Editorial page from a publication of Venezuela’s Attorney General’s Office that traces human rights to the classic liberal sources.

On Friday I had the opportunity to participate in the Zambrano Foundation Democracy in the Americas conference in Miami, FL. Here is what I said. I have added some links but it is still written as a verbal presentation for a diverse audience.

Today I am going to look at a two key issues that present serious challenges to human rights advocacy in Venezuela. However, I will suggest that they are ultimately manageable.

First, is the issue of which human rights we should we defend. When people speak of the issue of human rights it is usually assumed to refer to civil and political rights, in other words those rights that constitute our basic liberties: freedom of expression, freedom of association, freedom from arbitrary detention, the right to a speedy and fair trial, the right to democratically chose leaders.

But of course there is a long tradition of trying to expand the notion of human rights, most particularly economic and social rights, and long-term disputes over which are most important. Indeed this was a central point of contention in the Cold War. While Western countries affirmed civil and political liberties, Eastern bloc countries affirmed social and economic rights.

The Venezuelan Constitution of 1999 represents an expansion of the concept of human rights to include a full gamut of not only civic and political but economic, social and cultural rights.

This has presented serious obstacles to human rights advocacy.

First, most human rights groups are not set up to monitor economic, social and cultural rights. Their institutional configurations, methodologies and networks all focus on monitoring civil and political rights, and denouncing their abuse. And this leads to a second problem. When these groups put forth their reports and denunciations, however accurate, they can easily be dismissed as partial, passé, or bourgeois.

This mismatch can create an unfortunate dead space that leads back to a Cold War “dilemmatization” of human rights—the idea that national governments can guarantee civil and political rights or economic and social rights, but not both. Indeed during the Cold War the issue of human rights provided little common ground on which conflict or negotiation could take place.

However, there are two reasons to believe that human rights advocacy in Venezuela is not in such a dire situation. First, within the Venezuelan government, civil and political rights are still the leading conceptualization of human rights. Like most of the left governments in contemporary Latin America, Venezuela’s government has a complex engagement with liberalism.


Earlier this year I had the opportunity to meet with a number of human rights figures in different parts of the Maduro government, including in the Ministry of Foreign Relations, the National Human Rights Council, and the Attorney General’s Office. I was ready to hear declarations that Venezuela had passed into a new more advanced phase of human rights, that civil and political rights were bourgeois.

However, I did not hear this really at all. Rather I heard affirmations of civil and political rights; in fact that is really all they talked about. They complained that were being unjustifiably criticized, and that their record was much better than international perceptions, but they did not reject civil and political rights. They did not criticize the criteria, but rather presented alternative facts.

Indeed, in our meeting, one the many publications the Attorney General’s office provided was a glossy magazine entitled Human Rights. Inside the front cover, the editorial opinion, signed by Attorney General Luisa Ortega first mentions John Locke as the father of the idea of human rights, then mentions the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (see photo above).

When I saw this I thought for sure the next paragraphs would mention Karl Marx’s classic critique of the Rights of Man. Those who have studied human rights know that this is the classic Marxist response to the idea of human rights. But there was no mention of it, the forward presented those classic liberal conceptions of human rights as the cornerstone of their approach.

I am not arguing that because the Venezuelan government espouses civil and political rights they therefore protect them. There is always a disjuncture between principles and practices and that gap is precisely what human rights advocates spend their time monitoring. Rather, the point is to suggest that the Venezuelan government does not have a discursive rejection of civil and political liberties and can therefore be engaged in terms of them.

The second reason that Venezuela’s expansion of the concept of human rights is not leading to a repeat of the Cold War dead zone is that human rights groups have made significant progress in figuring out how to engage in advocacy regarding economic, social and cultural rights.

For example, last week in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) hearings on Venezuela, human rights group PROVEA focused on economic rights. Provea used government data to show that poverty increased by 6% in 2013. They also argued that high inflation, food shortages, and deterioration of the public health care system are disproportionately affecting the countries’ poorest. The point here is that human rights advocacy can transition to include economic, social and cultural rights in their analyses and critiques. It requires some transition in methodologies but is by no means a black box. Indeed the government’s own claims provide ready made sets of criteria to engage them on these rights.

In sum, the relatively broader interpretation the Venezuelan government gives to human rights does not necessarily stymie human rights advocacy. On the one hand there is still common ground because on the one hand, the government has not rejected civil and political rights. On the other, human rights groups have shown that they can actually monitor social and economic rights.

