When it comes to Venezuela, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights minces no words. Just a few months ago, it published an incandescent report detailing a vast campaign of human rights abuses including torture, the jailing of hundreds of political dissidents, and more than 5,000 extrajudicial killings last year alone. And it didn’t stop there: freedom of speech and access to food, medicine, justice — the high commissioner detailed major abuses carried out by the government of Nicolás Maduro of just about every fundamental right.
Then, Thursday morning, the U.N. General Assembly elected Venezuela to serve on the U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a three-year period.
At times it can feel as if the UNHRC was hatched in some anti-globalist laboratory, genetically engineered to make the United Nations look as feckless and corrupt as possible. Official U.N. rules call for the council to be made up of countries that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” and “fully cooperate with the Council.” Yet in the council, over the next three years, Venezuela will be joining other paragons of human rights rectitude such as Eritrea, Egypt, China, Saudi Arabia and Cuba.
It’s the kind of lineup that makes the entire U.N. human rights operation look like a macabre joke. Which, when you think about it, suits human rights abusers just fine.
Because there’s a perverse logic to why the worst human rights abusers are irresistibly drawn to the UNHRC. For leaders who actively rely on systematic human rights abuses to keep their countries under control, a U.N. council made up of countries that actually respect human rights would be a real menace. Serial human rights abusers have an obvious incentive to spend considerable resources trying to secure a spot on the council, if only to gum up the works from the inside and deflect attention from their own abuses. It’s notable that the other Latin American country joining Venezuela, a reelected Brazil, is now run by a thug who openly pines for a return to military dictatorship and actively campaigned on refusing to investigate extrajudicial killings.
Brazilians certainly don’t want the world looking too closely into that. The world’s worst human rights offenders often see a seat on the UNHRC as a must-have. The New Zealands and Canadas of the world, by contrast, have relatively little to gain from a spot on the council, and will spend relatively little diplomatic energy to secure one.
The practical effect of the infestation of human rights abusers on the UNHRC is to shift much of the substantive work on human rights done at the United Nations to the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) — a separate office now run by former Chilean president Michelle Bachelet that has managed to maintain enough independence and credibility to, for instance, produce the hard-hitting report on abuses in Venezuela described above.
But to regular Venezuelans on the ground, the Geneva alphabet-soup game of UNHCR vs. OHCHR is entirely inscrutable, and all that really comes through is that the United Nations, which used to call out Maduro’s gruesome human rights abuses, is now siding with him. It’s a huge propaganda win for him, and a stomach-churning betrayal from an organization that was founded to defend the victims of human rights abuses, not their perpetrators.
Francisco Toro is a Venezuelan political commentator and contributing columnist for Global Opinions. He is chief content officer of the Group of 50.