Venezuela Expels U.N. Human Rights Agency

Venezuela Expels U.N. Human Rights Agency

A United Nations agency that monitors and defends human rights was ordered on Thursday to leave Venezuela by the government of President Nicolás Maduro, an extraordinary move that will further strip the country of foreign oversight at a time when its government stands accused of intensifying repression.

The announcement by Yván Gil, the foreign minister, comes just days after the detention and disappearance of Rocío San Miguel, a prominent security expert and human rights advocate.

Following her detention, several U.N. entities issued online statements expressing concern about the arrest, some calling it part of a pattern in which the government tries to silence critics through intimidation.

Mr. Gil said he was giving the staff of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 72 hours to “abandon” the country.

In a statement on national television, he accused the U.N. agency of becoming a tool for the “coup-plotters and terrorists” who he said have conspired against Mr. Maduro — and added that the agency had been questioning his government.

“In no state is this tolerable,” he announced.

He provided no evidence to support his claims.

Phil Gunson, a Caracas-based Venezuela expert for International Crisis Group, said the expulsion of the human rights agency, combined with Ms. San Miguel’s arrest, “marks a drastic hardening” by Mr. Maduro’s government of its actions against political opponents and critics.

The move also signals a dramatic turn in Venezuela, where just a few months ago Mr. Maduro was signing an accord with the country’s opposition and agreeing to work toward a free and fair presidential election. Relations with his main political adversary, the United States, were warming, if only slightly.

In the October accord, signed in Barbados, Mr. Maduro said he would hold an election before the end of the year, and the United States in turn lifted some sanctions as a sign of good will. The temporary ease on oil and gas sector sanctions is set to expire in April and the Biden administration can choose to reimpose them.

At the time of the agreement, a democratic transition in Venezuela, while still considered unlikely, appeared a faint possibility.

But just days later, Mr. Maduro watched as an opposition candidate, María Corina Machado, won more than 90 percent of the vote in a primary election, emphasizing her popularity and the prospect that she could beat him in a general election.

Since then, Mr. Maduro’s government has declared Ms. Machado ineligible to run and arrested several members of her campaign. Men on motorbikes have attacked supporters at her events.

A new law that strictly regulates civil society organizations has led to fears that their members will start being treated as criminals. And the arrests of Ms. San Miguel and five members of her family have critics, journalists and human rights workers concerned that they have entered a new era of political control and retribution.

Chavismo, the socialist-inspired movement that Mr. Maduro heads, has controlled the country for 25 years. Mr. Maduro came to power in 2013 after the death of his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, and remained in power following a 2018 presidential election whose results were widely considered fraudulent. That election was followed by a period of international isolation, in which many countries followed the United States in refusing to conduct business with Venezuela.

Ever since, Mr. Maduro has been trying to claw his way back on to the world stage, and international recognition has been the carrot that the United States and other governments have held before him, offering it as reward for democratic concessions.

His decision to expel the U.N. human rights agency is likely to anger many democratic governments, raising the question of whether he cares at all anymore about global recognition.

If he does not, that puts Washington’s strategy in doubt.

“Prospects for even a semi-competitive election appear to have dimmed significantly in the past week,” Mr. Gunson said.

In response to the expulsion, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office, Ravina Shamdasani, said the agency regretted the move and was evaluating next steps. “Our guiding principle,” she said, “remains the promotion and protection of the human rights of the people of Venezuela.”

The U.N. human rights office, which operates in more than 60 countries, has had a presence in Venezuela since 2019. Its goal is to push the Maduro government to improve its human rights record, through engagement with officials, said Christopher Sabatini, a senior research fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, an international affairs research group in London.

The U.N. office has 13 officers inside the country who monitor conditions, produce reports and run human rights trainings for government employees.

They have also been given access to prisons and detentions centers and have assessed the effect of sanctions on human rights. The organization has called on the Venezuelan government to address hunger and malnutrition, while also pushing for other countries to lift economic sanctions.

The office has taken a more conciliatory tone than another U.N. body, the U.N. Human Rights Council, which has been investigating human rights violations in the country since 2019.

In 2020, the council implicated Mr. Maduro and other high-ranking officials in systematic human rights abuses amounting to crimes against humanity, including killings, torture and sexual violence, and called for criminal investigations.

Until the expulsion of the human rights office, the United Nations had 18 agencies inside the country. They have a large office complex in east Caracas, the capital, and have been a crucial source of humanitarian assistance in a place where nearly 80 percent of people say that they worry about going without food, according to a 2022 report from the Andrés Bello Catholic University.

The World Food Program is particularly important, operating under a special agreement with the government and feeding nearly 14,000 schoolchildren a day.

These organizations have always had to walk a delicate line. They must be careful not to become tools of government, which often uses aid programs to manipulate the electorate, while also avoiding the wrath of officials who are sensitive to any reports that make them look bad, according to Mr. Gunson.

U.N. agencies operate only with Mr. Maduro’s permission, which he could revoke at any moment.

Inside the country, the expulsion of the human rights agency along with the detention of Ms. San Miguel and her family, has left critics, activists and human rights workers feeling raw and exposed.

“We are all living a sort of conditional freedom,” said Joel García, a lawyer for political prisoners, including the Ms. San Miguel. “All of us.”