Does Venezuela Deserve to be on the UN Human Rights Council? with Irwin Cotler, Antonio Ledezma, Luis Almagro, María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez

Luis Almagro, María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez, Irwin Cotler and Antonio Ledezma address the 10th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy.

Full Transcript

María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez: I’m going to translate a few things for Mr. Cotler and some other things for Antonio. In this section, I have six questions: three general questions, one for each one of you, and I would like if possible for you to answer succinctly to give everyone the time to answer in the time that is assigned to us. And of course, then we can continue it later in the general hall. I’d like to begin by asking you to give us a bit of context about Venezuela. I think you’ve talked about this a bit but I’m not sure if this is very clear to people who don’t know about what’s been going on in Venezuela because it’s very important that Venezuela was a very strong democracy at one point in the region and it was one of the countries that cannot be considered a democracy now. So I’d like you to discuss this a bit further and why Venezuela is now considered to be a very special case. Mr. Secretary-General would you be kind enough to give us your opinion?

Luis Almagro: Do you realize that there is a great deal of interest in this question. Very briefly, there is a social and humanitarian dimension that the country is going through but so we see some data that shows this reality. Today a child who is born in Venezuela has a life expectancy lower than that in Sicily or in an armed conflict in Syria. The number of refugees and immigrants is more than all of the migrants in the Middle East and in Europe. We can also see that from 25,000 to 30,000 million people die from violent deaths in Venezuela today. So more people have died in 10 years than in 50 years of armed conflict in Colombia. So this gives us an idea of the dimension of the reality that the country is experiencing. So talking about institutions, we can go into it one by one but there is one that shows us: the National Assembly. It’s an instrument that decides the constitutionality of what’s happening. It elects people in a way that is contrary to the Venezuelan Constitution and has strengthened the regime and it has institutionalized the dictatorship we could say. We have political prisoners that are the regime’s hostages. In terms of human rights, Dr. Cotler talked about Leopoldo López and this confirms what we all knew. It confirms that once again that his trial was a farce and it was a way that the government had of taking sanctions against those who were protesting about the situation in the country, a country that has 6,000 extrajudicial executions. So we could see that the person who we could see in the latest case of Mr. López that he didn’t want a fight but he was shot down and killed anyway. That was the fate of Mr. López. We have an electoral process that is just a continuity of the National Assembly with three municipal elections and the presidential elections. They’re all trying to ensure another six years for the dictatorship and that would be the worst solution for Venezuela. So we could follow each of the cases and look at each of the deputies who were attacked in Parliament. Venezuela today has a future in which we are further and further away from democracy. The dictatorship is becoming more tyrannical and the suffering of the people is growing. But in the end, this is leading the international community to react. The sanctions against the regime are becoming harsher and we are reacting more and this is the way to move forward now. Politically those who are fighting against the dictatorship should unite and those who have taken actions to delegitimatize the regime should continue working. Thank you.

María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez: Irwin Cotler, you could add as a Canadian that you knew Venezuela before and you can compare it to Venezuela nowadays?

Irwin Cotler: Well you know the interesting thing is and I say this when you mentioned as a Canadian, I recall that in the year 2000 we were planning then the hosting of the first parliamentary assembly for an International Criminal Court that we hosted in Ottawa in 2002 when the treaty for an International Criminal Court came into force and I was in Rome on the occasion of the adoption in 1998. And what I recall and perhaps there some who may not even know that this, I mean outside of Venezuela, but that Venezuela was one of the first countries to be a state party to the International Criminal Court. That in the year 2000 Venezuela became one of the first state parties to the International Criminal Court to openly and freely assume the obligations of being a state party to the International Criminal Court and to participate in the Parliamentary Assembly for an International Criminal Court which I had chaired at the time and the like. But what has happened, as described so compellingly at this point by my two fellow panelists, what we have seen has been an inexorable slide into dictatorship. A dismantling of democracy brick-by-brick. A dissolution of the democratically elected parliament and its replacement by an agent for the regime. The taking of an independent supreme court and turning it into an arm of the regime, and one can go on. So what we have in a word now is a country that moved from being a legatee of Bolivarian democracy and being a state – one of the first state parties to the International Criminal Court – to a regime that now manifests a culture of corruption, a culture of criminality, underpinned by a culture of impunity turning into a major violator of the very treaty for an International Criminal Court that they were the first, and I say this to its credit, the first to ratify and have gone therefore from being a country whose government we could celebrate to a country whose people we can continue to celebrate but where the regime now assaults its people in betrayal of its own mandate.

María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez: Thank you Mr. Cotler. Mr. Ledezma, perhaps you could just say a few words?

