

In this context, the international community must convey a clear message to the OHCHR that there is no room to revise the terms of reference of the letter of understanding. In addition, it must support more strongly the renewal of the mandates of mechanisms for monitoring the situation in Venezuela, both that of the OHCHR and that of the Fact-Finding Mission. Finally, considering that everything indicates that the government intends to once again rely on isolation to evade international scrutiny, it cannot be played into its hands; on the contrary, the active presence of the diplomatic corps and other international actors is more important than ever.