Next week, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights will hear an old Venezuelan case whose relevance, sadly, has gained urgency with time.

In 2004, the Venezuelan National Council of Borders, a government agency, fired three women employees. The dismissal letters gave no reason, but a high-level official told the women they were being punished for signing a petition supporting the recall of then President Hugo Chávez.

Logo. 

© Inter-American Court of Human Rights

Nearly 13 years later, the women’s case tests principles that are now, more than ever, challenged in Venezuela. The customs and tax agency fired dozens of workers last year in apparent retaliation for their support of a referendum to recall President Nicolás Maduro. Media reports say hundreds of other referendum supporters nationwide were fired under similar circumstances, and a government program that distributes food and basic goods at government-capped prices allegedly discriminated against critics.

In an amicus brief filed before the Inter-American Court this week, Human Rights Watch argued that citizens’ rights to express views and participate in the political process entail not only voting in elections, but remaining free from reprisals for speaking out – including arbitrary dismissals from government jobs.

A packed judiciary is another enemy of free speech in Venezuela. The judiciary has ceased to function as an independent branch of government, and citizens whose rights are violated have little chance of securing redress or braking government misbehavior. That’s where the Inter-American Court comes in.

The 2004 case, to be heard on February 14, is a golden opportunity to further develop the court’s case law on the fundamental rights to free speech, political participation, and non-discrimination. As in the past, the Venezuelan government is likely to respond to a ruling against it by lashing out against the court and ignoring its international obligations to comply with this court’s binding rulings, end political discrimination, and provide remediation to its victims. If that happens, OAS member states should publicly support the court and show Venezuela that such bullying against international human rights bodies and its open disregard of regional commitments will no longer be tolerated.