Antonio Ledezma: Why is Venezuela special? Well what I’ve said, what Mr. Cotler has said, and Mr. Almagro also, is that there’s a humanitarian tragedy and there’s somebody who is responsible for it. Venezuela is hungry not because there aren’t any resources. It’s because we have delinquents who in governing Venezuela have gone beyond the budget ten times higher than the budget the European Union has asked for. They’ve been given a million dollars where Venezuela’s the only country that pays for people to invade them. The people who are dying moreover are dying because there’s no medicine because there aren’t staff in the hospital and they must know that the financial havens, about the fiscal tax havens in the world, are filled with lots of Venezuelan money. These governors of the country are now responsible for crimes in the country. This has become a policy of the state. We see an example of how they are trying to corrupt the country to have people cave in. This regime has converted the armed forces and the police and the guards to be obliged to kill innocent civilians who are simply protesting. We heard Tamara Sujú who told us about the serial torches and the crimes that are being carried out, and the OAS were presenting this report to the ICC very soon and this is part of a state policy. A man died in Tunis last year but 130 died in last year alone. Look at the difference between what’s happening in Tunis and in Caracas. The problem of Venezuela is not only Venezuela’s, it’s a problem of narco-trafficking. The vice president of the country is dealing with groups that carry out terrorism so it’s not only a country’s problems, it’s a problem for peace and tranquility of the entire planet. Chapo Guzman had a doctor and so did Pablo Escobar. But in Venezuela, Guzman was not able to take over power in Colombia because there was a ‘Plan Colombia’ but he’s been able to in Venezuela. There are no dictators that I know of in the world who were involved in narco-trafficking but in Venezuela they are. This is unique but so if we had the ‘Plan Colombia’ to save institutions then this wouldn’t be the case. Why can’t we have that for Venezuela to help the people who have been abducted by narco-traffic and international terrorism?

María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez: So that leads to at least three more questions, time is running out, and I know we’re all very motivated to hear the answers. Now the header of this panel is “Does Venezuela Deserve to be on the Human Rights Council?” In just one week before a whole new session begins, we’ve just heard all your testimonies and your explanations about what’s happening so naturally, the question is, knowing that Venezuela has such a bad record of human rights, should we insist that Venezuela does not belong to the Human Rights Council? Are there other mechanisms that we could use? Should we try to have the Human Rights Council really represent the victims and not the perpetrators?

Luis Almagro: You know the logic according to which many of the candidates are presented to the Human Rights Council and when we look at the number of candidates presented to Human Rights Council we see that many of them are countries that have serious human rights violation problems. This is ongoing, this is systemic within the United Nations system. The elections must have political backing, but the majority of people don’t necessarily believe in democracy. It’s not the majority that has a faultless record in human rights. There are some regions and certain specific countries in the world that do but it’s not general. So following this logic, it’s very logical that Venezuela would be in the Human Rights Council but if the Council were actually an instrument to promote human rights, to address cases of violation of human rights, then no. There would be no room for Venezuela and various other members of the Council. Today Venezuela has the worst record in the region. Economic, cultural and social rights, and there are also civil and political rights – all of these rights are being violated. So we have a situation which depends on the sovereign decision of states that vote to put specific countries in place. And on the basis of this logic, it is unrelated to a good human rights record or that there is a commitment to human rights, it is related to their record of less humanity crimes and it is not a logic that supports the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Inter-American system of Human Rights.

Irwin Cotler: Cruel paradox that the United Nations Council on human rights is to elect amongst its members those, and I’m quoting almost from the resolution establishing the UN Council, “those who uphold the highest standards of human rights.” And so it makes a mockery of the UN Council on human rights to elect a human rights violator to sit on the Council. Now I know that one can say that there are difficulties because of the nature of the representational system, but I want to share with you a case study that took place a year and a half ago. We have in Canada an annual political prisoners day on the day of remembrance of the passing of Nelson Mandela and what we do on those days is we bring the families of political prisoners to Parliament and they share the pain and plight themselves as families in the case and cause of the political prisoners. And so we did this a year and a half ago and we brought political prisoners from a number of countries but it was a few weeks before the election to the UN Human Rights Council and we said, you know while we focus on these political prisoners we want you to focus on the countries that imprisoned them and that are standing for election to the UN Human Rights Council. And we mobilize the campaign and I want to single out Hillel Neuer and UN Watch and the other NGOs who are here, is part of that campaign and in that campaign, and this may sound surprising, Russia was defeated with respect to being elected to the UN Human Rights Council. So if we could defeat Russia in a campaign, we should be able to defeat Venezuela in a campaign and we should say that it’s an embarrassment to the region to elect a human rights violator to the UN Human Rights Council that is sworn to uphold the high standards of human rights. So I say if we mobilize we can defeat Venezuela so it will not embarrass Latin America, so it will not embarrass the UN Human Rights Council, and that we can thereby protect the people of Venezuela.

