If war, according to Clausewitz, is the continuation of politics by other means, then human rights are the limit of both politics and war. They are the red line of human dignity, the limit that the left and right equally commit to respecting. That’s why they lose meaning when they are invoked to dance to the tune of political preferences, like in the Latin American debate about Venezuela.
In the face of arbitrary arrest of the mayor of Caracas— without an order from an independent court and based on political charges— many in the Latin American right (including Álvaro Uribe, former president of Colombia) demand a forceful condemnation from the international community. This call contrasts with the antipathy of Mr. Uribe’s government towards that community when the condemnations were against him, or its silence when the victims were those that suffered extrajudicial killings at the hand of his government. President Maduro pays in kind, ready for battle against uribismo and the Colombian media to distract from his administration’s grave violations of human rights. He is accompanied, silently, by parts of the left that think that the issue is not about rights, but rather about neoliberalism and socialism, as some said on Twitter.
As the discussion coincided with the release of Amnesty International’s annual report, the sensation of déjà vu is inevitable. Half a century after Peter Benenson founded Amnesty, a pioneering human rights NGO, Venezuela reminds us that we continue to have these classic problems. Amnesty came out of a campaign to free prisoners of conscience, defined in Benenson’s foundational article as “any person who is physically restrained (by imprisonment or otherwise) from expressing (in any form of words or symbols) any opinion which he honestly holds and which does not advocate or condone personal violence.” Leopoldo López, the imprisoned leader of the Venezuelan opposition, squarely fits into that definition as the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded. And probably Caraca’s Mayor Antonio Ledezma and the other members of the Venezuelan opposition that the government has detained without a fair trial.
After unequivocally condemning the US’s and Colombia’s human rights violations— Venezuela’s conspirators and nemeses in Maduro’s speeches— Amnesty’s report reviews Venezuela. “At least 43 people were killed and more than 870 were injured— including protesters, security forces officials and passers-by— during mass pro- and anti-government protests between February and July.” “More than 3,000 people were detained” without hope of a fair process because “the justice system was subject to government interference, especially in cases involving government critics or those who were perceived to act in a way contrary to the authorities’ interests.” “The security forces used excessive force to disperse protests,” as they did as recently as last week resulting in the death of a student in San Cristóbal.
In order to be effective, solidarity with victims in Venezuela and elsewhere must be “all-embracing in its composition, international in character and politically impartial in direction,” wrote Benenson in 1961. It’s time to break political factions’ monopoly on the debate about Venezuela and see the situation for what it truly is: a human rights crisis.
*César Rodríguez-Garavito is International Director of the Center for Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia). @CesaRodriGaravi