Provea: Sanctions, Legitimacy, and Due Process

On December 18, 2014, a day after the announcement of the beginning of negotiations between his country and Cuba regarding the re-establishment of diplomatic and commercial relations, President of the United States Barack Obama signed the “Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act,” which establishes sanctions for officials accused of human rights violations in our country.

According to this initiative the North American president will impose sanctions on individuals who:

1)    Have committed, or are responsible for leading or ordering significant acts of violence or serious abuses of human rights against persons connected with the protests which began in February 4, 2014;

2)    Have ordered or carried-out the arrest, or indictment, of any person because of the  person’s exercise of freedom of expression or freedom of assembly; or

3)    Have knowingly, materially-assisted, sponsored, provided significant financial, material, or technological resources, or goods and services, in support of the actions described above.

The reprisals established by the law are of two types:

a)     Freezing of assets: freezing and prohibition of all transactions of goods and interests on property in the United States;

b)    Exclusion from the United States and revocation of the visa.

In principle, as a human rights organization, we agree with the imposition of sanctions against human rights violators, as part of the access to justice for the victims. But we do not agree with just any sanctions, nor do we agree with sanctions imposed by just any organization.

When a country’s justice system keeps in impunity situations that have been denounced, those affected can resort to the system of international protection, developed by international agreements which are the product of the struggle of peoples for their dignity.

For this purpose the United Nations has promoted protection mechanisms, such as the Human Rights Council, the Special Procedures, and the agencies created through international instruments related to these issues, which are formed by independent experts with a mandate to supervise that those states which form part of the treaties, fulfill their obligations.

Therefore, at the international level, these are the legitimate bodies to review the human rights situation of the country and make recommendation and demands on the Venezuelan government about the behavior of its civil servants.

A second element on which we disagree on the issue of the sanctions promoted by the Obama government has to do with the compliance of due process, an indispensible component of justice.

We should remember that one of the characteristics of human rights is that they are inalienable and do not prescribe.

For this reason the rights of the persons accused of committing crimes and of the civil servants indicted of violating the universal declaration of human rights, must have their human rights respected, and those persons should be investigated, judged, and sentenced through a just and transparent trial that respects due process.

According to the description made so far of the procedures of the sanctions, the minimum guarantees will not be respected. These guarantees are: the right to be informed about the nature and causes of the accusation, the granting of adequate time and resources for the preparation of the defense, to attend the process in person, to be able to defended ones case or be assisted by a defender of one’s choosing, to be processed by a competent, independent, and impartial tribunal, and in case of being declared guilty, to have the possibility of appealing to a superior instance.

We, as a human rights organization, do not believe that ends justify the means, or that an omission or violation, however minor, should be bypassed in order to punish more severe violations.

Because of their interdependence, no human right is above another. Injustice cannot be punished with another injustice. Furthermore, justice for the violation of human rights should be reached through adequate mechanisms and not be reduced to monetary sentences.

On every occasion PROVEA was consulted over this initiative of the north-American Senate, we expressed our reserve on the issue. A third element we always maintained was that these sanctions, even when targeted to specific civil servants, would be used by the government of president Maduro to increase its authoritarian direction.

We have argued that these sanctions could even be used by the government to impose unpopular economic measures that could put the weight of the economic crisis on the backs of workers, under the pretense of a defense of state sovereignty.

For a human rights organization, values are non-negotiable and cannot be handled as negotiable or as collateral. Irregardless of the person, if we do not want to turn a perpetrator into a victim, we must ensure, first, that the procedure under which the person is put on trial by a tribunal fulfils the international standards of justice, and second that the person be judged by bodies legitimated by the national and international systems of protection.

In addition, within its own borders, the North American government has to attend to many denunciations of torture, violations of the right to protest, freedom of expression and integrity, such as it is noted every year by Amnesty International in its reports.

Published in Spanish by PROVEA on March 9, 2015.

Translated by Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde