With Human Rights Plan, Maduro Government Positions Itself on Difficult Terrain

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde

On July 14 the Venezuelan government organized a public presentation of a draft of the four year Human Rights Plan being formulated by the National Human Rights Council. The latter was created by President Nicolas Maduro in April 2014 as part of the dialogue process spurred by the cycle of protests that year.

The Council is headed by the Vice-President Jorge Arreaza and includes, among other high government officials, the Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, the Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz, the head of the Supreme Justice Tribunal Gladys Gutiérrez, the Minister of Defense Vladimir Padrino López, and the Minister of Interior Gustavo González López.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are represented in the Council by Laura Roldán of the Red de Apoyo por la Justicia y la Paz, and by María Eugenia Russian of FUNDALATIN.

During his presentation of the draft, Vice-President Arreaza assured that the document includes the recommendations and suggestions made during the periodic United Nations evaluations. 

A press note from the Council says the initiative will include “assemblies, workshops, forums, [in which] diverse sector of the country will be able to participate.” Arreaza did make a direct invitation to all Venezuelan human rights organizations to participate in the discussions.

“I invite all the NGOs to come and join this [discussion]…Let’s put aside our prejudices and debate,” said Arreaza.

Several human rights organizations immediately welcomed the invitation but also said they have serious reservations.

Coordinator of the Programa Venezolano de Educación-Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA) Rafael Uzcategui said “if we are invited we will participate, although we maintain our opinion that the agency that wrote the draft [the National Human Rights Council] is not impartial and is controlled by a human rights violator: [the Venezuelan] State.”

Liliana Ortega of the Comité the Familiares y Víctimas (COFAVIC) said her organization believes that “dialogue is fundamental for human rights, but it has to be a dialogue without conditions, accepting critiques and not answering [those critiques] with attacks and insults.”

Carlos Correa of Espacio Público also said that his organization is willing to participate “on behalf of human rights and on behalf of the victims, not in order to legitimate something, but in favor of policies that guarantee freedom of expression, access to public information, and the punishment of attacks against journalists.”

The initiative represents a difficult effort by the government to position itself with respect to the international discourses and institutions of human rights.

Arreaza insisted in his presentation that the plan had been “designed based on the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution, the ideology of the Liberator Simón Bolivar, and of Comandante Chávez.” Indeed the sub-heading of the presentation is “Socialist democracy: the greatest possible measure of happiness.” 

This oft-quoted statement from Bolivar reflects his intellectual debt to Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. And as a consequentialist (i.e. “the ends justify the means”) moral philosophy, utilitarianism is usually considered incompatible with the idea of human rights. Bentham himself considered natural rights to be “anarchical fallacies.”

One main emphasis of the draft document is on collaboration with international institutions. The United Nations system is stressed. And there are recommendations to strengthen collaboration with MERCOSUR and ALBA. But the Inter-American Human Rights System and the Organization of American States are not even mentioned.

Venezuela denounced the Inter-America Human Rights Court in September 2012, formally exiting a year later. Human rights activists argue that the Inter-American System has a greater degree of institutional autonomy compared to the UN Human Rights Council which is much more beholden to member states.

The initiative also shows the difficulty a state that considers itself revolutionary has, in recognizing its own human rights violations. Both Arreaza and Ortega Díaz made reference to human rights violations committed by the Venezuelan state, but only during the democratic period of 1958-1998 preceding Chávez.

Ortega Díaz used her presentation to suggest the creation of a Museum of Historic Memory at the Cuartel San Carlos [military prison were Chávez was held from 1992 to 1994] so that future generations can know this history.”

The web page of the National Human Rights Council provides links to two additional documents using the same concept of historic memory: a report on the “Systematic Violation of Human Rights in Venezuela 1958-1998” published by the Ombudsman’s Office in 2012; and a report on the “Student Repression during Puntofijismo, in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s” published by the Ministry of Communication and Information in 2011.

The irony was not lost on the local media as they pointed out (here and here) that no mention was made during these presentations, of a violent military incursion into a Caracas neighborhood which left fifteen people dead and multiple accounts of abuses just twenty-four hours before.