Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez addressed the Organization of American States Permanent Council on Thursday, May 5, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

(Washington, DC) – The Organization of American States should invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter to press Venezuela to restore judicial independence and the protection of fundamental rights, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro.

Under the charter, the OAS secretary general or any other member country can convoke a Permanent Council meeting to address situations where there has been an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order in a member state.” This application of the charter does not require consent from the government of the country whose democracy has been impaired.

On May 5, 2016, the Venezuelan foreign affairs minister, Delcy Rodríguez, said in a meeting at the OAS Permanent Council that the government rejected the OAS application of the charter, contending that it would violate Venezuela’s sovereignty and interfere with its internal affairs.

“The OAS should hold Venezuela accountable for its flagrant disregard of judicial independence, a core element of the Democratic Charter that is essential to protect fundamental rights,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “If the OAS really needed to ask offending governments for their permission before doing anything, it would completely defeat the purpose of the charter. Fortunately, for situations as bad as Venezuela’s, the charter doesn’t include such an absurd requirement.”

The OAS should hold Venezuela accountable for its flagrant disregard of judicial independence, a core element of the Democratic Charter that is essential to protect fundamental rights.

José Miguel Vivanco

Americas director

The Inter-American Democratic Charter states that representative democracy is indispensable for the stability, peace, and development of the region, and that governments have an obligation to promote and defend it. One of the key principles enshrined in the charter is that an essential component of representative democracy is “the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.”

Since the political takeover of the Venezuelan Supreme Court in 2004, the judiciary has ceased to function as an independent branch of government, and authorities have repeatedly exploited the justice system’s lack of independence to arrest and prosecute prominent political opponents and lesser-known critics. Members of the Supreme Court have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and publicly pledged their commitment to advancing the government’s “Bolivarian Revolution.” The court has routinely ruled in favor of the government when its actions are challenged, validating its growing disregard for human rights. 

On December 28, 2015, government supporters in the National Assembly re-packed the Supreme Court with ruling party supporters, just days before opposition legislators who had won the December 6 legislative elections took office. These appointments, for 12-year terms, will likely delay any opportunity to restore the court’s independence many more years. Since the new opposition-led National Assembly took office in January 2016, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings undermining the National Assembly’s role, limiting its ability to act meaningfully as the country’s legislative branch.

The OAS Secretariat for Legal Affairs has stated that an “alteration” of the democratic order occurs when its essential elements – including the “separation of powers and independence of the branches of government” – are affected.

Similarly, a special report included in the Inter-American Juridical Committee’s 2015 annual report states that the charter “cannot be regarded as a mechanism for responding solely to the traditional coup d’état consisting of the violent usurpation of political power, completely interrupting any and all semblance of democratic order; instead it must also be regarded as a mechanism for responding to abuses of democracy where the democratically elected governments are themselves undermining the institutions of democratic government and violating human rights.”

In 2005, the OAS applied the charter after the Ecuadorean Congress arbitrarily dismissed all Supreme Court justices and members of other high courts in the country. While in that case the OAS acted at the request of the government of Ecuador, the underlying concern regarding the lack of separation of powers that moved the OAS to act then is every bit as urgent with regard to Venezuela today.

“This is not about upholding some abstract notion of democracy, it’s about defending fundamental rights,” Vivanco said. “Without judicial independence, victims of government abuse have nowhere to turn for protection, nor can they count on the kind of accountability that helps prevent future human rights violations.”