Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Venezuela Withdraws from American Convention on Human Rights

Venezuela’s denunciation of the American Convention on Human Rights goes into effect today, a development which has been sharply criticized by local and international human rights groups.

Venezuela officially declared its withdrawal from the treaty in September 2012, but denouncements of the Convention do not go into effect until a year after the initial announcement is made. Now that this period is over, the country is no longer bound to the human rights obligations listed in the Convention, nor is it subject to the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. Venezuela is now the second country to denounce the American Convention, after Trinidad and Tobago did so in 1998.  

Yesterday, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro held a press conference to mark the occasion. The president called the withdrawal from the Convention, which was initiated by his predecessor Hugo Chavez, a “wise, fair decision.” Maduro also criticized the two bodies of the Inter-American human rights system, the Inter-American Court and Commission. “The Commission and the Court have unfortunately degenerated,” he told the press. “They believe they are a supranational power, they think themselves a power above the legitimate governments of the continent.”

As proof of this, Maduro pointed to the Court’s ruling in favor of Raul Diaz Peña, a Venezuelan man who was convicted of placing explosives in the Colombian and Spanish embassies in Caracas in 2003. Diaz Peña was convicted and sentenced to eight years in prison, but fled to the U.S. in 2010. In its June 2012 ruling, the Court found that the Venezuelan government had subjected him to “inhuman and degrading treatment.” The case was widely criticized by Venezuelan officials, and The Ministry of Foreign Relations cited it as one of the country’s main justifications for leaving the Convention.

Venezuelan human rights advocates have been highly critical of the withdrawal, however. An online petition created by the Human Rights Center of the Andres Bello Catholic University (UCAB), which asserts that the move violates the principles of “irreversibility and inalienability of human rights,” has been signed by more than 11,000 individuals.

Rafael Uzcategui, of the Caracas-base organization PROVEA, argues that the government’s criticisms overlook the role the Court has had in facilitating the activism of indigenous rights groups. Uzcategui points out that the Court has helped indigenous communities throughout the hemisphere establish claims to the natural resources on their land, as well as the state’s obligation to consult them prior to launching extraction or development projects. He argues that without being able to take their cases to the Court, Venezuelan indigenous tribes will not be able to exercise their rights as effectively as other indigenous groups in the region.

In an interview with El Universal, Pedro Nikken, a former judge and President of the Inter-American Court, says that he views Venezuela’s denunciation as not only a moral mistake, but a strategic one as well. According to Nikken, “the government is damaging itself far more by denouncing the Convention -- creating an image of itself as a violator of human rights -- than receiving 10, 12 or even 20 [unfavorable] rulings.” Local rights group COFAVIC, which was created to press for investigations into police killings during the 1989 Caracazo riots, has also criticized the measure. Hilda Paez, one of COFAVIC’s founders, told El Nacional that she expects the withdrawal to have a negative impact on the most vulnerable members of society, “those who don’t have money to pay for a lawyer, and sometimes through illegal methods, obtain justice in the country’s courts.”

The withdrawal has also been criticized by international human rights organizations. On Monday, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) issued a statement signed by 44 organizations around the Americas, which called the decision “a grave step back in the protection of human rights in the region.”

