Damaged goods chronicles

The Revolution is AWESOME

A guest post from Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez about the pyrrhic victory that is getting into the UN Human Rights Council…

The United Nations Human Rights Council: a Tarnished Brand

Daniel Lansberg-Rodríguez

Perhaps surprisingly for a country well into its second decade of “socialist revolution” brand, names remain very powerful in Venezuela. Driving through downtown Caracas, commercial billboards can seem more ubiquitous than government propaganda, and even in the grimmest barrios of the city one will find Lacoste shirts and designer jeans aplenty (albeit many of them fake)… to say nothing of 12-year-old Johnnie Walker.

This Venezuelan affinity for anything “de marca” was on full display this Monday when, following Venezuela’s election to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council (HRC), government officials were quick to place their newly acquired credentials on conspicuous display, in hopes that domestic critics and international observers would, despite themselves, trust the brand.

“This is a stunning and unprecedented victory for the Bolivarian Revolution” announced Jorge Valero, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.N. “The international community has demonstrated its approval of our policies, evidencing the extent to which Venezuela has scrupulously respected fundamental rights.”

Similarly jubilant vindications were also blasted across government airwaves and television signals that equated HRC membership with a complete vindication against any troubling accusations of abuse that may have been levied against the regime in the past. Clearly anything Venezuelans may have heard, or perceived, that “seemed” like a human rights abuse, must have actually been something else. Otherwise, why would the U.N. have graced Venezuela with its council seat?

Last Friday, I attended a luncheon co-hosted at the United Nations by the watchdog NGOs UN Watch and the Human Rights Foundation. The groups brought together media figures from across the country to hear presentations from four dissident victims of human rights abuses: one from Kazakhstan, one Pakistani and two Venezuelans – the three most controversial countries up for election to the HRC.

Three days later, all three of the regimes would be voted into the council by sizeable margins.

Among the speakers was Eligio Cedeño, a successful Caracas businessman who had been imprisoned for three years without conviction, due to his support for the anti-Chavez opposition – despite the fact that, according to Venezuelan law, a prisoner cannot be held for more than two years without trial.  In keeping with this law – as well as a recommendation from the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions – Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni eventually released Mr. Cedeño on bail, after which he promptly fled the country, receiving asylum in the United States.

Even for a country devoid of judicial independence the reaction of the regime to Mr. Cedeño’s release was unexpectedly harsh. Judge Afiuni was thrown in prison –alongside criminals she had condemned herself – and President Chávez publicly made it known that, had it been a different era, he would have had her shot. Three years later she remains detained without charge, and although recently released from prison due to the onset of late-stage cancer, she remains under house arrest.

Cases like those of Mr. Cedeño and Ms. Afiuni are precisely the types of abuses that the Chavez regime is hoping to gloss over through its HRC membership.

If Monday’s vote does vindicates anyone, it would have to be the numerous critics of the Human Rights Council as a body, whose growing ranks include the Editorial Board of the Washington Post, Stanford Professor Joel Brinkley and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The main problem is that the council currently does more to validate flawed human rights regimes and brush over existing abuses — unless these take place in Israel where nearly 40% of country specific claims by the HRC have been leveled — than it does to actively promote human rights where they are most needed.

As a result of the UN’s general inclusiveness, lenient standards for admission and an insistence on a one-country-one-vote approach to decision-making, each member nation regardless of its size or behavior is treated as an equal. Thus any country is eligible for election to any UN Council, including the HRC, by way of a general assembly vote and a certain amount of self-selection predictably goes into informing who will seek to join a particular body.

For countries with decent human rights records, the perks of membership can be few, and they come with sizeable risks in the form of potentially awkward situations wherein they may find themselves having to publicly criticize international allies or economic partners. Meanwhile, for countries with something to hide, council membership allows them to not only brandish their membership as a ready reply to potential detractors (as Venezuela is currently doing) but likewise gives them a platform from which to champion “sovereignty” arguments that further water down the very concept of Universal Human Rights.

With human rights-abusing countries perpetually ready to support one another so as to secure likeminded representation on the council, and more benevolent regimes generally willing to give problematic countries the benefit of the doubt – in hopes that exposure to Human Rights may rub off – the cycle feeds itself.

Previous club members have included Cuba, Russia, China, and Saudi Arabia –hardly varsity human rights defenders. Even Lybia enjoyed a stint on the HRC towards the end of the Qaddafi era, actually garnering some council accolades prior to the country’s descent into genocidal civil war. Only after civil war has been raging for several weeks in 2011 however, did Lybia find itself suspended from the council … as a result of a vote by the general assembly, mind you, not the council members themselves.

Yet even among the jaded bureaucrats and block voters of the United Nations, there was serious discussion as to Venezuela’s fittingness for the HRC this time around due to the country’s troubling record. The regime in Caracas was singled out more than any other for criticism, even though both Pakistan (recently engulfed by scandal when a fourteen-year-old girl critical of the administration was shot in the head) and Kazakhstan (whose leader has been publically blamed for the Zhanaozen Massacre last year) were also up for election. Likewise Venezuela was taking over a Latin American seat that had previously belonged to Cuba, and might have been seen as a lateral move for the council. The fact that it wasn’t perhaps says much more about the international community’s view of the Chavez regime than any brand name ever could – including the United Nations.