March 6, 2013
By Patrick Goodenough
The U.N. Human Rights Council was criticized Wednesday for holding a minute of silence to honor Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a decision that again illustrated the tension between the body’s actions and its professed commitment to upholding human rights around the world.
Chavez, who died Tuesday, was frequently criticized for human rights violations at home, while in the international arena he consistently supported some of the world’s most controversial regimes, including Iran, Syria and Libya under the late Muammar Gaddafi.
Nonetheless when the U.N. General Assembly in New York voted by secret ballot last fall for new members of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council (HRC), Venezuela won a seat, receiving more votes than the United States or two other nations in the Western group, Germany and Ireland.
In Geneva on Wednesday that support was again evident as a delegate from Cuba – a HRC stalwart although not currently a member due to term limits – led tributes for “Commandante Chavez.”
“He worked tirelessly not only for his people, but for the betterment of the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean,” said Cuba’s Anayansi Rodriguez. “Under his leadership, Venezuela reached the peak of its history.
“He eradicated illiteracy, democratized education, increased minimum wage,” she continued. “Chavez has not died, he didn’t enter history yesterday, he entered history a decade ago when he began the Bolivarian Revolution and the struggle for real Latin American integration. He will always remain present among us.”
Bolivian delegate Angelica Navarro said Chavez had become a symbol of the struggle for justice.
Cuba and Bolivia are both members of ALBA, a leftist bloc set up by Chavez in 2004 as a vehicle for his “21st century socialism” vision.
But Swiss envoy Alexandre Fasel, who was chairing the session, also expressed condolences “on behalf of the council.”
One day before its minute of silence for Chavez, the HRC’s program included discussion on the case of Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a Venezuelan judge who has been detained since 2009 and was allegedly raped while incarcerated.
Critics of the Chavez regime accuse him of direct responsibility for Afiuni’s plight.
The judge was accused of corruption after she ordered the release of a Venezuelan businessman, Eligio Cedeno, who had spent almost three years detained without trial, accused of circumventing currency rules. (Cedeno, who fled to the U.S., says the case was political; he funded the political opposition.)
Immediately after Afiuni ordered his release – at the recommendation of U.N. right experts – she was herself arrested. Chavez on television called her a “bandit” and demanded that she face the maximum penalty, 30 years’ imprisonment.
U.N. Watch, a Geneva-based non-governmental organization that led a campaign against Venezuela’s election onto the HRC, slammed Wednesday’s tribute to Chavez, saying that it was not required by U.N. protocol.
“Instead of praising an autocrat who persecuted his country’s independent judges, journalists, human rights activists and students – and who vocally supported mass murderers, tyrants and terrorists in Syria, Libya, and Iran – the U.N. should be apologizing for having just elected the Chavez regime to its Human Rights Council, and it should begin to call for accountability, reform and an end to impunity in Venezuela,” said the organization’s executive director, Hillel Neuer.
Meanwhile U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon in a statement said he was saddened by the death of a leader who “spoke to the challenges and aspirations of the most vulnerable Venezuelans.”
“He provided decisive impetus for new regional integration movements, based on an eminently Latin American vision, while showing solidarity toward other nations in the hemisphere,” Ban said.
The brief statement was silent on human rights situation in Venezuela, but did praise Chavez for his contribution to peace talks between the Colombian government and the Marxist rebel group, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Ban said Chavez’ role in the talks had been “of vital importance.”
Chavez had a history of close links to FARC, a U.S.-designated “foreign terrorist organization” (FTO) that financed its long and bloody campaign with drug money and kidnapping ransom payments.
His relationships with FARC, the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah – also an FTO – as well as countries designated by the U.S. as terror-sponsors (Iran and Cuba) prompted some U.S. lawmakers to push for Venezuela to be designated a terror-sponsoring state.
Former Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) sponsored legislation over several years calling for “Venezuela to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.”