News Briefs
  • It’s worth noting that, while Venezuela will no longer be bound by the Convention, it is still subject to the oversight of the Inter-American Commission pursuant to its obligations under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. As such, the Commission can still issue recommendations on human rights issues in the country, in the same way that it does for the U.S. and Canada. The Venezuelan opposition has taken advantage of this, and on Monday it petitioned the Commission to hear a case on the April election, which opposition leader Henrique Capriles maintains was marred by widespread fraud. While the BBC incorrectly claims that the request is to “declare the April election void,” legal experts consulted by El Nacional clarify that the opposition petition asserts that the rights of Venezuelan citizens to full participation and transparent elections were violated. The Commission has not yet announced whether it will accept the petition, although the opposition can make a strong case that it exhausted domestic remedies by taking the issue to the Supreme Court. Interestingly, as the American Society of International Law notes, the Inter-American Court will remain competent to hear cases arising out of facts which took place before today’s “effective date of denunciation.” Because the Commission can refer cases to the Court, this means that Venezuela could still find itself on the receiving end of an Inter-American Court ruling on the April elections.
  • Uruguay’s marijuana regulation bill, which passed the lower house in a July 31 vote, is making slow progress in the Senate. El Pais reports today that the Health Committee, which will take up debate on the matter before sending it to the full floor, has resolved to send it to the Senate in mid-October.
  • The Washington Post reports on the proliferation of self-defense groups in Mexico, especially in the troubled state of Michoacan, and on their apparent success. According to the paper, President Enrique Peña Nieto is now “facing the awkward fact that a group of scrappy locals appears to be chasing the gangsters away,” something which the federal police and military patrols there have been unable to achieve in the past decade.
  • The AP looks at Peña Nieto’s recently-announced tax reform plan, and the state of his shaky alliance with opposition congressmen. While the package’s inclusion of a pension plan and omission of sales taxes is intended to appeal to the left in the country, the president has not successfully won the support of the PRD for the measure. Additionally, many in the party’s left wing are facing pressure from social movements to reject Peña Nieto’s education reforms and his proposal to end Mexico’s state monopoly over oil production, a factor which could make it difficult for these initiatives to pass.
  • Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has come out strongly against the allegations that leaked documents suggest that the NSA targeted Brazil’s national oil company, Petrobras. In a statement, Rousseff said that “if the facts reported by the press are confirmed, it will be evident that the motive for the spying attempts is not security or the war on terrorism but strategic economic interests.” The president has also said that she demanded an explanation from U.S. President Barack Obama, who promised her a reply by Wedenesday. O Globo reports that Minister Luiz Alberto Figueiredo is scheduled to travel to Washington tomorrow to discuss the issue with national security adviser Susan Rice.
  • One day before Chile marks the 40th anniversary of the coup which brought dictator Augusto Pinochet to power, El Mercurio reports that former president and current candidate Michelle Bachelet attended an event with current president Sebastian Piñera and political leaders of every major political party in the country. The BBC notes differences in the statements by Bachelet  and Piñera, with the former calling for continued investigation into abuses of the Pinochet regime, and the latter calling the coup a regrettable but "predictable outcome" after "repeated violations of the rule of law" under the administration of socialist President Salvador Allende.
  • The Colombian government will begin talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the second largest rebel group in the country, “in the coming days,” according to Colombian Vice President Angelino Garzon. Garzon also said that talks with the ELN will take place “in a different place than Havana, Cuba.” One potential alternative is Montevideo, Uruguay, where President Jose Mujica has said he is willing to facilitate the peace process.
  • On Monday, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos delivered a harsh response to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s to allow foreign companies to explore for oil in historically disputed waters that the International Court of Justice ruled in November belonged to Nicaragua. Reuters notes that Santos denounced Ortega’s “expansionist pretensions,” and promised to protect Colombia’s maritime border “until the ultimate consequences as president.” La Silla Vacia claims that the statement was a political move intended to boost his flagging public approval rating, and ensure that the Nicaragua issue does not become an electoral weak point ahead of his re-election campaign.
  • In Guatemala on Monday, a bus accident in the rural province of Chimaltenango killed 43 passengers after the vehicle fell off of a cliff, Prensa Libre and Reuters report.
  • Russell Sheptak of Honduras Culture and Politics takes a look at the latest poll numbers in the Central American country ahead of its November presidential election. The fifth survey of the Center of Studies for Democracy (CESPAD) gives a near eight-point lead to LIBRE party candidate Xiomara Castro over her closest rival, the National Party’s Juan Orlando Hernandez (28 percent compared to 20.7). However, the relatively low levels of support for either candidate shows that neither has a clear mandate, and Honduras’ no-runoff election system means that the winner may take office after receiving less than 50 percent of the vote. If this happens, it could pose a serious governing challenge for the country’s next president. 

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