Michele Bachelet just concluded her first-ever official visit to Venezuela as High Commissioner for Human Rights. The former president of Chile spent three days in Venezuela, meeting with government officials, opposition leaders and victims of torture, extrajudicial killings and other assorted human rights abuses.
Her visit was the most high profile mission to Venezuela of a UN official since the country’s descent into chaos, which earlier this year accelerated following a power struggle between the government of Nicolas Maduro and a rival government-in-waiting, backed by the US and other powers.
The focus of this trip was less on the power struggle between these two factions than the implications of that fighting on ordinary people. In a statement before departing Caracas, Bachelet said the following:
I met with President Nicolás Maduro Moros and several Government ministers and officials, including the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Defence Minister and the Minister of the Interior and those charged with a host of different portfolios relating to economic, social, civil, political and cultural rights. I also met with the president of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and the Ombudsman. I held discussions with the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaido, and other members of parliament from different political parties, and also with the president of the National Constituent Assembly.
I also met victims of human rights violations and their families. The man who told of his brother’s torture, humiliation and killing by hooded FAES security officers in a raid on his house – and the many other heartbroken families whose loved ones suffered a similar fate. The father who showed off his son’s basketball trophy and the many medals he had won before he was killed while taking part in protests. The mother whose 14-year-old child was shot during demonstrations on 30 April this year. People who suffered horrific torture in detention. I also met victims of violence against Government supporters. A mother whose young son, a Government supporter, was set on fire during the 2017 protests and spent 15 agonising days in hospital before he died. A daughter whose father was killed for defending the rights of peasants to access land. Their stories were heart-rending. They all demanded justice. A Catholic priest from the Church for the Poor spoke poignantly about how it is the poor and the most vulnerable who are being hit the hardest. This is not about politics, he said, but about the suffering of the people.
Bachelet also secured the release of three political prisoners, including opposition lawmaker Gilbert Caro. But what is most significant about her visit is what she is leaving behind.
Bachelet says she has reached an agreement with the Maduro government to open a small UN human rights office, which will both advise the government but also, more importantly, provide independent monitoring of the human rights situation in the country. This includes what Bachelet called “full access” to detention centers where they will be able to monitor conditions and speak to detainees, she said. Bachelet also said that the government is open to visits by UN special rapporteurs, which are independent human rights experts with mandates over discrete human rights issues.
“The Government has also agreed that my team will be guaranteed full access to detention centers to be able to monitor conditions and speak to detainees,” she said. “They have committed to working towards broader engagement with and access for international human rights bodies – including the UN’s independent experts, known as Special Rapporteurs.”
Does The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Have US Support?
Since Michelle Bachelet assumed her post last year, her office has come under fire from elements of the US government. The Trump administration reportedly sought to derail her bid to become the new High Commissioner for Human Rights. Some in the administration, including Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton have publicly mused about defunding her office, which would kneecap a key element of the UN’s human rights system. To make matters worse, the State Department has a policy of ignoring requests from UN Special Rapporteurs and has ceased to respond to to requests from these independent human rights experts — which includes some of the very same experts with whom the Maduro government has pledged to cooperate.
This all raises the question of whether or not Bachelet’s good faith efforts to promote human rights in Venezuela are at all supported by the Trump administration?
To be sure, there are limits to what a small staff of UN human rights experts can accomplish in Venezuela. But their presence on the ground could make a big difference in the lives of some people directly affected by the ongoing violence. If the Trump administration is serious about standing with the people of Venezuela, it should follow that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights could count on the support of the United States government.