(CNSNews.com) – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has canceled plans to address the Human Rights Council in Geneva next week, but campaigners are pushing ahead with a drive to have his country suspended from the U.N.’s most prominent human rights body.
At a time when the leftist leader’s policies have divided and impoverished his country, attracting widespread condemnation and U.S. sanctions, human rights activists were outraged that he was to have addressed the HRC next Monday, the opening day of its month-long 36th session.
On Tuesday, the U.N. announced that Maduro will no longer participate. His newly-appointed foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, will address the council instead.
A day earlier, 12 human rights activists from Latin America, the U.S. and Europe called on the HRC to hold an urgent meeting to suspend Venezuela’s membership, and protested his anticipated appearance before the council..
“The dictator will use the U.N. podium to mock the world, as he continues to starve, beat, torture, jail and kill his own people with impunity," said one of the 12, Hillel Neuer, executive director of the Geneva-based rights group, UN Watch.
“We urge member states not to allow the world’s highest human rights body to be abused in this way,” he said.
Venezuela has been an elected member of the 47-member council since 2013, with its current three-year term running through the end of 2018.
The country has been shaken by protests since the pro-Maduro supreme court last March stripped the opposition-controlled National Assembly of its power to make laws. More than 120 people have been killed in the ensuing months during protests against the government’s creation of a constituent assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution.
Just last week, U.N. human rights commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein commented that democracy was “barely alive” in Venezuela, thanks to his government’s policies.
Zeid’s office issued a report on Venezuela, noting a “generalized and systematic use of excessive force during [anti-government] demonstrations and the arbitrary detention of protestors and perceived political opponents.”
The report called on the HRC to monitor developments and “consider taking measures to prevent further deterioration of the human rights situation” there.
But Zeid’s office can only make recommendations to the HRC, whose members decide on its agenda and decisions. And this year, one in four of those members are autocracies with poor human rights records.
The 12 human rights activists are urging Peru – as representative of a 12-nation, Venezuela-focused regional bloc calling itself the Lima Group – to call for an urgent debate, with backing from the U.S. and European Union, leading to adoption of a resolution requesting the U.N. General Assembly to expel Venezuela from the HRC.
(HRC members are elected by the 193-member General Assembly so only the General Assembly may remove them. It has only done so once, suspending Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011.)
Asked about Maduro’s earlier plan to address to the council, a spokesman for the HRC secretariat, Rolando Gomez, explained from Geneva that the HRC does not invite dignitaries to participate in its meetings, but that “such speaking engagements are always at the request of the state concerned.”
“As a matter of protocol and courtesy to the state, the HRC honors such requests by providing time for them to speak,” Gomez said, adding that they were usually limited to speaking for ten minutes.
A spokesman from Zeid’s office did not respond to queries about the appropriateness of Maduro speaking at the HRC session opening, or the suitability of Venezuela being a member of the council in the first place.
The absence of enforceable criteria for membership has been one of the main criticisms leveled at the HRC since it was established in 2006 to replace the badly discredited, 60-year-old U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
The U.N. resolution that created the HRC referred to an expectation that members “shall uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights,” but gave no specifics.
At the time the Bush administration, in a bid to avoid a recurrence of the problems that plagued the Commission, proposed that any country targeted by U.N. sanctions for rights abuses should be disqualified, and that a successful candidature also require the support of two-thirds of the General Assembly
But the final resolution included no mandatory requirement for membership, and allowed candidatures to proceed with a simple majority vote.
As a result, the first decade of the HRC’s existence has seen countries with poor human rights records – including China, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Vietnam, Mauritania, Pakistan, Libya and Venezuela – win seats in annual elections by the General Assembly.