Antonio Ledezma: I have to start off by saying by recognizing that Mr. Cotler is one of the citizens who is concentrating the most on the human rights situation in our country. So the question that this panel has made is whether Venezuela should be sitting at the Human Rights Council. I’d like to quote Mr. Fariñas who’s where there are people who have there, one head that the head, the mastermind is Cuba and the body is Venezuela. Well, we could say would you appoint a pedophile to a nursery school or to a kindergarten? The right to life is an essential right and the Secretary-General of the OAS has all the figures. The life expectancy in Venezuela has plunged. We see the mortality of mothers of children of neonatal deaths. We’ve seen the figures. We have children dying because of malnutrition and the future of those who haven’t died have a very grim future because of bad nutrition, their bodies are atrophied. This is incredible that a regime whose leaders are seeing that the International Court are studying these matters, are not acting.

María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez: Well given the time, we only have three minutes left, I will go to my last question. There are many Venezuelans here today, you’ve heard them. And we often ask, is there any hope? Is there any hope for Venezuela? We’ll be able to pull out of this trough at any point? And in your final comments, I’d like to know if you think there is any hope left for Venezuela.

Luis Almagro: Yes there is hope for Venezuela. And here we need the bravery and the courage of the Venezuelans. They are working day by day trying to destroy the dictatorship. We have a long haul ahead and we will need to have the support of the international community. The international community cannot abandon or leave the country or leave us stranded. First of all, narco-trafficking is an element of security and safety and Venezuela is the main promoter and money launderer in the area on the entire continent. The regime is also part of organized crime but the humanitarian situation in Venezuela implies there’s great instability for the country. Those Venezuelans leaving the country are calling attention to the services that the region could bring which is causing a lot of instability in the country. The case of Venezuela is typical in that actions, direct actions must be taken to rescue the people from their suffering. Venezuelans should not be condemned to an early death because of malnutrition or to an early death or to death when they’re in childbirth because there’s no medicine or the diabetics who would die because there’s no insulin or that people would die of kidney problems because there’s no dialysis available. We must have the participation of the international community and this is becoming more and more necessary. So we must apply sanctions, harsher ones, constantly. We must starve the regime financially. We must cut off the funds of the dictatorships in a way that will affect them and their families. This is very important right now on our continent. We must, we must condemn dictatorships in general like the group of Lima telling him that he may not come to the American summit. So we must have more and more sanctions of this kind so that the regime will give in and the community must rescue the population, provide relief. We must achieve justice in the country. It’s a crucial problem and we must have investigations and inquiries by the International Criminal Court. We are asking for the recognition of the Tamara Sujús that have systematized the crimes and classify the crimes that are being committed in the country. So yes there is hope, yes we must work together, yes the international community must join in. 

María-Alejandra Aristeguieta-Álvarez: Unfortunately I’ve gotten my red card so I’m going to ask for a 30-second answer Mr.Cotler.

Irwin Cotler: I just want to say that I have hope for one main reason – because of my great respect for the resilience and courage of the Venezuelan people themselves. And because of what I’ve encountered in my meetings with the Venezuelan diaspora, whether it be in Canada or recently when a few days ago when I met with them and wherever I go I meet with the Venezuelan diaspora. I’ve rarely seen any diaspora community that has such an engagement, such a commitment, such an involvement to better the human condition in Venezuela. And what I will say because my partners in the panel have spoken so eloquently about the violations of international humanitarian law in terms of the absence of food and medicine and alike, the United Nations is a trustee of international humanitarian law. They have a responsibility to see to it that the necessary humanitarian assistance is delivered to Venezuela and to hold those who deny that humanitarian assistance responsible for crimes against humanity and to put them in prison rather than the political prisoners who they have put in prison. 

Antonio Ledezma: What we have a lot of in Venezuela is we have hope. We have oil, petrol, we have many things, many crops, we have coasts with gas, we have bauxite, we have diamonds, we have sun, we have money. It’s the most beautiful country in the world I think but we have something even more important, and that is human talent and also in the diaspora, and those people abroad will help us to change governments and fulfill the dream of Bolivar.

Speakers and Participants

Luis Almagro

Secretary General of the Organization of American States, former Foreign Minister of Uruguay

Irwin Cotler

International Chair of Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, former Minister of Justice & Attorney General of Canada

Antonio Ledezma

Venezuelan opposition leader, political prisoner who escaped in November 2017


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