Venezuela: Unilateral Sanctions Exacerbating Pre-existing Crises, UN Human Rights Expert Says

After a two-week visit to Venezuela, an independent UN human rights expert has noted that unilateral sanctions imposed on the country have exacerbated pre-existing crises, and therefore, calling for them to be dropped. 

Before now, a new set of unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States on Venezuela early in August 2019 prompted the concern of UN’s top rights official who said in a statement that she feared they would have a “potentially severe impact” on the human rights of the South American nation’s “long-suffering” people.

Tensions started escalating at the end of January 2019, when Juan Guaidó, head of the country’s National Assembly, challenged the legitimacy of President Nicolás Maduro and was declared interim president by the National Assembly.

President Maduro has been in power since 2013 and was sworn in again for a second term on January 10.

High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, said “the sanctions are extremely broad and fail to contain sufficient measures to mitigate their impact on the most vulnerable sectors of the population.

“I fear that they will have far-reaching implications on the rights to health and to food in particular, in a country where there are already serious shortages of essential goods”.

According to official figures then, between 2013 and 2018, Venezuela’s economy has contracted by 47.6 per cent.

With the new sanctions further restricting economic activity, Ms. Bachelet expressed concern that “businesses and financial institutions are likely to err on the side of caution and completely halt transactions” with Venezuela, rather than risk punishment for violating the sanctions.

“As I have stressed before, the roots of the economic crisis in Venezuela predate the imposition of any economic sanctions”, the High Commission reiterated.

“But the economic sanctions imposed in August 2017 and in January 2019 have exacerbated the effects of this dire crisis, and by extension the humanitarian situation, given that most of the foreign exchange earnings derive from oil exports, many of which are linked to the US market”.

She acknowledged that while technically, the latest sanctions do not apply to transactions on food, clothing or medicine intended to be used to relieve human suffering, “they are still likely to significantly exacerbate the crisis for millions of ordinary Venezuelans”, citing “over-compliance by financial institutions” globally that have commercial relations with the US and Venezuela.

“There is a significant body of evidence showing that wide-ranging unilateral sanctions can end up denying people’s fundamental human rights, including their economic rights as well as the rights to food and health, and could place obstacles to the delivery of humanitarian assistance”, she spelled out. “Even carefully targeted sanctions must be subject to stringent human rights safeguards”.

In closing Ms. Bachelet called on all those with influence in Venezuela and the international community to “work together constructively for a political solution to the protracted crisis in the country, by putting the interests and human rights of the long-suffering people of Venezuela above all else.”

In the mean time, “the devastating effect of sanctions imposed is multiplied by extra-territoriality and over-compliance adversely affecting public and private sectors, Venezuela citizens, non-governmental organisations, third country national and companies”, said Alena Douhan, Special Rapporteur on unilateral coercive measures and human rights.

Imposed by the United States, European Union as well as other countries, the sanctions have sparked economic, humanitarian and development crises, devastating the entire population, especially those living in extreme poverty, women, medical workers, individuals with life-threatening diseases and indigenous peoples.

Exemptions are no answer 

First imposed against Venezuela in 2005, sanctions have been severely strengthened since 2015, with the harshest levied by the United States.

Ms. Douhan stressed that unilateral measures are only legal if they are authorized by the Security Council, used as countermeasures, or do not breach any obligation of States and do not violate fundamental human rights.

She also pointed out that “humanitarian exemptions are lengthy, costly, ineffective and inefficient”.

Lack of electricity, water, fuel, food and medicine along with the departure of qualified workers – many of whom have left the country for better economic opportunities – are having “enormous impact over all categories of human rights, including the rights to life, to food, to health and to development”, the UN expert highlighted.

Complex situation 

Citing “the complexity of the situation”, during her visit the independent expert sought to meet “the widest range of people” to listen to their experience and insights, from government officials to opposition leaders and non-governmental organizations to victims of human rights violations “as well as ordinary people”, Ms. Douhan said.

She called on the sanction-imposing countries to observe the principles and norms of international law and reminded them that humanitarian concerns should always be taken into account with due respect to mutual respect, solidarity, cooperation and multilateralism.

The human rights expert plans to issue a full report on her mission in September 2021.

Special Rapporteurs are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. The positions are honorary and the experts are not they paid for their work.

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