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Venezuela does not need a lower or conditional international presence

High Commissioner with the Foreign Minister of Venezuela. Photo from the public domain, February 27, 2023

Two weeks after the expulsion of the OHCHR staff from Caracas, the question of what the State’s new relationship with this body will be like, and in general with the political, humanitarian, and human rights architecture of the UN on Venezuela, remains undefined. At this level there should be no surprises. International cooperation has been a strategic priority for the Maduro government from the beginning and its contours simply became more evident over time. The State is interested in only one type of international cooperation: that which serves to improve its international image. In a preelectoral context with progressive levels of repression, a conditioned international presence is essential for the government because otherwise it assumes that it will have to openly replicate the Nicaraguan model.

The State is working towards the objective of recovering an international presence tailored to its needs during the current period of the Human Rights Council. Much of what happens there, including the High Commissioner’s oral update and the government’s reactions, will help clear up doubts about the future with the UN system. Meanwhile, the State continues to show consistent signs of wanting to take this objective to its ultimate consequences. In a meeting with the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister noted that “they remain interested in maintaining high-level technical cooperation without political interference or participation.” This means a presence that is prohibited from reporting human rights violations and that, given the precedent with Rocío San Miguel, come back with a lower bar to act. This is an unacceptable scenario that must be categorically rejected by the international community.

Last week there was news of a high-level dialogue initiative with UN officers after the expulsion of the High Commissioner’s team. This move by the State reminds us that its practice of weakening the UN system has been presented as a constant in recent years. It was, in fact, an implicit condition of the installation of the OHCHR in the country through a Letter of Understanding that was never made public. That is to say, the government reserved all this time the discretionary power to end the OHCHR from its very birth. Successive attempts to condition the universal system led the State to threaten, in the middle of the debate at the Human Rights Council, to adopting “measures against the countries that supported the resolution” that finally approved the renewal of the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission. On that occasion, the State expressed for the first time its intention to suspend the work of the OHCHR before the Human Rights Council, which ended up crystallizing in the middle of great uncertainty.

What happens with the expulsion of the High Commissioner’s team and the supposed redefinition of the official strategy with the UN system is nothing more than the continuation of its policy of cooperation as blackmail: a complicit UN system is accepted or the door is permanently closed, with the consequences that each case brings up. This zero-sum game poses a crossroads that the international community should not tolerate because in any scenario it assigns all the costs to thousands of victims who demand an end to repression and accountability.

The main challenge, however, is that the government’s crossroads must be faced with the leadership of the UN, which must appeal to its own history on the ground in crisis contexts. In its Lessons Not Learned report, AlertaVenezuela brought up on the table that during the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka (2007 – 2009) the UN performed its first institutional failure by maintaining a complicit silence in the face of the atrocities committed. This led former Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to commission a study that established that the UN “did not adequately invoke the human rights principles that underlie the system, but instead appeared to do what was necessary to avoid confrontation with the government.” It is the High Commissioner responsibility to prevent the organization from repeating in Venezuela the errors of the experiences of Sri Lanka and Myanmar, making the UN system a political instrument at the service of the power.

While the relationship with the UN remains pending, the State insists on advancing its type of international cooperation, this time in front of the International Criminal Court. On Friday, March 1, after the decision of the Appeals Chamber authorizing the resumption of the investigation into the Venezuela I situation, the State issued its usual Foreign Ministry statement expressing that the ICC “pursues political goals.” In another fragment, it alludes to his relationship with the ICC prosecutor’s office in matters of technical assistance and “appreciates the assistance provided and confirms that it is not necessary or appropriate for the prosecutor’s office to carry out separate or additional investigations.” Prosecutor Tarek William Saab reiterated those words shortly after during a press conference.

It is worth asking what the purpose of the technical assistance proposal will be for a State that denies from the outset the existence of crimes against humanity. It uncovers with this stance its lack of openness – independence and impartiality – to investigate crimes committed within its jurisdiction. As expected from the OHCHR, Venezuela wants tailored criminal technical assistance, “without interference in internal affairs.” The ICC Prosecutor’s Office, as we warned in a previous edition, must be careful of falling at some point in its relationship with the State into the modus operandi of the OHCHR that involved playing into the government’s hands through the carrot of technical assistance; that is, without measuring or evaluating any official action, but rather to distract and slow down the work of monitoring and protection on the ground. The ICC Prosecutor’s Office knows that it must continue with its investigation and that this requires at the same time technical assistance that demands clear and tangible results.

The State is closing the doors to international scrutiny, either directly with less presence on the ground, or with a more conditioned presence. The international community cannot give in to this diplomatic bullying by Venezuela and must respond with more monitoring and protection actions. It is necessary to send a loud and clear message, mainly to Volker Turk, about the need for an OHCHR with a balanced mandate of monitoring and technical assistance within a genuine Country Office structure. At the same time, it must renew and decisively support the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission and collaborate in everything necessary with the work of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. Any other political-institutional arrangement is to allow the Maduro government to have fewer costs in its open repressive escalation and makes a worse crisis context, like the Nicaraguan one, increasingly plausible.