Article by Nick Reem,
This week, the increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Venezuela took a deadly turn: at least two people were killed and hundreds were injured at border skirmishes when an international coalition attempted to transport foodstuffs and medical supplies into Venezuela. President Maduro of Venezuela has shut down his country’s borders in past days, attempting to retain power against opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Guaidó recently declared himself interim president in a bid to unseat Maduro, and he has gained the formal recognition and backing of the United States and most Latin American and European nations. Guaidó, with the support of the United States, is forcing the issue of humanitarian aid distribution in order to compel the Venezuelan army to choose sides, show he can deliver much-needed supplies to the Venezuelan people, and catalyze further disillusionment with the Maduro regime as it continues to block (and burn) the humanitarian aid. The United States has also increased pressure on the weakened Maduro regime by blocking all US-bound oil sales from Venezuela, further depriving Maduro’s government of cash flow, but thereby exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. While the Maduro regime’s human rights abuses and the Venezuelan refugee crisis have been detailed previously on this forum, this article argues that Maduro’s instant blocking of humanitarian aid constitutes a violation of international law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a Starting Point
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 25 provides for the human right to a standard of living sufficient to maintain health, including food and medical care. Maduro’s mismanagement of the Venezuelan economy has led to severe hyperinflation in recent years, contributing in part to food shortages and the inability of Venezuelans to afford many basic foods necessary for health. Indeed, this food and medicine shortage has been one of the main drivers behind 2.6 million Venezuelans fleeing their country. While the UDHR is not binding in the way a treaty would be, many scholars argue it has become customary international law through its frequent invocation in subsequent international law and treaties, and as such, is implicitly binding on all states.
Applied to Maduro’s blocking of humanitarian aid, the intentional restriction of access to available food and medicine likely violates UDHR Article 25. The United Nations Security Council has previously held that the denial of humanitarian assistance in the former Yugoslavia violated the human right to an adequate standard of living embodied in UDHR Article 25. A similar finding against Venezuela may be useful in further publicizing these human rights abuses and applying additional pressure for Maduro to peacefully cede power to Guaidó.
Convention on the Rights of the Child – a Binding Obligation
Additionally, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Article 24 provides for the right of the child to the “highest attainable standard of health.” Parties thereto are obligated to uphold this standard through “appropriate measures” by ensuring sufficient health care and “combat disease and malnutrition […] through the provision of adequate nutritious foods.” Venezuela ratified the CRC in 1990. Therefore, this provision is binding.
Applied to the instant case, the intentional restriction of access to humanitarian aid likely violates CRC Article 24’s obligation to secure the highest available health standard for children. By willfully depriving Venezuelans of readily accessible medical and food supplies, Maduro’s regime is likely in violation of its obligations under the CRC. The conflict in Syria provides support that willful restriction of access to food and health care, including medicine, violates the CRC.
Armed Conflict or Not? A Critical Distinction
A large body of humanitarian law, and thus additional, international legal protections for Venezuelans with respect to the right to access humanitarian aid, is limited to the governance of armed conflict (See, e.g., the Geneva Conventions). The threshold for armed conflict was set low but traditionally applies only to conflict between states. Per the Montevido Convention (1933), a state is defined as having a 1) permanent population; 2) defined territory; 3) government; and 4) capacity to enter into relations with other states.
While Guaidó’s opposition may constitute a government with the capacity to enter into relations with other states, his unsettled claim to power and uncertain popular legitimacy in Venezuela renders his opposition a mere insurgency rather than a State under the Montevido construction. Therefore, most humanitarian law protections such as Article 23 of the Geneva Convention, which provides for the “free passage of all consignments of medical and hospital stores and […] [requires] the free passage of all consignments of essential foodstuffs […] for children under fifteen […],” do not apply, because this body of law governs only armed conflict.
Remedies and Next Steps
Due to the limited scope of most international law with respect to intra-state unarmed conflict, international legal remedies to Maduro’s continued blocking of humanitarian aid are limited. The United States and other countries can increase sanctions and pressure on Maduro and his loyalists, but sanctions already in place are near maximal levels and contribute to Venezuelans’ lack of access to basic food and medicine.
However, as previously suggested on this forum, one approach to justice is the International Criminal Court, which can continue to document these and other human rights abuses in hopes of bringing the Maduro regime to justice, although any prosecution of violators remains unlikely.
Another solution is for the United Nations to employ “shaming tactics” in meticulously documenting Maduro’s violations of UDHR Article 25 and CRC Article 24 with respect to the blocking of humanitarian aid, in addition to other human rights violations, although such tactics have produced mixed results. However, such a widely disseminated report may provide the necessary “last straw” to catalyze mass military defection and further erode the remnants of Maduro’s popular support, which could facilitate a peaceful transfer of power.
Hopefully, the international community will learn from its failings to quell the rampant human rights abuses in conflicts such as Syria, Rwanda, and Bosnia to peacefully resolve the power struggle in Venezuela, with the goal of preventing additional rights violations and alleviating Venezuelans’ suffering.