Last week, I was on the schedule to deliver testimony at the United Nations Human Rights Council. I was invited to be part of UN Watch’s campaign to stop Hugo Chavez’s bid to elect Venezuela to a seat on the council this November.
NGOs are allotted two minutes to say their peace and contribute to the debate about rights. I sat down to deliver my speech and no sooner had I mentioned the word “Cuba” in the context of human rights violations than the Cuban delegation began to create a scene, going so far as to bang their fists on the table and kick over a chair, to force the council president to interrupt my speech on a point of order (watch the heated exchange in the video below).
Here is what I was able to say:
My name is Thor Halvorssen and I come from Venezuela. In 2004, my mother was shot by the security forces of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Through the Human Rights Foundation, which I founded and direct, I have carefully monitored the Venezuelan state and have established that its current government is among Latin America’s worst human rights violators.
In Venezuela, exercising free speech is fraught with risks. Political dissent is criminalized. Property is capriciously and unlawfully seized. Opposition politicians are disqualified from elections thanks to false accusations. Journalists are harassed and media critical of the government is simply shut down. Judges are fired and even sent to prison when the president dislikes their rulings. More than 150,000 people have been killed in Venezuela since Lieutenant Colonel Chávez was elected president in 1999. Add to this the more than 5,000 who have died in the country’s disgraceful prisons, many of them waiting trial and therefore possibly innocent of the charges that put them behind bars in the first place. No such murder rate had ever existed in Venezuela — or anywhere else in the world for that matter. The government has proven that it is incapable of protecting the most basic human right, the right to life.
While all of this has taken place this council has remained silent.
Madam President, despite all of this, Venezuela is now seeking election. When it was founded in 2006 the council promised that only those countries that “uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights” would be elected. To elect Venezuela would shame and embarrass this council and would allow Venezuela to shield its horrendous record of abuse and equally problematically, to validate other authoritarian governments such as Syria, Iran and one that disgracefully sits on this council today, Cuba. Electing Venezuela would deny this council the chance to shine a light into the darkness that envelops Venezuela and it will blunt actions to protect 29 million Venezuelans who are at the mercy of a malicious [and incompetent government] …
At this point the Cuban representatives of the 53-year Castro family dynasty began their kinetic table-banging. They asked that my words be struck from the official UN record. A debate ensued between Cuba, China and the U.S. as to whether to include my remarks. I was given the floor back by the council’s president so that I could “finish” my statement and I was able to get this line out:
Madam President, this year, four authoritarian governments — China, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and Russia — will step down. You have a golden opportunity to avoid more human rights violators …
It was as if a crime had been committed. Cuba, Russia, China and Pakistan all loudly protested. The council’s president immediately cut me off. Cuba stated it would not permit such language in the council. Russia aligned itself with Cuba and stated that the Human Rights Council had its own agenda. Russia accused me of violating procedure. China went further and demanded that I be prohibited from continuing with my presentation as it was out of the scope of what I was “permitted” to say. In other words, mentioning human rights violators like Cuba or China (the only country with an imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate), at the Human Rights Council, in the time allotted to an NGO focused on human rights, is considered an unseemly deviation from the agenda.