Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez greets supporters in Caracas.

© 2011 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – Venezuela is legally obligated to implement a judgement by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights instructing it to uphold the political rights of an opposition leader barred from office, Human Rights Watch said today. The secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS) and leaders of member states should insist that the government of President Hugo Chávez recognizes and fulfills this obligation.

In a decision released last Friday, the Inter-American Court ruled that Venezuela must allow Leopoldo López, a prominent opposition leader, to run for public office. López, a former Caracas district mayor, has been barred from seeking elected office by the country's comptroller general since 2008 due to corruption allegations for which he has never been formally charged, prosecuted, or convicted.

Chávez responded to the ruling by dismissing the Inter-American Court as part of a system that “protects the corrupt and obeys the mandate of the imperial power and the bourgeoisie,” according to press reports. “What value can that Court have? For me, it means nothing,” the president said.

“The Court may mean nothing to President Chávez, but its rulings are legally binding for Venezuela, and for every other country in South America it remains the highest regional authority on human rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The court’s role is especially vital for a country like Venezuela where, under Chávez’s rule, the judiciary has ceased to function as a check on government abuse.”

Human Rights Watch documented Venezuela’s lack of judicial independence in 2008 in “A Decade Under Chávez,” a report that describes how Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of the Supreme Court in 2004. This takeover effectively neutralized the judiciary as an independent branch of government. Since then, the court has repeatedly failed to fulfill its role as a guarantor of fundamental rights.

Venezuela is party to the American Convention on Human Rights and subject to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court, which is responsible for interpreting and enforcing the convention’s provisions.

“It’s crucial that the OAS’s secretary general and member states respond to President Chávez’s statements denying the Court’s authority,” Vivanco said. “If instead they remain silent, they will undercut the credibility of their own commitment to the regional organization’s core values and the mechanisms that are needed to enforce them.”