Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency: Putting Principles First

Recently, much of the analysis of the crisis in Venezuela has focused on video sleuthing to determine responsibility for the burning of a truck loaded with relief supplies. The needless political bickering over desperately needed assistance underlies the danger of humanitarian assistance becoming a political football entangled in complex debates over political change. The robust offer of humanitarian aid to Venezuela by the United States, conditioned on political change, and the denial of aid by forces loyal to Nicolas Maduro, represents a dramatic departure from the neutral and impartial methodology by which humanitarian assistance should be offered and delivered and reflects a troubling trend towards the politicization of humanitarian assistance.

To be clear, there is no equivalence between those who seek to provide aid and those who block it. The long-standing denial of aid by forces loyal to Maduro is a gross violation of humanitarian and human rights principles, and the onus rests on him and his supporters to permit lifesaving relief items to enter Venezuela and reach the affected population. Maduro’s history of using food as a political tool inside Venezuela is deeply problematic. However, donor states that seek to use aid to force political change are themselves running afoul of these same humanitarian principles that call for assistance to be delivered in a neutral, independent, and impartial manner without political motivations.

The Humanitarian Challenge

The UN reports that food shortages and the deterioration of basic services affect nearly all of Venezuela’s 30 million citizens. The underlying conditions that have led to widespread hunger and spreading disease are rooted in ongoing economic mismanagement and political malfeasance, as opposed to a systemic shock such as a natural disaster or the escalation of armed violence.

Consequently, the challenge of meeting the legitimate needs of a suffering population is to manage a humanitarian response that navigates political and diplomatic minefields based on geostrategic calculations. Aid organizations are accustomed to navigating complex political and security dynamics. However, the deliberate use of aid as a political tool in Venezuela makes this dynamic different and creates another challenge for donors and humanitarian actors, while those in need of help continue to wait.

The challenge of meeting the legitimate needs of a suffering population is to manage a humanitarian response that navigates political and diplomatic minefields based on geostrategic calculations.

Old Problems, New Offers

The humanitarian needs in Venezuela are not new, nor are they borne out of the political upheaval taking place since January. Since the beginning of 2016, credible reports have highlighted the lack of basic necessities inside Venezuela in the health sector, citing the spread of preventable disease. In the middle of 2016, the UN Food and Agriculture Office predicted severe food shortages. In 2017, aid organizations and human rights groups increased awareness of the increasing hunger and malnutrition and a growing health emergency. By the end of 2017, Venezuela was labeled a ‘complex emergency,’ necessitating a response beyond the scope and mandate of an individual agency, and one which includes displacement, health, and insecurity.

The crisis has led to massive migration into Colombia and other countries in the region. An appeal by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent estimates 5.3 million people have fled to neighboring countries, urging donors to respond to the needs of the vulnerable migrant population and the communities supporting them.

The Danger of Politicized Aid

Regardless of the root cause, the imperative to assist the most vulnerable remains, and this imperative is challenged when aid is overtly tied to economic and political change. Troublingly, that is exactly what has happened, as relief operations inside Venezuela have become deeply politicized and linked to the power struggle between supporters of Maduro and those who have rallied behind Juan Guaidó.

Regardless of the root cause, the imperative to assist the most vulnerable remains, and this imperative is challenged when aid is overtly tied to economic and political change.

While the humanitarian crisis and migration have been developing since 2014, it was only earlier this year that the United States announced and began publicly preparing and distributing a massive aid convoy, prepositioning stocks on the borders of Colombia and Peru. U.S. government officials explicitly acknowledged that the aid is intended as an enticement for political change. This is a serious departure from traditional U.S. diplomacy and leadership on humanitarian issues and is deeply uncomfortable for aid organizations, other traditional donors, and implementing partners. The UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross distanced themselves from an aid response tied explicitly towards political ends, and U.S.-based NGO’s called for a halt to the politicization of assistance. Meanwhile, an appeal by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Activities for ongoing work inside Venezuela remains less than half funded.

Furthermore, aid activities have been operating inside Venezuela since 2016 and prior, and understandably have maintained a low profile. The predominantly local organizations that receive international assistance have found ways to work on the urgent needs of the Venezuelan population while avoiding scrutiny that would put them at risk. Deliberately conditioning additional aid to political change increases the security risk to the individuals and organizations providing lifesaving assistance.

Deliberately conditioning additional aid to political change increases the security risk to the individuals and organizations providing lifesaving assistance.

Accountability for Obstruction

Despite skirmishes in border areas, the situation in Venezuela has not escalated to greater violence. Absent an armed conflict, the legal framework applicable to the denial of aid is rooted in international human rights law. For example, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to life, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights codifies the right to health and food. Venezuela has ratified both. Setting aside the actions that led to the current conditions, the continued denial of life-saving aid that could alleviate the crisis would be considered in contravention of these covenants.

There is an unfortunate history of governments blocking humanitarian assistance outside of an armed conflict. In Myanmar, in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the government initially prevented aid from reaching the Irrawaddy Delta. Similarly, the government of Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe ejected aid workers in the run-up to elections. These actions were denounced as potentially rising to the level of crimes against humanity, which can be committed outside the context of an armed conflict and can include the refusal to act in a manner consistent with securing the rights to health and food.

So What Now?

The outcome remains uncertain for the political crisis in Venezuela. However, there are precedents for negotiations to take place regarding the humanitarian assistance, separating the urgent needs of the Venezuelan population from the diplomatic crisis.

Diplomatic negotiations between parties locked in political and military disputes can and sometimes do succeed in opening doors for humanitarian access. Last month, negotiations in Yemen produced a breakthrough, allowing for the World Food Program to access a grain storage facility housing wheat stocks that can feed nearly 3.7 million people for a month. Since violence erupted in Syria in 2016, negotiations produced brief, albeit infrequent, windows for the delivery of desperately needed assistance, and resulted in the drafting of a memoranda that created de-escalation zones to allow for aid delivery. In the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, the Myanmar authorities ultimately relented and allowed international assistance.

Learning from these examples, officials on all sides should step back from the brinksmanship that has marked the latest offer of assistance. Tweets and threats regarding the offer of humanitarian assistance undermine the life-saving benefits such assistance packages can provide. Rather, the United States and the countries of the Lima Group should explore options to decouple offers of assistance from political ultimatums and provide assistance in a manner consistent with humanitarian principles. Donors should engage directly with the UN, Red Cross Movement, and NGOs to develop mechanisms by which aid can be delivered inside Venezuela that address credible concerns about misappropriation. These organizations have extensive experience in delivering aid in complicated environments and can manage the task if given the opportunity to do so consistent with their principles.

As the largest single donor to foreign assistance, the United States in the past has admirably aided countries with whom it has complex political disagreements. The crisis in Venezuela should be no different.

Jacob Kurtzer is a research fellow with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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