Government and NGOs Clash Over UN Examination of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Timothy M. Gill and David Smilde

The United Nations Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights’ examination of Venezuela last week gave occasion to a long-brewing confrontation between the Maduro government and Venezuela’s non-governmental organizations.

On June 2, representatives from four Venezuelan NGOs presented information before the UN Committee regarding Venezuela’s commitments to the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights. The four representatives included Magdymar León (Avesa), Leila Swan (Human Rights Watch), Rafael Uzcátegui (Provea), and Francisco Valencia (Codevida).

The four representatives respectively drew attention to discrimination against women in regards to sexual and reproductive rights; medical shortages; the acute economic situation, the unwillingness of the Venezuelan government to dialogue with all sectors of society, rising levels of poverty; and difficulties obtaining medicine and the monolithic promotion of socialism in schools and universities. In the lead-up to the examination, over 50 NGOs sent statements to the UN Committee regarding Venezuelan policies (see human rights coalition Foro por la Vida’s report here).

On June 3, the UN Committee subjected a Venezuelan delegation headed by Ricardo Menéndez, the Venezuelan Minister of Planning and Knowledge, to examination. Before taking questions from the committee, Menéndez drew attention to several changes that had taken place since the 1998 election of former President Hugo Chávez. Among them, Menéndez pointed out that that the Venezuelan government had prioritized social expenditures, which had rose from 36% to nearly 62% of its budget.

He drew attention to improved economic indicators, including diminishing poverty rates, the creation of over 4.6 million jobs, and wage growth – all this despite an “economic war” being waged against Venezuela. Menéndez also stated that the Venezuelan government had enacted policies to combat violence against women, reduce child malnutrition, and reduce infant mortality rates.

In response, several committee members applauded Venezuelan efforts to prioritize human rights as well as its progressive constitutional reforms. However, several members of the Committee questioned Venezuela’s its efforts to fight corruption, its policies towards indigenous peoples, women’s rights issues, and remaining unemployment levels.

The Venezuelan delegation responded that the government had established several committees to address both indigenous and women’s rights. These committees were established to identify and protect ancestral, indigenous lands, as well as to combat violence against women. In addition, the delegation stated that they had 50 specific courts and 108 prosecutors designated to deal with issues of violence against women. The Venezuelan delegation also stated that the government was currently pursuing 920 cases of corruption.

In a second round of questioning, Committee experts asked the Venezuelan delegation about medical shortages, rising poverty rates, freedom of speech issues, and early pregnancies.

In response, the Venezuelan delegation asserted that it had a established a public health network that does not discriminate regarding who can receive care, and it also stated that the government was implementing plans to reduce early pregnancies, including training teachers in sexual and reproductive health. The Venezuelan functionaries stated that the minimum wage was continually raised and that the price of the food basket was always kept below it. They also argued that civil society groups freely publish their views and routinely speak out, and can freely enjoy freedom of movement.

The committee’s queries regarding the meaning of “economic war” provided the most memorable exchange of the examination. Committee member Rodrigo Uprimny objected that “when there is progress it is due to the revolution. But when there are problems you blame them on an ‘economic war.’” Minister Menedez asked the Committee to be respectful and “not banalize the economic war which is manifest in the manipulations of international markets to drive down the price of crude oil, destabilize the national currency, and increase Venezuela’s ‘country risk.’”

The delegation went on to state that the economic war included “all the attacks that the country had suffered, which was manifested in the flight of capital, trafficking and contraband, and destruction of property.” The delegation pointed out that their government remained committed to ensuring economic prosperity for its citizens and that human development indicators had remained steady.

The Committee also asked for information concerning maternal mortality, suggested there needed to be improvements regarding corruption and said many prosecutors and judges did not appear to act independent of government pressure.

In its response, the delegation stated that it had established Child Jesus Mission to attend to prenatal and postnatal care for women, and that hypertension and unsafe abortions contributed to maternal death in Venezuela. The delegation also stated that it held competitive exams for all officials, and, although it has continually been ranked poorly by Transparency International, it did not recognize the legitimacy of the methods deployed by this group to examine government corruption.

Following these meetings, Venezuelan government leaders, including President Nicolás Maduro and National Assembly President Diosdado Cabello, lambasted several civil society groups and accused them of receiving funding specifically for criticizing the Venezuelan government. President Maduro stated that “these bandits speak ill of the country and receive thousands of dollars for doing so.” Cabello had previously denounced a representative from Provea on his weekly television program for planning to travel to Switzerland to attend the UN meeting and criticize the Venezuelan government.