Alena Douhan is the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the negative impact of unilateral coercive measures on the enjoyment of human rights. Douhan visited Venezuela on 1 February “to assess the impact of unilateral sanctions on the enjoyment of human rights by people living in Venezuela and any other affected people”.
On 12 February, Douhan published her preliminary findings based on “extensive consultations with a wide range of interlocutors”. The UN independent expert recognised the negative impact of coercive sanctions on human rights and urged European banks to “unfreeze assets of the Venezuela Central Bank”. She also noted how the push for regime change “violates the principle of sovereign equality of states”.
Since the Barack Obama administration declared Venezuela “an unusual and extraordinary threat to national security” in March 2015, the South American country has come under one of the world’s harshest sanctions regimes. These sanctions have targeted Venezuela’s oil industry, cutting off the country’s main source of income.
A report conducted by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) estimated that US sanctions had killed 40,000 Venezuelans between 2017 and 2018.
Since 2017, the European Union has also imposed sanctions on Venezuela, with European banks freezing Venezuelan assets worth billions of dollars. In particular, following US pressure, the UK froze around $2bn worth of gold held in the Bank of England.
Legal documents dated 29 December 2020 show that Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó’s UK legal team rejected a proposal to use the gold stored in the Bank of England for the purpose of supplying coronavirus vaccines to Venezuela. Guaidó’s lawyers claimed that sanctions are not “an impediment to the Maduro regime meeting its payment obligations” for coronavirus relief.
However, Douhan has now urged:
the Governments of the United Kingdom, Portugal and the United States and corresponding banks to unfreeze assets of the Venezuela Central Bank to purchase medicine, vaccines, food, medical and other equipment, spare parts and other essential goods to guarantee humanitarian needs of the people of Venezuela and the restoration of public services through and under the control of the UNDP and other UN agencies.
She added that “Venezuelan assets frozen in US, UK and Portuguese banks amount to US $6 bln”. Roughly one third of this, US$2bn, is frozen in the Bank of England. To add perspective, CEPR found that the value of “Imports of food and medicine [to Venezuela] for 2018 were just $2.6 billion”.
The “repeated refusals of banks in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Portugal to release Venezuelan assets”, Douhan noted, “even for buying medicine, vaccines and protective kits, under the control of international organizations, violates the above principal and impedes the ability of Venezuela to respond to the COVID-19 emergency” [emphasis added].
Douhan is thus calling on the UK to return the gold held in the Bank of England to Venezuela, so that it can better respond to the economic and health crisis facing the country.
The violation of sovereignty
Douhan also noted how unilateral coercive sanctions violate Venezuela’s sovereignty and are not grounded in international law.
As such, “freezing assets of the Central Bank of Venezuela on the ground of non-recognition of its government as well as the adoption of relevant sanctions violates the sovereign rights of the country and impedes its effective government to exercise its duty to guarantee the needs of the population”.
The ultimate purpose of sanctions, Douhan recognised, is to remove the Nicolás Maduro government:
The announced purpose of the “maximum pressure” campaign – to change the Government of Venezuela – violates the principle of sovereign equality of states and constitutes an intervention in domestic affairs of Venezuela that also affects its regional relations.
In this context, Venezuela’s ability to provide public services under the present sanctions regime has been totally debilitated – “the government’s revenue was reported to shrink by 99% with the country currently living on 1% of its pre-sanctions income”.
For instance, the diversion of assets of Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA’s US subsidiary CITGO “has prevented transplants of liver and bone marrow to 53 Venezuelan children”.
“Among other factors reported to affect the economy of Venezuela”, Douhan added, are “mismanagement, corruption and state price controls”.
Douhan’s report follows another study published in February by the US Government Accountability Office which recognised, according to Venezuela Analysis, that “sanctions have pushed the Venezuelan economy into crisis”. She will present her full report to the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2021.