February 12, 2014. The sharp sound of bullets caused a commotion in the crowd. Everyone started sprinting away from the general prosecutor’s office. I kept looking towards my friends as we fled the street we had marched down with thousands of other students earlier in the day. We were demanding an end to Nicolás Maduro’s leadership in Venezuela when the government’s own intelligence agency opened fire on the crowd. When I arrived home, worried calls from friends who knew I’d gone to the demonstration began pouring in, because a student had been killed on the very same street I had fled just hours earlier. Since that infamous day, the Maduro regime enacted a widespread campaign of violence and oppression against students, workers and opposition leaders. In the following months, dozens of murders and thousands of arbitrary detentions demonstrated the regime’s intention to increase repression and authoritarianism without any regard for their citizens’ human rights.
In September 2020, a United Nations (U.N.) fact-finding mission revealed a systematic pattern of human rights violations from 2014-2020 which directly linked Nicolás Maduro and his ministers of Interior and Defense to thousands of extrajudicial murders, arbitrary detentions and continuous torture against political prisoners, including the utilization of sexual violence to elicit confessions from political detainees. The U.N. report findings recommend that the International Criminal Court conduct an independent review of the human rights violations committed by the Maduro regime, since the very institutions that are supposed to protect the Venezuelan people are the ones involved in the violations.
Aside from ensuring the individual perpetrators face justice for their actions, there is still a role for the international community to play in preventing further crimes against humanity in Venezuela. Thus far, they have been supportive of the Venezuelan people’s own attempts to restore democracy and address the human rights violations in their country. After a fraudulent presidential election in 2018, the Venezuelan National Assembly declared an end to the Maduro administration and appointed Juan Guaido as the interim president. Nevertheless, the success of the Venezuelan opposition’s strategy was dependent on their capacity to gather support from the military and generate a successful democratic transition. While Guaido claims legal and popular legitimacy, Maduro still holds power with the support of the armed forces and paramilitary groups. Internationally, the interim government has been recognized by over 60 countries as the legitimate representation of Venezuela, and through this, they have advocated to the international community for broad sanctions against the regime and its officials. Although the sanctions were a massive blow on the regime, Maduro has garnered international support from other authoritarian regimes and human rights abusers including Iran, China, Turkey and Russia, which have continued to do business with him. The United States has threatened these countries with subsequent sanctions, but further action has only been taken on Iran, Russia, Cuba and individual companies in Mexico and Turkey.
The findings of the U.N. mission and the short-term failure of the sanctions to generate a democratic transition raise a serious question that has long been kept “on the table,” but has not been considered seriously: should the United States and regional partners, including Colombia and Brazil, apply the responsibility to protect (R2P) principle and intervene in Venezuela?
The R2P principle, approved by the U.N. in 2003, aims to protect civilian populations “from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” The implementation of this principle lies in “diplomatic, humanitarian and other peaceful means,” but also allows for the use of force by the international community and coalitions to prevent the continuation of human rights abuses. In 2019, Secretary General of the Organization of American States Luis Almagro argued that rather than a process that starts with a military intervention, R2P is a continuum that begins with diplomatic pressure and sanctions, but ends with military action if the situation worsens. Despite an overall escalation of violence and an official U.N. report on crimes against humanity, the international community has not engaged in a meaningful debate on the application of R2P in Venezuela.
The mixed record of humanitarian interventions in the past and the failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide both haunt the U.N. The inability to generate stable institutions in Libya after the joint military operations to depose Gaddafi, and the instability that followed the Iraq War have largely generated skepticism towards the application of the R2P principle on humanitarian grounds. Others argue that the R2P principle should be applied in cases of genocide or ethnic cleansing, which have not occurred in Venezuela despite the pattern of violence and thousands of extrajudicial killings. If intense protests restart in Venezuela, however, the opposition might face increased risks, because the Maduro regime has shown a disposition to ramp up violence against civilian demonstrators.
The approval of R2P is subject to U.N. Security Council approval, as it is the only organ that can authorize such an operation. Russia and China vetoed a previous U.S.-sponsored resolution that called for free and fair elections and provided a pathway to aid in Venezuela administered by the U.N. Both countries are likely to reject a humanitarian intervention in Venezuela, despite Maduro’s record. Nonetheless, it is imperative that the international community hold a wide discussion of potential implementations of R2P and consider potential alternative scenarios. If a humanitarian intervention is not likely to occur, what other options can the international community pursue instead?
Under the current scenario, the most plausible and reasonable strategy is to increase the pressure on Maduro through the threat of further sanctions against any company or country that engages in dealings with the regime while encouraging dissent within the ranks of the military. The heads of the Venezuelan military, despite having sided with Maduro on several occasions, have negotiated with Juan Guaido and the opposition in the past.
The Venezuelan opposition must continue pursuing the U.S. State Department’s agenda laid out in the Democratic Transition Framework and offer amnesty for dissenting members of the military while negotiating with high-ranking regime officials.
If the current strategy does not succeed in generating a democratic transition, the regime will likely increase repression and continue their campaign of crimes against humanity. In such a case, the international community should be prepared to seriously reconsider the application of the R2P principle. In the meantime, sanctions can be used as a negotiation tool to achieve the release of political prisoners and a democratic transition while increasing support to the Venezuelan diaspora of over 5 million migrants and refugees.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.