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The risks of the “constructive ambiguity” of the UN in Venezuela

The six trade unionists sentenced to 16 years in prison in Venezuela @FliaSOSLibertad

In the Venezuelan non-governmental sphere, a new term has been resonating with concern that would shape the kind of relationship of the United Nations system with the Maduro government. Although there is room to talk about generating a strategy for managing relations with the government, it is also said that the main goal in this relationship is to ensure a liaison mechanism enabling dialogue and intervention in relevant situations before the authorities; in short, to keep a channel of communication open with the government.

This strategy has been identified with the term of “constructive ambiguity”, an extravagant idea of which there is no precision but which clearly highlights its elasticity and malleability in order to achieve its objective so the UN continues in the country. This constructive ambiguity would not be established in any document, but it could be found in decisions taken from the highest level of the United Nations for the Venezuelan case. In this regard, AlertaVenezuela has previously pointed out examples of the differential treatment that the OHCHR carries out in Venezuela compared to its actions in other countries where it has a presence. In fact, the UN system itself has used “the particularity of the Venezuelan crisis” as an argument to try to justify this differential treatment.

But constructive ambiguity has its risks. On August 2, 6 union leaders were convicted to 16 years in prison in a clear escalation of the repression of protest and labor rights in Venezuela. The following day, the General Prosecutor imposed by the illegal national constituent assembly stated that the leaders were convicted of the crimes of conspiracy and criminal association and that the case “was discussed with OHCHR representatives in Caracas, who were satisfied with the information provided to them.” This despite the fact that, three weeks earlier, High Commissioner Turk had submitted a report to the Human Rights Council, in which he referred to the six union leaders as a case of arbitrary detention under the Anti-Terrorism Law, on which the government had not provided explanations to special rapporteurs who had expressed concern about the case. On August 5, the OHCHR ratified the criminalization of the trade unionists through a spokeswoman, following a request made by the newspaper Tal Cual. The OHCHR expressed its position on this case but has not commented on the use of its name by the government to try to validate its abuses.

What might constructive ambiguity mean for victims, ultimately? It could have the consequence that nobody wants to denounce or count on the presence of the OHCHR in Venezuela if it is not capable of confronting the government in its attempts to manipulate the figure of the OHCHR for purposes contrary to human rights. This omissive position not only undermines the confidence of the victims in the UN system, but also increases their own vulnerability before an OHCHR that understands that tension with the government is never useful. So the strategy of constructive ambiguity, even if it is said to the contrary, can have the effect of leaving the victims unprotected.

Silence (in this case, constructive ambiguity) cannot be an option when information is being manipulated. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has exceptions to the confidentiality rule when a government deliberately publishes part of a confidential report. In this case, the ICRC reserves the right to publish the entire report in order to debunk the manipulation and thus avoid any misinterpretation or incompleteness of its observations and recommendations.

Unfortunately, the question of constructive ambiguity is still answered with the logic of political blackmail. Either the presence of the OHCHR is accepted in these terms or they leave the country. It is about imposing a false dilemma. On the contrary: the OHCHR must continue on the ground and has to act accordingly. If there is a tension between the two, they cannot privilege their permanence but the protection of the victims. The “Human Rights Up Front” initiative is not a passing fad, but an ethical demand stemming from horrific failings in the UN system that affected the lives of thousands of innocent people. But to make it a reality, it is fundamental to escape from the reductionist pairing technical assistance-silent diplomacy, a trap in which the OHCHR has conceived itself -for unknown reasons- within Venezuela. Perhaps that is why the letter of understanding with the government is still a mystery.

It is time for a UN system in Venezuela that ponders and dares to speak. A system with more of a political nose and that speaks loud and clear when required: above all, a system that not mind risking its on-site presence as long as its says things by their name. The victims and the country need an OHCHR that is not afraid of strategically putting pressure on the government.