The corrupt and oppressive government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela has detained and tortured political opponents, shot demonstrators, and left the country so economically devastated that more than 4 million people—some 10 percent of the population—have fled the country to escape the humanitarian catastrophe. The United Nations Human Rights Council has been putting pressure on Venezuela over its abuses. Now, to subvert that effort, Venezuela is trying to get elected to the council.
When governments convene at the United Nations to condemn the human rights abuses of their peers, it stings. The power of that opprobrium can be seen in the number of highly abusive governments that clamor to join UN human rights bodies in an effort to avoid being targeted.
The creation of the 47-member UN Human Rights Council 13 years ago was an attempt to change this dynamic. Membership was supposed to be limited to governments that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” To give that requirement teeth, the 193-member UN General Assembly was tasked with voting on candidates for three-year terms, providing an opportunity to weed out the worst.
The early years were promising, with a series of abusive governments, including Russia and Iran, either losing contested votes or withdrawing when their prospects looked poor. But then governments started to game the system. Seats on the council are allocated according to five regional groups, and many of the groups started to propose only the same number of candidates as open seats. These closed slates, which deprive the General Assembly of a meaningful choice, have increasingly become the norm, with the result that today the council includes the governments of such countries as China, Eritrea, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. These abusive members do not constitute a majority on the council, but they make it harder to get things done.
Today the council includes the governments of such countries as China, Eritrea, and Rwanda. These abusive members do not constitute a majority on the council, but they make it harder to get things done.
This year, when Venezuela put forward its candidacy, it looked as if it would face no competition. Venezuela’s repression under Maduro has been so severe that a number of governments in the Americas, known as the Lima Group, have taken unprecedented steps to generate pressure for change. For the first time ever in Latin America, members of this group led resolutions adopted by the Human Rights Council to condemn the repression and create an independent fact-finding mission, and they appealed to the International Criminal Court to investigate possible crimes against humanity.
Yet in deference to the trend toward closed slates, Latin American governments put forward only one other government—Brazil—as a candidate this year for the two open positions available for them, virtually guaranteeing Venezuela’s election. Part of the reason seems to have been that the Brazilian government, an influential member of the Lima Group, was willing to countenance the travesty of an uncontested Venezuelan candidacy to avoid the need to compete for a council seat itself and thus to defend its controversial president, Jair Bolsonaro.
Costa Rica has now changed this dynamic. As the October 17 vote approached, responding to appeals about how embarrassing it would be for Latin American governments to accept Venezuela as a council member, Costa Rica announced its last-minute candidacy on October 3. Suddenly, the General Assembly will have a choice.
As an established democracy with a strong human rights record, Costa Rica is a far more suitable candidate than Venezuela, but it faces an uphill battle. Venezuela has a huge head start rounding up votes, and the world’s repressive governments are all too willing to have one of their own blocking global efforts to enforce human rights.
Already these governments are offering rationalizations. One is that it is important to engage with Venezuela. While few would oppose negotiations to restore democratic institutions and basic rights, many other venues are available and would be far more appropriate than granting Venezuela a seat on the Human Rights Council.
Others note that, following a devastating report on repression in Venezuela by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet—the chief UN human rights officer who operates parallel to the council—the government agreed to her office having a limited presence in Caracas. But even if that happens, that gesture hardly brings Venezuela to “the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights.” Indeed, few governments are less qualified to defend human rights.
The stakes are high. The council in recent years has proved itself to be a powerful and effective voice on many of the world’s most pressing human rights crises, from Syria to Myanmar, from Yemen to Burundi. But its voice is weakened when the likes of Venezuela are allowed to join. They invariably oppose efforts to uphold human rights, and their presence makes a mockery of the principles that the council is meant to defend. That some other abusive governments already sit on the council is no reason to make matters worse by adding Venezuela.
Costa Rica has taken a brave step by risking a global battle for votes so late in the day. All governments that care about human rights should seize the opportunity it has provided by supporting it and voting against Venezuela’s inappropriate candidacy.