The second issue to consider is the “instrumentalization” of human rights advocacy.

Human rights are universal, meaning they are not subject to national sovereignty. Indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights makes it incumbent on nations, groups and individuals to defend the human rights of other human beings despite national borders. This is what gives human rights advocacy its special power. Human rights present a limitation on the concept of national sovereignty.

Of course this very nicely maps onto one of the time honored strategies of political groups that are marginalized from power. If you can portray your political battles as human rights battles, if you can portray your opponents in power as human rights abusers, you can make it incumbent upon the international community to intervene on behalf of your cause, and perhaps tip the balance of political power in your favor. Thus human rights advocates are always at risk everywhere of being used in what are essentially political battles.

In my view, this problem is really unavoidable. All human creations, whether you are talking about science, the internet or human rights can and will be “instrumentalized,” in other words, used with diverse intentions, including intentions contrary to the creators’. Of course human rights advocacy is going to be instrumentalized. Anything that is powerful and useful will be. The real question is: What can be done?

First and most obviously, human rights advocates need to use the highest standards of evidence to sift the wheat from the chaff. A few focused and well-substantiated denunciations can have more impact than sweeping accusations based on impressionistic evidence.

Second, they need to seek credibility through consistent critical engagement that doesn’t simply reproduce the biases of the political struggle. I am not suggesting a “balanced” or “neutral” approach since few conflict situations are balanced or permit ethical neutrality. Rather I mean calling a spade a spade whether or not it is politically comfortable. Critical engagement needs to be thought of in literary terms as giving both praise and criticism. Give criticism where it is due and praise where it is due.

I mentioned above Provea’s criticism of the government’s fulfillment of economic rights in the IACHR last week. It can do this effectively because it consistently covered these issues during the Chavez years and gave praise where praise was due. For example in 2012 it put out a report entitled The Chavez Government after 15 Years: Social Inclusion, Political Exclusion which, as the title suggests, praised the government for its achievements in terms of economic, social and cultural rights but criticized it in terms of civil and political rights. That report put them in a good position to criticize some of these issues now.

Perhaps more important, it seems out-of-date and politically biased to depend on the idea that only governments can violate human rights, that non-state actors only commit “crimes.” The leftward trend in many Latin American countries precisely amounts to battles between governments and traditional political, economic and cultural powers. Seeing the government as the only target of human rights criticisms ipso facto takes sides in this conflict. Current legal scholarship takes issue with the idea that only states can violate human rights. Human rights advocacy likewise needs to push towards a model in which individuals and non-state actors can also be accused of violations of human rights.

A third thing that can be done to avoid instrumentalization is to judiciously seek international institutions that are not clear partisans in the political struggle. As I have said publicly, in my view the US government is not the right ally. Rightly or wrongly it is perceived as a partisan player in this conflict and the idea of the US carrying out unilateral sanctions against Venezuela in the name of human rights, even sanctions targeted at individuals, will simply be counterproductive (view WOLA symposium on sanctions here).

Instead, human rights advocates should see Venezuela as embedded in a regional network of allies and global set of institutions that can provide the right multiplier effect.

First, despite all the criticism and all of the attacks, the IACHR is still strong in the region. The IACHR of course has many issues but it still has an unparalleled institutional autonomy. I am often struck when I talk to left human rights groups from around the region, how clear they are in seeing its value. In Venezuela, withdrawal from the Inter-American Court led to criticism not just by opposition human rights groups but also groups close to the government like Red de Apoyo.

Second, at the same time that it has distanced itself from the Commission and the OAS more broadly, the Chavez and now Maduro governments have fully embraced the United Nations. The government sought and obtained a seat on the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. Last month it sought and obtained a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. Of course it would be superficial to suggest that occupying such positions will ensure that a country to respect human rights. But they do put the government in the spotlight and make it harder to ignore UN statements.

Third, the Union of Southern Nations (UNASUR) is actually an alliance of nations more than a multilateral agency. That makes it relatively less promising as a guarantor of human rights. However it has very high credibility with the Venezuelan government. It is also quite diverse, containing not only reliable Venezuelan allies like Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador, but countries with more distance such as Colombia, Peru and Chile. Their role in pushing forward the dialogue in April and May of this year represented a new vocation for them. What they actually achieved can certainly be criticized, but it is an important new direction and provides important potentials.

The IAHRC, the UN and UNASUR are more promising spaces for human rights advocates to seek to broaden the impact of their advocacy and attempt to rise above the day-to-day political struggle.