United States, Venezuela and UNASUR: 4 Questions

04/13/2015 11:24 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

The sanctions adopted by the U.S. government against seven mid-ranking Venezuelan state officials, who are involved in or are responsible for severe human rights violations, have prompted some strong reactions in Latin America for the past month.

Last week, Venezuela issued a strong note of diplomatic protest against this "imperial" executive order. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro had described the sanctions as a "mad, evil, heinous and shameful" intervention, and the country's National Assembly considered that they merited granting Maduro an authorization to rule by decree "in order to ensure the survival of the nation". Allegedly, this more "agile" way of exercising power would avoid the harmful effects of the "interference by foreign powers" and reinforce the "protection of the local economy from those who are engaged in economic warfare".

No less dramatic has been the challenge posed by Maduro to the rest of the region ("either you are with Venezuela, or with the Yankee empire"). The Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) left no room for doubt as to the side it picked. This regional organization considered that the actions by the U.S. threatened the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other States. In its brief statement on the U.S. sanctions there is no mention of human rights violations. The strong endorsement by UNASUR of the position of the Venezuelan government limits any chance of mediation or good offices to settle the controversy.

These facts should trigger four questions. And the first of these questions must be whether these reactions are proportional to the cause.

Caracas, undoubtedly, has every right to take offense at the actions taken by Washington and at the qualification of the situation in Venezuela by the U.S. as "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States". Nevertheless, as the White House confirmed this week, these terms are a standard formula required by the administration in order to enact any sanctions -- be they substantial or rather minor actions.

However, these sanctions are certainly not "the most aggressive, unjust and disastrous step ever taken against Venezuela", as Maduro has labeled them. Far from it, the measures were not taken against the country as a whole, its economy or its population, but only against seven mid-ranking state officials who do not benefit from state immunity under international law (which could apply to high-ranking state officials). These seven individuals are banned from entering U.S. territory (and entry restrictions for foreigners are always a prerogative of any sovereign state). Furthermore, the U.S.-based assets of these seven officials have also been subject to freezing orders (and it seems unclear whether any such assets actually exist).

The limited personal and material scope of these sanctions thus answers our first question.

The next question is whether these rather symbolic sanctions are legal. Was UNASUR right to question its legality? The justification given by the Obama administration was the need to enforce respect for human rights and to safeguard democratic institutions within the framework of international law. These rules are enshrined in treaties to which Venezuela and the United States are parties as well as in customary international law.

In its statement regarding the US sanctions, UNASUR -- which curiously enough does not include a legal adviser among its recently recruited senior staff -- gives the impression of dismissing these measures as illegal without thorough examination. Its statement concerning the sanctions does not mention human rights, which Venezuela has solemnly undertaken to respect as a matter of international law. Serious violations of human rights are, in fact, not "strictly internal affairs" in which no one can meddle. They constitute an exception to the principle of non-intervention. And in the case of Venezuela, these serious violations of human rights have been established by the United Nations as well as by non-governmental human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The most important international obligations concerning human rights are assumed by each State with respect to the entire international community -- not vis-à-vis a group of States in particular. It is not even necessary to sign a treaty to be bound by these essential principles. Given their supreme hierarchy, and the fact that it is not always possible for existing multilateral fora to count on a mechanism to effectively enforce these obligations, it is possible for non-directly injured States to adopt sanctions against the offending State both multilaterally as well as unilaterally. The sanctions taken by the U.S. against seven Venezuelan officials is a case that has precedents of a much greater scale (Syria, Zimbabwe, Iran, North Korea, to name a few). The measures taken against the Venezuelan officials are allowed by international law. Moreover, by comparison to sanctions taken in other cases, they are mostly symbolic.

The third question is: Why the United States? Isn't this a case of double standards? One may observe that the human rights record of the big powers is far from perfect.

It is true that despite the hierarchy of human rights in the international system, countries generally tend to avoid taking actions when human rights are violated in another state: at the very least, the measures will generate an impasse and be ineffective vis-à-vis the target state. But this reluctance does not mean non-directly injured States cannot, individually and within certain parameters, adopt sanctions: some will take small steps, others may take more substantial ones. And to do that, international law does not ask for an unblemished own record (no country has it).

The practical effects of the U.S. sanctions for the seven Venezuelan officials concerned are minimal. The impasse between Washington and Caracas will eventually be solved. But the final and most important question remains unanswered: In a country where repression is taking a growing toll of illegal imprisonment, torture and death... what will the effect on citizens' rights be to now be ruled by decree?

An earlier version of this op-ed was originally published in Spain's El País.