On November 12, Venezuela was for the first time elected to the Geneva-based Human Rights Council of the United Nations. In secret balloting, Venezuela received 154 votes in favor (of a total of 187). They will take their seat on January 1, 2013, for a three-year term. Venezuela’s candidacy and election generated criticism among international human rights groups (see Human Rights Watch’s letter to President Hugo Chávez here, and Amnesty International’s press release here). Unsurprisingly, within Venezuela, the country’s election generated quite different responses from government officials and independent human rights groups.

Venezuela’s Ambassador to the UN, Francisco Arias Cardenas, said it was important “recognition within the most important forum of nations, obtained without submission, without the support of any superpower, working on our own and with the company of peers.”

Venezuela’s Ambassador to the OAS, Jorge Valero, said the election of Venezuela was evidence that “Venezuela is a model country with respect to the exercise and enjoyment of human rights because the Bolivarian Revolution’s integral social policies have borne fruit.” He pointed out that Venezuela was one of the few countries that had fulfilled the UN Millenium Goals, but also argued that Venezuela’s legal framework has received international recognition because “it consecrates human rights in the broadest sense, including fundamental guarantees and liberties.”

Vice President Nicolás Maduro suggested that Venezuela had gained credibility because of its progress in human rights domestically, although he suggested that Venezuela still “has a long ways to go to construct and ensure all human rights: economic, social, political, cultural, and communicational.” But he also argued that Venezuela’s international advocacy has had an impact. “The courage of our voice, the Bolivarian voice of Latin America, is being heard around the world.”

Critics suggested that this self-congratulation was unfounded. They pointed out that there were only three candidates (Venezuela, Argentina and Brazil) to fill the three Latin American and Caribbean seats being vacated, so Venezuela’s election was guaranteed. Moreover, Venezuela received considerably fewer votes than Brazil (184) and Argentina (176). This, they argued, suggested dissatisfaction among a number of countries with Venezuela’s response to the UNHRC’s Periodic Universal Exam in 2011. Countries that are members of the UNHRC are put through a review of the human rights situation in their country, every four years, with resulting suggestions that the country can reject or agree to work on. In October 2011 Venezuela was submitted to the EPU and it rejected about a quarter of the EPU suggestions.

Marino Alvarado of the Venezuelan human rights group Provea wrote that Venezuela is now part of an institution that has the task of promoting and protecting human rights around the world and said: “That promotion and protection should begin at home…making a serious effort to overcome the country’s existing human rights deficit.”

Increased UN Oversight?

Provea’s Alvarado also argued that with its new position the Venezuelan government should facilitate the UN’s efforts to monitor human rights in Venezuela. “To date, the government of President Chávez has not only questioned the observation realized by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, but has also limited or impeded the work of the UN rapporteurs. Thus, a good expression of political will would be to rectify this conduct and invite multiple rapporteurs, guaranteeing them all the liberty they need in order to carry-out their interviews and visits.”

Indeed, before the election Venezuela circulated a list of twenty-one specific commitments to members of the HCR. Most countries running for the UNHRC provide such lists of “campaign promises” as a way of addressing potential doubts about their candidacy. Among Venezuela’s promises was to be “open to genuine and constructive dialogue with special rapporteurs, independent experts and representatives (of the council).” Nevertheless it modifies this commitment with the idea that such dialogue should occur “with full respect for the sovereignty and independence of States.”

Carlos Correa, of Venezuelan NGO Espacio Público, said that becoming a member of the UNHRC to some degree offsets Venezuela’s leaving the Inter-American convention. On September 10, Venezuela denounced the Inter-American Human Rights Convention. “The United Nations system is going to feel much more committed to watching over the Venezuelan reality.”

Even the Venezuelan government’s People’s Ombudsman (defensora del pueblo), Gabriela Ramírez, suggested that being elected to the council means that Venezuela will be more committed to fulfilling the EPU recommendations that it accepted in 2011. Alvarado pointed out that although Venezuela accepted 97 specific recommendations. “To date no proposal has ever been presented regarding measures to address these issues.”

Correa also pointed out that there are several human rights cases in which Venezuela is in direct conflict with UN recommendations. For example Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni was detained for following the recommendations of the UN Committee on Arbitrary Detentions in releasing banker Eligio Cedeño. Indeed this contradiction came to the surface less than two weeks after Venezuela was elected to the UNHRC. On November 21, the UNHRC condemned Venezuela in this case, suggesting that Cedeño’s rights to a prompt and fair trail had been violated and that the judges and prosecutors that had acted in the case were following orders of the Executive. The sentence demands reparations be paid to Cedeño and is binding given Venezuela’s membership in the UNHRC. There has been no official reaction by the Venezuelan government.

The Government and Human Rights NGOs

In the long term battle that the government has had with Venezuela’s human rights NGOs, its election to the UNHRC gave a new opportunity for criticism. Ángel Rodríguez, a PSUV deputy to the Latin American Parliament said that the United States had failed in its effort to convince the international community that Venezuela is a rogue state. “[Washington] has sponsored, directly or indirectly, a series of NGOs, foundations, and local and international think tanks, to become spokespersons for an endless number of libels and lies against the Venezuelan government.” He continued saying “The United States has promoted a model in which a small group of intellectuals, academics, and pseudo-activists, are gathered together in institutions to dominate the political stage with their out-of-proportion criticisms. In this way they can weaken heads of state that are uncomfortable for the planetary oligarchy. With this formula they cloak their intervention into the internal affairs of other countries.” Gabriela Ramírez also dismissed Venezuela’s human rights NGOs saying “more than non-governmental organizations they are anti-government organizations.”

Provea’s Alvarado pointed out that one of the main goals of the UNHRC is the promotion of dialogue between government and civil society, especially human rights defenders. “In this sense, continuing to discredit human rights activists and organizations and continuing to refuse dialogue with experienced organizations with a recognized track record goes against the Council’s mandate. We aspire that the government reflects and rectifies.”

The UNHRC versus the Inter-American System

Feliciano Reyna of Venezuelan human rights NGO Sinergia pointed out that one of Venezuela’s promises was to facilitate “the new conceptions of human rights relationships” in the region. This, he suggests, points to Venezuela’s goal of undermining the Inter-American System. “Venezuela wants to keep watch over human rights around the world, but it evades and attacks the decisions of the organisms to which it belongs.”

Vice President Maduro suggested that it is time to construct international institutions “that truly promote and protect human rights, and not institutions that use human rights to justify political aggression, and even military aggressions against entire nations.”

Venezuela’s Ombudsman Gabriela Ramirez said there was no contradiction between having left the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and seeking entrance in the UNHRC. “There is a difference. The [Inter-American] Commission and the Court respond to a partial logic, while the [UN Human Rights] Council represents the logic of 154 countries that voted for our entry, in recognition of all our advances.” She suggested that the Inter-American System follow the example of the United Nations to review and reform itself. (Alonso, Juan Francisco. 14 Noviembre 2012. El Universal.). In 2006 the UN disbanded its former Human Rights Commission and created the new Human Rights Council which includes the Periodic Universal Exam.

Carlos Correa, in contrast, argued that the differences between the two institutions show the superiority of the Inter-American System over the UNHRC. In the latter case the officials are commissioned by the governments of their states and respond to them. In the former, Correa maintained, officials represent their home countries but act independently from their governments. This means that UNHRC is embedded in international politics while the Inter-American System has a degree of autonomy.