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Venezuela and International Law

by Urs P. Gasche Wednesday, Jul. 10, 2019 at 11:09 AM

International law professors explain a US military incursion in Venezuela would violate the UN Charter. "All nations must desist from any threat or use of force in their international relations. The media and governments denounce violations of international law very selectively.


What does International Law Say about Economic Boycotts, Political Interventions and Threats against Maduro?

By Urs P. Gasche

[This article published on Feb 5, 2019 is translated abridged from the German on the Internet,]

International law professors explain that a military incursion of the US would violate the UN Charter. Trump’s security advisor John R. Bolton is already glad US oil companies could soon invest and produce oil in Venezuela.

Nearly two weeks have passed since the Venezuelan parliament president Juan Guaido declared himself interim president. However, there is little reporting whether the different interventions of foreign countries respect international law.

The media and governments denounce violations of international law very selectively. The same ones who repeatedly accused Russia of “annexing the Crimea against international law and for meddling in east Ukraine” are strikingly silent about international law when Turkey occupies militarily border areas in Syria or when the US builds and maintains military bases in Syria.

Classical international law hardly matters, some say. It is antiquated and not acknowledged by all countries. On account of the veto right, the UN Security Council is often unable to act and did not sanction offenses against the UN Charter.

International norms as formalized in the UN Charter promote peaceful coexistence among states, not the right of the stronger. This is especially important for small states like Switzerland. The prohibition on the use of force anchored in the UN Charter is central. Unilateral economic sanctions should be prohibited like the prohibited use of force. Switzerland as a UN member is obliged to carry out these sanctions resolved by the UN.

The UN Prohibition of War

The UN Charter anchors the prohibition on force in Article 2:

“All nations must desist from any threat or use of force in their international relations.”

The Charter only recognizes two exceptions to this war prohibition: 1. The right to self-defense when a country is attacked. 2. When the UN Security Council in a mandate approves war against a country. The Security Council can only do this when a government does not protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or grave crimes against humanity (“Responsibility to Protect”).

The second fundamental UN principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of foreign states aims at preventing superpowers from exploiting domestic riots or civil wars in third countries, intervening and enforcing their own interests.

Intervention in Venezuela

The anti-capitalist governments of Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro speculated with the falling oil price – 90% of export revenues come from oil exports – and mismanaged the country through clientele policy and enrichment of the power clique. Unilateral US sanctions did the rest to the greatly weakened economy and led the land to dependence on Russia. Large parts of the population suffer under t disastrous hyper-inflation. This led to vacant shops, widespread poverty and migration of 10% of the 32 million inhabitants…

A Central Question and Additional Questions

As a central question, when is it legitimate or even demanded by international law that the US (or Russia or China) bleed white a third country with a concrete economic boycott, demand new elections, recognize an oppositional leader as the new head of state and help him to power financially, logistically and even militarily if necessary?

According to the UN Charter, the US, Russia or China can only use economic or military force against a country when the Security Council resolves such an intervention with a majority and without a veto of one of the permanent members – if a government did not protect the population in its country from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or grave crimes against humanity.

In the case of Venezuela, the Security Council did not give any green light for a foreign intervention because Russia and China would have prevented such a resolution with a veto. Nevertheless, the question is raised whether the economic, social, political and human rights situation could justify such a Security Council resolution.

Was there a genocide, war crime, ethnic cleansing or grave crime against humanity?

The media should give as much fact-based information as possible on whether at least one of these prerequisites for an intervention of the great powers and the UN Security Council is fulfilled.

In a lead article in the New York Times, from February 1, 2019, the self-appointed president Juan Guaido did not appeal to any of these conditions for interventions. Rather, he stressed violations of the Venezuela constitution (“President Maduro’s illegal election victory on May 20, 2018”), a humanitarian crisis because of inadequate food and medical care, the exodus of three million inhabitants and 600 political prisoners.

Further Questions Are Raised

Can the US (or Russia or China) put other countries under pressure with economic sanctions? Where can or must they intervene to protect the economic and political fate of the population? In the Congo after the latest crass election fraud, in Rwanda, the Central African republic, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Bangladesh, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (with around 60,000 political prisoners, 30-times more than Venezuela in relation to the population)? Do the interventions of the great powers violate international law and the UN Charter?

Did the enormous oil potential play a role in the interventions in Libya, Iraq and Venezuela?

With what international law foundations can European Union states demand elections in a foreign country?

Far-reaching Acknowledgment of Juan Guaido as President

The US recognized Juan Guaido as Venezuela’s only legitimate president only an hour after the parliament president nominated himself president and urged South American and European states to do the same.

Like many other states, Switzerland according to EDA only recognizes states, not governments. Governments can change; a state remains a state… it is astonishing how many media described Guaido’s recognition as president as something normal… Acknowledging or not-acknowledging governments is “very selective,” Stephan Oeter, professor of international law at the University of Hamburg, explained to infosperber: “In most cases, questions of legitimation are not raised.”

The US seizure of the Venezuelan oil firm and the blockade of oil sales by the US as a pressure tactic against the Maduro government is “an illegitimate intervention according to international law” (Rainer J. Schweizer, professor of international law).

Professor Stefan Oeter agrees: “Economic sanctions in principle are imposed against `illegitimate governments’ that come to power through breach of the law. However, the use of military force against such governments is taboo. The UN Security Council can order military measures if necessary.”

The prerequisites for such a Security Council resolution were genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing or grave crimes against humanity. Only then can the “Responsibility to Protect” take effect.

“The Cold Warriors Are Back”

In the New York Times, history professor Patrick Iber of the University of Wisconsin, Madison explained: “While Maduro is bad, the US is not a trustworthy partner for forcing a `regime change.’ In the course of the 20th century, the US meddled again and again in the internal affairs of South American states because South America was regarded as its geopolitical backyard. He recalled Guatemala, Brazil and Chile. There the US brought military dictatorships to power and paid no attention to the fate of the populations.

For Iber, the “cold warriors” are back again. John R. Bolton, an ardent advocate of the war in Iraq, holds a key position in US policy toward Venezuela. On television, Bolton urged Maduro “to retire to a peaceful beach far away from Latin America. Otherwise he will land in Guantanamo.” On the TV program “Fox Business,” Bolton declared “It would be a great advantage for the US if US oil companies could invest and produce oil in Venezuela. That would be good for the populations in Venezuela and the US.”

The White House nominated Elliot Abrams as special ambassador for the “Reintroduction of Democracy in Venezuela.” During the Reagan administration, Abrams justified US human rights violations. He went all out for military aid to the dictator Rios Montt in Guatemala. At the same time, he financed weapons shipments to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua bypassing the White House. He was condemned for lying to Congress. Abrams was also one of the most vehement advocates of the US invasion in Iraq.

Thirdly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is one the “cold warriors.” He was largely responsible for the Iraq War as a former CIA director. He successfully championed the cancellation of the nuclear treaty with Iran.

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