This week the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) elected 18 countries to its human rights council, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), including Ecuador and Venezuela but passing over from the small Caribbean nation of the Bahamas. In selecting Ecuador and renewing Venezuela’s mandate, the collective 193 members of the UNGA picked two of the worst human rights performing governments from the Western Hemisphere. More, both of these countries have openly thumbed their noses at, and tried to undermine, the hemisphere’s own human rights bodies. These governments have no business voting on human rights in any body.
The current president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has been cited by multiple human rights groups for his attacks on freedom of expression and independent media and his packing of Ecuador’s judicial system. When organizations have cited these abuses, the famously thin-skinned president denounced and threatened the organizations and its leaders, as he did to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Correa filed a libel suit against the journalist Emilio Palacio and newspaper, El Universo, who had criticized him and passed a law threatening the media with severe penalties of jail time and excessive fines for insulting public officials—a vaguely worded law that could be interpreted to stifle legitimate criticism of public officials. The president even went so far on a television show to launch a verbal attack on an Ecuadorean teenager who had posted a tweet critical of the president, (For a brilliant send up of the over-the-top denunciation of this poor student, please see John Oliver’s skit here.)
And when the prestigious Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)—the regional body attached to the Organization of American States (OAS) dedicated to protecting and defending human rights—issued a report on the state of freedom of expression in Ecuador, the president and his government launched a full-on attack on the Inter-American system. Together with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Argentina, the Correa government proposed a series of measures to “reform” the IACHR. Those measures were a thinly veiled effort to strip the body of its autonomy and ability to monitor and report on human rights, especially freedom of expression.
The effort failed when Brazil, Mexico, Chile and other countries voted down the package of proposals. Correa, though, vowed to fight on. Failing to attack the institution from the outside, the Ecuadorian government has tried to affect it from within. In June, Ecuador put up as its candidate to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights—the high court of the Inter-American system that hears unresolved cases from the IACHR—the very Constitutional Court justice that had defended the the media law mentioned above.
Venezuela has been no more of a champion of human rights in the hemisphere and in the UNHRC during its first three-year term on the body. First under former President Hugo Chavez and now under his successor Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela has been consistently cited for its disregard for the checks and balances of democratic government, lack of respect for freedom of expression, intimidation of opponents, and lack of respect for the rights of assembly and peaceful protest. The list is too long to detail here, but it has included criticism over the politicization of the judicial system, repeated citing of violations of freedom of expression—as when the government shuttered the television station RCTV—criminalization of civil society organizations receiving international support, government attacks against protestors, and the persecution of political prisoners. The latter violation came to a head this week when one of the judges involved in the trial of former mayor Leopoldo Lopez admitted that he had been pressured by the government to hand down the 13-year-plus sentence for allegedly inciting violence, all based on vague evidence including that Lopez was sending subliminal messages to supporters. The cascade of cases—and in particular the RCTV case—provoked Venezuela’s decision to pull out of the Inter-American system of human rights in September 2012 (effective September 2013), meaning that it no longer considers itself subject to international human rights law in the hemisphere.
As you would expect from the treatment of its own citizens, in its first term on the UNHRC, Venezuela has hardly been a champion of human rights. As detailed by Amy Williams, Venezuela has repeatedly voted to reject any international investigation of human rights abuses around the world, including the conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Sri Lanka, and the ongoing abuses committed by governments in Iran, Belarus and North Korea.
All of this should make us wonder why these governments are fit to opine and vote on human rights in other countries. Both have not just ignored human rights in their own countries, they have tried to tear down human rights institutions in their own hemisphere. And Venezuela, in its first turn at the UNHRC, sided with genocidal governments and regimes willing to indiscriminately bomb their own populations—including with internationally banned chemical weapons. It’s enough to make you lose faith in the UN and the UNHRC, except that it’s all we have. Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the UN representatives who put them there, passing over the Bahamas—a small state but with a far better record and from an underrepresented region.