posted on Fri 25 Jan 2019 5:20 PM
Venezuela Briefing*

Tomorrow (26 January) at 9:00 am, the Security Council is expected to hold a meeting on the situation in Venezuela during which it will be briefed by Under-Secretary-General for Political and Peacebuilding Affairs Rosemary DiCarlo. The last time the Council convened on a weekend was on 14 April 2018 to discuss Israel/Palestine. Tomorrow’s briefing was requested by the US, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to participate. The Foreign Minister of Venezuela, Jorge Arreaza, is also expected to take part. It is possible that some member states whose interests are “specially affected” will request to participate, in accordance with rule 37 of the provisional rules of procedure.

The meeting was sought in response to the latest developments in the political and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. On 23 January, the president of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, announced his assumption of the presidency of Venezuela, defying President Nicolás Maduro who had been sworn in on 10 January. The 20 May 2018 elections, which were criticised for irregularities by many governments, were won by Maduro after most opposition candidates decided not to participate. Guaidó invoked article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution, which states that the President of the National Assembly is entitled to assume power temporarily if this body rules that the country’s president is failing to meet his duties. Elections then have to be held within 30 days. President Nicolas Maduro rejected the decision, and high-ranking members of the armed forces have pledged support to the sitting president.

The security situation in Venezuela, particularly the use of violence against unarmed protestors, is expected to be discussed tomorrow. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 20 people have died, allegedly after being shot by security forces or members of pro-government armed groups during demonstrations this week.

In a 24 January statement, the Secretary-General urged all actors to lower tensions and pursue every effort to prevent violence and avoid any escalation. He underlined the urgent need for all relevant actors to commit to inclusive and credible political dialogue to address the protracted crisis in the country. The Secretary-General’s call for restraint is expected to be echoed by most Council members. In a statement issued today, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet condemned the violence during the protests and called for effective investigations. She urged all sides to conduct immediate talks to defuse the increasingly incendiary atmosphere.

Over the last year, several developments have led to a further deterioration in the political situation and the erosion of the rule of law in Venezuela, contributing to mounting tensions. The National Assembly, which had been elected in 2016, was sidelined after the government decided to hold elections in July 2017 for a National Constituent Assembly. These elections were boycotted by the opposition. Despite significant divisions among the opposition, an arrangement to have a rotating presidency of the National Assembly led to Guaidó’s election as its president on 5 January. The Supreme Court has since declared invalid any decision of the National Assembly after that date.

Most Council members are expected to discuss the impact of the humanitarian crisis in the region. According to Eduardo Stein, the Joint Special Representative for Venezuelan refugees and migrants in the region, appointed in September 2018 by UNHCR and the International Organization for Migration, three million Venezuelan refugees and migrants have left the country since 2015. Many Venezuelans who have remained are suffering under food and medicine shortages, and hyperinflation.

Council members have differed in their reaction to Guaidó’s announcement of 23 January. Whereas the US and Peru have recognised Guaidó as president, Russia and China have expressed support for Maduro, rejecting outside interference. The Dominican Republic does not recognise Maduro’s second term because they question the legitimacy of the May 2018 elections. France, Germany and the UK have also stated that they consider Maduro’s government illegitimate. France, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain have called for the establishment of an International Contact Group aimed at facilitating dialogue between Venezuela’s authorities and the opposition. On 10 January, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States adopted a resolution agreeing to not recognise the legitimacy of Maduro’s new term with 19 votes in favour, six against, eight abstentions and one absence.

At press time, EU countries were negotiating an appeal for Maduro to convene free and fair elections rapidly, and discussing recognition of Guaidó as interim president, if Maduro were to fail to do so. In a 23 January statement, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini expressed the full support of the EU to the National Assembly “as the democratically elected institution whose powers need to be restored and respected” and called for the start of “an immediate political process leading to free and credible elections”. After the US decision to recognise Guaidó, Maduro announced the rupture of diplomatic relations with the US and ordered its diplomats to leave Venezuela within 72 hours. The decision has been questioned by the US State Department, which argued that it does not come from Venezuela’s legitimate authorities.

This would be the first time that Venezuela is formally discussed in the Council, although it was discussed under “any other business” on 17 May 2017 and in two Arria-formula meetings (on 13 November 2017 and 10 September 2018). There are strong divisions among members as to whether it is appropriate to discuss Venezuela in the Council at the current time, although the US seems to have secured the nine votes that would be needed for a favourable procedural vote on convening the meeting, should any Council member call for such a vote. It seems that the agenda item will be “the situation in Venezuela”.

In addition to the political turmoil in Venezuela, the Council members who support holding the meeting are likely to highlight the violent incidents in the country and the impact of the crisis on the region. They are also likely to underline the potential preventative value of the briefing, in accordance with article 34 of the Charter, which empowers the Council to “investigate any dispute, or any situation which might lead to international friction or give rise to a dispute, in order to determine whether the continuance of the dispute or situation is likely to endanger the maintenance of international peace and security.” Those countries opposed to holding the meeting are expected to raise the importance of respecting Venezuela’s sovereignty, criticise interference in its domestic affairs and discuss historical examples of external attempts to promote regime change.

Some Council members may want to raise the need for the Secretary-General to use his good offices in support of political dialogue, given the lack of traction of other initiatives with regard to Venezuela. For a long time, the UN has favoured support for regional facilitation efforts, but these have failed to date to yield results.

*Post-script (5 February 2019):  The Security Council met on the situation in Venezuela on 26 January at the request of the United States. A procedural vote was called for by Russia prior to the meeting regarding the agenda item: Russia wanted the meeting to be held under “Threats to international peace and security”, an existing agenda item, rather than under the proposed new agenda item, “Situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”.  Nine members (Belgium, the Dominican Republic, France, Germany, Kuwait, Peru, Poland, the UK and the US) supported holding the meeting under the new agenda item, while four members voted against it (China, Equatorial Guinea, Russia and South Africa) and two abstained (Côte d’Ivoire and Indonesia) (S/PV.8452). Since nine affirmative votes are required to support a procedural motion and the vote does not apply, the agenda item was adopted.