In the two most recent sessions of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC or Council), the 35th session held in June and the 36th session held in September 2017, the Council has voted once on resolutions proposed for two of the countries we have been tracking, Syria and Ukraine.
Council members from the region voted per usual on the two resolutions. For the resolution on the human rights situation in the Syrian Arab Republic (Resolution 35/26), Brazil, El Salvador, Panama, and Paraguay voted in favor of the resolution; Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela voted against; and Ecuador abstained. The resolution expressed the Council’s concerns about the continued systematic abuses of human rights and violations of international humanitarian law committed by the Syrian authorities and affiliated militias.
Votes relating to the human rights situation in Ukraine (Resolution 35/31) were similar to those for previous resolutions: Ecuador and Panama voted in favor; Bolivia, Cuba, and Venezuela voted against; and Brazil, El Salvador, and Paraguay abstained. This resolution invited the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to continue presenting the findings of reports done by his office until the 41st session of the Council. Although the resolution passed, Brazil, El Salvador, and Paraguay’s abstentions marked a clear break from global democracies like the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom.
As the voting patterns we have tracked over multiple UNHRC sessions demonstrate, the Council has an inconsistent track record of denouncing abuses and acting in defense of human rights. There was no greater indicator than the Council’s silence during the 35th UNHRC session, which convened during the wave of political protests in Venezuela. Protests began on March 30, 2017, after the Venezuelan Supreme Court aligned with President Nicolás Maduro had ruled it would take over the legislative powers of the opposition-led Congress. Since then, the Venezuelan police force has faced off with protesters, leaving more than 108 dead (including two minors) and thousands wounded, and taking hundreds of political prisoners.
Part of the reason for the Council’s silence is due to its composition. As our previous report highlighted, the Council is made up of human-rights-abusing governments like Cuba, China, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—to name a few that cling to pre–World War II conceptions of national sovereignty. Oftentimes the Council has served as a platform for these countries to defend themselves and has worked toward undermining any efforts or resolutions made to address human rights abuses or humanitarian crises in those countries, under the guise of defending sovereignty.
Although the situation in Venezuela has progressively worsened, the Council addressed the situation in Venezuela only during the 33rd session, on September 29, 2016. Ambassador Oscar Cabello Sarubbi, Paraguay’s vice minister of foreign affairs, delivered a joint statement on behalf of 29 countries, including the United States and Costa Rica, which, besides Paraguay, were the only two Western Hemisphere countries that signed onto the statement. Since then, the only other address made at the UNHRC regarding Venezuela was at a side event during the 35th Council session, when U.S. ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley called out the indifference and inaction of the Council to address the crisis.
The Council itself weighed in, in August 2017, when the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, announced that he had deployed a team of human rights officers to conduct remote monitoring of the human rights situation in Venezuela from June 6 to July 31. The report found at least 1,958 cases of reported injuries, the majority of them early in the conflict (in the first half of April) from inhalation of tear gas and by July from gunshot injuries. According to reliable local nongovernmental organizations, more than 5,000 people had been detained, and according to the team’s analysis, out of the 124 deaths the Venezuelan Attorney General’s office was investigating, security forces were allegedly responsible for at least 46 deaths.
Al Hussein presented his report during the opening of the 36th Council session; he declared that security forces may have committed crimes against humanity and urged the Council to establish an international investigation into the human rights violations in Venezuela, as it has done for Syria and Ukraine. While no resolution was drafted and there was never any serious discussion to establish an international investigation, support for Venezuela has decreased significantly since 2016. A declaration in support of Venezuelan “sovereignty,” similar to one pushed by Cuba and signed by 88 states last year, was supported by only 57 states during the 36th Council session.
The Council should take advantage of the dwindling support for Venezuela and push for a follow-up of the UN High Commissioner’s report to finally pick up momentum and put pressure on the Venezuelan government to comply with the UNHCR’s commitment to defending human rights. The Council should also act on the High Commissioner’s recommendation to establish an international investigation on the human rights situation in Venezuela.