by Richard Sindelar
Evolving international law provides, in theory, avenues for a consortium of nations to resolve the combination of leadership and regime crisis in Venezuela, despite Nicolas Maduro’s dogged persistence to hang onto the presidency at any cost.
International norms now recognize the relatively fresh concept of an international “responsibility to protect” (R2P). According to R2P, which was enshrined in the 2005 World Summit Document adopted by UN members, outside nations can challenge sovereignty and intervene where a nation’s leadership engages in any one of four grievous harms against their own citizens—genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. In such situations, formal intervention requires a UN Security Council resolution empowering member states to act.
R2P has been used formally just once—in Libya during the Arab Spring when Muammar Qaddafi was shelling and bombing his own citizenry in Sirte and elsewhere in his bid to hold power. In this instance, however, R2P became somewhat discredited. R2P does not contemplate regime change, only that intervening nations force the ruling regime to amend its ways. In Libya, however, the intervention to protect civilians morphed into the overthrow of Qaddafi’s government, and his own death.
Afterwards, no authoritarian leaders fearful and self-protective about their own violations of accepted humanitarian standards and international legal norms—think Russia’s invasion of Crimea or China’s virtual seizure of the South China Sea)—wanted to legitimize any international interventions. Such countries now always veto any R2P-based resolutions.
Another level of international law revolves around the recognition not of countries but of governments. An arguably legitimate government, chosen within Venezuela by a recognized constitutional process, is in place with Juan Guaidó as president. International law permits any nation to recognize and interact with this regime.
In the Venezuela case, then, the international recognition of Juan Guaido’s presidency by over 50 countries helps validate his claims of legitimacy. Outside nations are able to recognize those claims, just as nations once split over the competing claims of Mao and Chiang Kai-shek to be the legitimate leaders of China. A recognized president of a given country can solicit support and aid, as Guaidó has done, and other nations may positively respond.
Weighed against Guaido’s claim to the presidency are the actions of the Maduro regime. The blocking of humanitarian aid, the conditions of oppressive squalor verging on starvation being visited upon those Venezuelans who do not support Maduro’s regime, and the Venezuelan military’s use of live fire to suppress protests instead of crowd-control mechanisms all combine to make a convincing argument that Maduro and the Venezuelan military are engaged in crimes against humanity.
As such, R2P comes clearly into play, as does the question of intervention by outside nations in order to protect Venezuela’s citizens from the harsh tactics of their own regime. Thus far, the United States and other nations have been following the R2P playbook if not the letter of the formal process. Although the step-by-step actions implemented so far—to persuade, to sanction—follow in general the increasingly tough steps of the R2P process, no UN resolution has been passed. Another variant is that here R2P would be used to install the more legitimate of the two opposing camps, a version of regime change not contemplated in R2P.
Pressure should continue on the banking and economic front, perhaps by expanding sanctions similar to those on Iran that would forbid other nations from doing business with Venezuela, squeezing banking avenues for the Maduro regime. Further sanctions on an expanded list of military leaders might include blocking the travel of families, freezing overseas bank accounts, and issuing Interpol notices.
If Maduro and the military remain stubborn in the face of international persuasion, would military intervention be in order under R2P, and if so what type intervention?
Here, Africa has led the way. The African Union and the regional Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) have in recent years set the international standard for holding sovereigns responsible for following the rule of law and their own constitutions. Charles Majinge discusses some of the early African efforts to police troublesome leaders who were affecting African security in a broad sense. Majinge offers as an early milestone the ECOWAS military intervention in Liberia in 1989, noting how the secretary general of the precursor Organization of African Unity (OAU) described the ECOWAS intervention as a “timely and bold decision” to address regional security challenges. The Nigerian president justified the military intervention on humanitarian grounds.
The 2017 ECOWAS intervention in The Gambia, over an electoral dispute eerily similar to the ongoing Venezuelan one, provides one recent model of a successful and largely peaceful military intervention. In an operation dubbed “Restore Democracy,” ECOWAS first slowly built up its forces along the border in a show of force, in combination with ever more urgent diplomatic missions and entreaties from regional leaders, to give Gambia’s leaders a chance to save some face—and, critically, to survive. Pressure was stoked by setting a deadline for ECOWAS forces to cross the border. Eventually, a slow intervention began. Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, unsure of the loyalty of his forces, chose to step down.
The Organization of American States (OAS) relies on diplomacy and possible expulsion from the organization as levers to persuade a violating sovereign to behave in a better fashion. The OAS has intervened militarily only at the request of national regimes, such as Haiti. In fall 2017 OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro declared that a military option was not off the table, seeming to follow President Trump’s lead, but any OAS legal basis for such action was left unspoken.
If Maduro is to be persuaded to leave power, and his military to support Guaidó, the rationale will have to come from the universal principles of R2P, but carried out by a coalition of like-minded nations. It won’t come from the UN, where a veto is certain, or the OAS, which has never adventured that far in the face of the rule of sovereignty.
A slow build-up in the region of willing U.S.-supported Latin American forces, coupled with an intense period of diplomacy by committed regional leaders, would ratchet up pressure. One critical element would be to signal those military who choose to switch their allegiance to Guaidó as the legitimate president that they would be forgiven for any past actions. The international community, meanwhile, will hold accountable those who continue with Maduro.
If nations don’t find a way to apply these new humanitarian international standards, Venezuela may slide into a civil war. Better if the OAS, the world’s oldest regional organization, could somehow find the political will to pursue this newer R2P intervention process and force Maduro to resign rather than risk much greater violence in future. If the OAS itself will not police its region, then a coalition of nations should act under the R2P doctrine.
Richard Sindelar, a retired U.S. diplomat with three tours of duty in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, now serves as assistant professor of international studies at Houston’s University of St. Thomas, where he teaches courses in U.S. foreign policy and international law, among others.