UN Report Condemns US Economic Sanctions against Venezuela, by Tom Whitney

Belarusian lawyer and academician Alena Douhan, who in 2020 became the United Nations “Special Rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures,” visited Venezuela on February 1-12. She was there “to assess the impact of unilateral [U. S.] sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights.”  At her press conference on the last day, she read aloud a preliminary report. The full report will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2021.

Douhan, in her report, “reminds all parties of their obligation under the UN Charter to observe principles and norms of international law [and] that humanitarian concerns shall always prevail over political ones.”

She “underlines the inadmissibility of applying sanctions extraterritorially and urges the U.S. Government to end the national emergency regarding Venezuela.” The United States must “revise and lift sectoral sanctions against Venezuela’s public sector, review and lift secondary sanctions against third-state parties.” All states need to “review and lift targeted sanctions in accordance with principles of international law.”

The Rapporteur calls upon “the Governments of the United Kingdom, Portugal and the United States and corresponding banks to unfreeze assets of the Venezuela Central Bank.”  

Douhan explains that U.S economic sanctions against Venezuela’s government began in 2005 and intensified after President Obama declared a “state of national emergency” in 2015. Held up as justification then were allegations of “violent repression of protests, persecution of political opponents, corruption, and curtailing of press freedom.”

She recalls that the U.S. government in 2019 imposed “a total economic embargo” that immobilized Venezuela’s state-owned oil company PDVSA and the Venezuelan Central Bank. The U.S. government transferred ownership of Venezuelan assets and properties in the United States to a façade government headed by opposition politician Juan Guaidó, whom the United States named as president.  Britain, Portugal, Canada, and the United States went on to freeze billions of dollars owned by Venezuela and deposited in their banks.

The Special Rapporteur criticizes countries imposing sanctions at the behest of the United States, most of them belonging to the European Union and to the Lima Group of nations. These are members of the Organization of American States recruited by the U.S. government as an anti-Venezuelan bloc of nations.

Douhan clarifies that hyperinflation has aggravated Venezuela’s economic decline and that the fall of oil prices in 2014 accelerated it. Oil sales, she emphasizes, has long accounted for almost all the government’s income and has, consequently, paid for schools, health care, and social programs. Ultimately, she writes, revenues would “shrink by 99%.”

Now “Venezuela faces a lack of necessary machinery, spare parts, electricity, water, fuel, gas, food and medicine.” Remittances arriving from abroad have drastically fallen, due in part to impediments to bank transfers. Now, she notes, only 20% of normal electricity is available, almost 5 million Venezuelans have emigrated, and “2.5 million people” face severe food insecurity because of reduced food imports.

“Medical staff positions in public hospitals are 50–70% vacant,” she reports, adding that, mainly because of sanctions, “90 per cent of the population” lives in conditions of extreme poverty.  

Douhan’s report documents violations of international law. Both the freezing of assets and the U.S. goal of removing Venezuela’s government “violate the sovereign rights” of the nation. The U.S. “state of national emergency” and the reign of sanctions are incompatible with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, she asserts.  U.S. extension of extraterrestrial jurisdiction to third countries “is not justified under international law.” Her reference is to countries whose citizens and companies deal with Venezuela

The United States abuses “the right to the highest attainable state of health.” She points to Venezuela’s “lack of doctors and nurses and of sufficient medicines, medical equipment, spare parts, relevant software updates, vaccines, tests, reagents and contraceptives” – all formerly supplied by the government. She decries violations of the right to water and the right to education.

The Special Rapporteur’s report differs in very significant ways from a United Nations survey and set of recommendations released in September, 2020. The UN Human Rights Council’s “Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela” produced 409 pages and 65 recommendations. That document’s authors never traveled to Venezuela. Setting the tone, the first recommendation calls for “prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into the human rights violations and crimes described in the present report.”

Like the Special Rapporteur, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report in February, one that joins in acknowledging a “deteriorating humanitarian situation” in Venezuela.  The sole recommendation of the 50-page report was timidly to suggest that, “Treasury should ensure that [its] Office of Foreign Assets Control systematically tracks information on inquiries” about the suffering. 

Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research praised the  GAO report for providing “more evidence that these unilateral, illegal US sanctions are a form of collective punishment against the Venezuelan population and should be ended immediately.” Weisbrot and co-author Jeffrey Sachs in 2019 documented that sanctions had killed tens of thousands of Venezuelans.

Some opposition politicians in Venezuela now oppose U.S. sanctions. They include Timoteo Zambrano, President of the National Assembly’s Foreign Policy Commission, and Henri Falcón, former conservative presidential candidate.

In the United States, a group of 27 senators and representatives on February 11 urged President Biden to “”consider the humanitarian impacts of sanctions.” They did not name specific countries. According to nbcnews.com, President Biden doesn’t plan to negotiate with Venezuela’s government or give up on recognizing Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s president.