Venezuela Defends its Human Rights Record at Universal Periodic Review

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

On November 1 Venezuela’s human rights record was under scrutiny at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva. The review was part of the second cycle of UPR sessions. Venezuela was previously evaluated in October 2011.

The government delegation faced tough questioning by several of the 103 countries participating. And the final recommendations were highly critical of the its record over the past five years.

The Universal Periodic Review of the United Nations Human Rights Office of the high Commissioner is a “State-driven process, under the auspices of the Human Rights Council, which provides the opportunity for each State to declare what actions they have taken to improve human rights situations in their countries and to fulfil their human rights obligations.”

Member States and NGO’s (called “stakeholders” in the UN reports) are asked to present reports on the human rights situation of the country, other member States ask questions, and the UN Council of Human Rights makes recommendations to the evaluated State.

The evaluated State can either accept or “note” these recommendations. Venezuela received a record 276 recommendations from 103 member States. The final report by the UPR summarizing those recommendations has still not been published.

Before the session the Venezuelan government presented its report to the UPR defending its human track record. It also sent a heavy weight delegation to the session. Forty government officials traveled to Genève, including Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez, Penitentiary System Minister Iris Valera, Health Minister Luisa Melo, and even one of the pro-government rectors of the National Elections Council, Sandra Oblitas.

The government delegation made a highly political defense of the human rights situation in Venezuela based on the idea that Venezuela in constructing a “new model of human rights” that should be imitated by the rest of the world. In her intervention Delcy Rodríguez said that “The human rights model in Venezuela is absolutely irreversible.” She explained that Venezuela’s model is framed in the struggle against the “Imperial model” which “had caused the main human tragedies of human history.”

The Foreign Minister repeated the official government’s discourse claiming that “despite the economic war, the non-conventional war, the attempts to destabilize, in Venezuela we maintain our human rights model.” She argued that “the war waged against Venezuela has lately intensified, the United States has selected our country as an objective of the Empire.” Rodríguez ended her presentation by claiming that “We can say today that, on the footsteps of our Liberator Simón Bolívar, the most perfect government is that which produces the most happiness possible, the most social security, and the most political stability; and that with the legacy of Comandante Chávez, and together with our working class (obrero) president, Nicolás Maduro Moros, there is no way that we will go back, not even one centimeter, in the advance towards that universality and irreversibility of human rights in Venezuela.”

Other government officials made more specific defenses of several aspects of the human rights situation in the country. The Minister of Health said that Venezuela had reached the unprecedented rate of one doctor for every 250 inhabitants. Blanca Eekhout, Minister for Gender Equality, said that Venezuela’s extreme poverty had decrease from 10.8% in 1998 to 4.4% today.

Penitentiary System Minister, Iris Valera, claimed that the government has built 29 new prisons in the las 17 years and that the overcrowding problem in prisons has been greatly reduced. The Minister of Indigenous Populations, Aloha Núñes, spoke of the inclusion of indigenous communities in “adequate exploitation of mining resources.”

Hanthony Coello, Interior and Justice Minister, said that his government has “guaranteed the rights of peaceful demonstrations in the last 17 years.” However, he also explained that the opposition protests called guarimbas, were not peaceful as they had been infiltrated by “paramilitary practices motivated by leaders of the opposition.”

Human rights NGOs, including the Comité de Familiares de las Víctimas del 27 de Febrero (COFAVIC), the Programa Venezolano de Educación Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA), and the Centro de Derechos Humanos of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (CDH-UCAB), contested the government’s picture of the human rights situation in the country. These reports by the human rights organizations were summarized in a document by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. But observers also noted that the number NGOs mentioned in the document had been inflated with several organizations supporting the Venezuelan government position, including organization from Cuba and Bolivia.

In the UN report, COFAVIC argues against the government’s security initiative, the Operaciones de Liberación del Pueblo (OLP). The NGO says that alleged torture and police abuse cases have increased significantly and recommended that all security initiatives should be de-militarizes. PROVEA claims that the government has not compiled with the recommendations of the previous 2011 UPR cycle. Several NGO express concern for the lack of independence of the judiciary system. Opposition leaders Leopoldo López and Rosmit Mantilla are mentioned as cases of political prisoners. An extensive section of the report deals with numerous allegations of the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.

The recommendations made by member States show a significant increase in number from those made in 2011 (147 to 276 made in this evaluation.) United States and Canada recommended the immediate liberation of political prisoners. Canada also recommended the suspension of the OLPs. Italy, Austria, and Australia recommended Venezuela takes action against mistreatment of citizens by State security forces. Germany asked for the restoration of the independence and impartiality of the justice system. Uruguay said it is essential that Venezuela returns to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Only the United States and Brazil asked the government to respect the right to vote in a recall referendum. A number of countries, including Uruguay, Finland, United States, Sweden, Spain and United Kingdom, asked the Venezuelan government to accept the visit to the country of independent human rights experts, including the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Husein. Allies of Venezuela, such as Nicaragua recommended the government to continue pushing for dialogue, “as it has done so far.”  

The Venezuelan government chose to address the review head-on with a sense of normalcy and confidence. Before it began, President Maduro predicted that UPR session would go smoothly for the Venezuelan delegation. “Tomorrow we have the UPR in Geneva…We have fulfilled all the requirements made five years ago (in the first cycle) and I believe that we will do very well in the UPR,” declared Maduro the day before the session.

The Venezuelan government will have until March next year to officially respond to the recommendations. However, Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez has declared that Venezuela will “accept most of the recommendations.”

Spinning the harsh critiques from the participating member states, Rodríguez argued that the record number of recommendations received by Venezuela were “a recognition of the human rights model implemented in Venezuela since the Bolivarian Revolution, that we are in the right path and the recommendations are, in fact, to push forward (in this model).”

Like Rodríguez, government media is describing the UPR as a huge success for the “human rights model” of the Bolivarian Revolution with headlines such as “Venezuela showed with numbers progressive advances in human rights” and “Venezuela is at the vanguard in the doctrine of individual and collective right.”

Local human rights organizations disagree and claim that Venezuela “failed” the UPR test. Carlos Nieto, coordinator of the NGO Una Ventana a la Libertad, wrote in a piece reposted in the PROVEA web page that the numbers shown by the Venezuelan delegation are not trustworthy. As an example he claims that that Venezuela has built only 5 prisons, and not 29, in the last 17 years. He also questioned that numerous groups, such as the “Baseball Association of Bolivia” and the “Cuban Federation of Road Sports,” which presented reports to the UPR as human rights stakeholders. The NGO Observatorio Venezolano de Prisiones also argued that most of the numbers on the prison system provided by Minister Valera were bogus.

Minerva Vitti, chief editor The Revista SIC, a publication of the Jesuit linked research center Centro Gumilla, published an article entitled “The lies in the UPR and the eternal wait of the indigenous people.” She contested the assertions by the government delegation about advances in the situation of indigenous people in the country arguing that even as there has been progress in the recognition of indigenous identity, the Venezuelan State has failed to consult with them sensitive issues such as the proposed Mining Arch planned by the government for the south of the country.