WASHINGTON, Sep 10 (IPS) - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) says it is “deeply concerned” over the Venezuelan government’s decision to withdraw from the American Convention on Human Rights, a move that went into effect Tuesday.
The Venezuelan government has denounced the four-decade-old convention, which currently covers 23 of the 35 members of the Organisation of American States (OAS), as a tool of U.S. meddling in Latin America. But rights groups warn the move will eliminate a court-of-last-resort option for Venezuelans who feel they are unable to receive a fair judicial response within their own country – an option that remains guaranteed in the Venezuelan constitution.
“This comes at the expense of the protection of rights of the people of Venezuela, who are stripped of a mechanism to protect their human rights,” the IACHR, based here in Washington, stated Tuesday.
“The Inter-American Commission calls on Venezuela to reconsider this decision … [and] regrets that, despite repeated calls by the Commission and by other international bodies for Venezuela to reconsider its decision to denounce the Convention, the State of Venezuela has not reversed that decision.”
The American Convention on Human Rights sets out how OAS countries must guarantee citizens’ human rights. It also empowers the IACHR and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, based in Costa Rica, to monitor and rule on rights-related complaints that have not been dealt with through domestic judicial channels.
Venezuela is the third country to formally denounce the American Convention on Human Rights and withdraw from the Inter-American Court’s jurisdiction. Trinidad & Tobago made a similar decision in 1998 after the court criticised that country’s use of the death penalty, while Peru tried to do the same the following year.
“It is very unfortunate that the Venezuelan government has decided to go through with this action,” Francisco Quintana, programme director for the Andean, North America and Caribbean region at the Centre for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), a Washington-based advocacy group, told IPS.
“Yet if the government thought it was going to get away from this international supervision completely, that’s not right – at least with regard to any human rights violations that occurred before Sep. 10.”
Indeed, given that Venezuela remains a member of the OAS, the IACHR will maintain jurisdiction to monitor the country’s human rights situation. Further, as Quintana notes, the Inter-American Court will be able to continue hearing cases of alleged rights violations from during the period that Venezuela was party to the convention, from 1977 until Tuesday.
Yet critics worry about the potential impact not only on Venezuelans who have suffered abuses but also on the strength of the overall Inter-American structure, one of the world’s oldest pan-regional rights systems. The United Nations warned Tuesday the move could “have a very negative impact on human rights in [Venezuela] and beyond”.
Tuesday’s withdrawal follows through on one of the last policy decisions made by former president Hugo Chavez, who in July 2012 stepped up complaints that the Inter-American Court was interfering in domestic affairs.
Chavez had earlier accused the OAS of supporting a coup against his government. But the final motivation to withdraw appears to have been a ruling by the Inter-American Court in favour of Raul Diaz Pena, a Venezuelan who was found to have been mistreated in prison after being convicted of placing bombs near Caracas embassies.
“The Venezuelan government was against the external supervision of human rights issues from an international organ – over the past decade, the Inter-American Court lodged many cases against Venezuela, and the Chavez administration began to view these as political attacks,” CEJIL’s Quintana says.
“While the court established that there were clear violations of human rights, many didn’t even take place under Chavez. Some had to do with judicial independence, others with excessive force by the police – a wide range of cases, which offered no reason for the government to become frustrated with the system as a whole. After all, these rights were explicitly protected by the system and the convention.”
On Monday, CEJIL and more than 50 other organisations from 14 countries throughout the region derided the Venezuelan move and lamented its broader implications.
“Venezuela’s denunciation of the American Convention represents a grave backlash for the protection of human rights in the region,” the groups warned. “Additionally, this denunciation is preceded in recent years by the non-compliance of most of the sentences and measures of protection issued by the Inter-American Court.”
Also on Monday, Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, reiterated Chavez’s charge that the Inter-American system was a U.S. pawn.
“[T]he U.S. is not part of the human rights system, does not acknowledge the court’s jurisdiction or the commission, but … the commission headquarters is in Washington,” President Maduro said at a news conference, according to media reports. “Almost all participants and bureaucracy that are part of the IACHR are captured by the interests of the State Department of the United States.”
Indeed, the United States, itself a member of the OAS, has signed but never ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, part of a longstanding suspicion of international legal instruments. Yet rights groups are suggesting that Maduro’s criticism underlines an incongruous policy stance.
“The Venezuelan government’s attitude is highly contradictory,” Guadalupe Marengo, deputy director of the Americas programme at Amnesty International, a watchdog group, said Tuesday.
“On the one hand it is promoting universal ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights and urging other countries to ratify this instrument while, on the other, it is withdrawing from it and denying its inhabitants access to the protection of one of its bodies.”
Decisions by the Inter-American Court have increasingly rankled several Latin American governments. Yet Venezuela, along with Ecuador, Bolivia and others, has led a recent attempt to reform the Inter-American system in ways that activists say would weaken several of the IACHR’s most important tools.
That attempt was rebuffed by member states at the end of a major debate process late last year, though the push for reforms continues.
Still, advocates say there has been no significant response from OAS members to Venezuela’s decision to withdraw from the convention. “There have been no repercussions from other members,” Quintana says.
Another watchdog group, Human Rights Watch, recently sent a series of letters to the presidents of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, urging them to persuade Venezuela to rethink its decision. Yet Jose Miguel Vivanco, the director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division and lead author of the letters, told IPS there was “No answer – silence. It was very disappointing.”