I often wonder if it would make any difference to the victims of the dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela if the International Criminal Court did not exist. I’m afraid it wouldn’t.
But if the ICC were to act in accordance with its mandate — not bowing to political commitments and pressures — it might make a positive impact for the millions who have fled hunger and disease and to those who have been subject to political persecution and torture in Venezuela. People such as Juan Requesens, elected to the National Assembly, arbitrarily arrested and detained, and subject to abuse and humiliation. Or opposition leader Antonio Ledezma, arrested and forced to flee the country. Or Carlos Vecchio, forced into exile in 2014.
But the reality is that to the victims, the ICC does not mean much. At least not yet. We must change that. Those of us who work in international institutions know the bureaucratic and concrete challenges that exist to enforce the universal jurisdiction of international human rights law. But we must work to make international institutions more relevant to the people, especially to the victims of inhumane acts for which these institutions were created in the first place.
The history of world wars, genocide and crimes against humanity in the 20th century paved the way for the creation of an international order so that humans could avoid the repetition of such acts, and bring those responsible for atrocities to justice if repeated. But that is not what we see today. International institutions are not only detached from the suffering but also seem to be closer to politics and subject to the predominant groupthink where they operate whether it is the Hague or New York, and to a superficial diplomatic life in a comfort zone.
The criteria used by the ICC to make decisions are increasingly political. Otherwise, faced with the self-evident truths of the crimes committed by the Maduro regime and the referral of the case by six states, and the subsequent public support for the process expressed by France, Costa Rica and Germany, the court would have at least announced the start of the investigation by now.
At the OAS, we are working tirelessly against the law of inertia that we have seen time and again at work in the international community. The Venezuelan people need help from abroad, and the ICC must be an external force that changes the trajectory of the Venezuelan dictatorship. Specifically, prosecutor Fatou Bensouda must act to bring justice in Venezuela. The Rome Statute, to which Venezuela is a state party, gives the court jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against humanity, which include torture, murder, rape and forced disappearances.
If no external force is exerted, the status quo will continue. And the Maduro regime will continue committing crimes against humanity, subjecting opposition demonstrators such as Echenagusia Guzmán to electric shocks, beating them with nightsticks, kicks and fists and burning them with cigarettes. And it’ll continue to douse young men such as 18-year-old Marco Cello with gasoline, threatening to burn him, or fracture the skull of others such as Jorge León, beating him with rifle butts and helmets. Most dangerously, it will continue to enjoy impunity while the world stands idle.
Even though we have a robust international human rights regime, justice regrettably does not come about by default and inertia. Justice must be sought and pursued with persistence for the victims of the Maduro dictatorship that cannot find it on their own and are left to their own devices. The prosecutor of the ICC has an opportunity to act according to international law, to do what is right, to stand by the victims.
Luis Almagro is secretary general of the Organization of American States.