Venezuela won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council Thursday, despite criticism from advocacy groups and fellow Latin American countries that its own rights record is appalling.
The country’s addition came during a vote by the UN General Assembly to choose 14 new members for the 47-member body based in Geneva. The council itself works to promote and protect human rights around the world, and its members are elected for staggered three-year terms on a regional group basis.
Two of the eight seats allotted for Latin America were up for grabs Thursday, the other taken by Brazil, which received the greatest number of votes at 153. Venezuela won 105. Costa Rica, which entered the race earlier this month with the specific goal of denying Venezuela a seat, only received 96.
Venezuela’s leftist government under President Nicolás Maduro has jailed opposition leaders and is accused of using torture and arbitrary arrests as it struggles to hold on to power amid a collapsing economy.
Beset by five years of recession and an economic meltdown, Venezuela was thrust into a political crisis in January when National Assembly speaker Juan Guaidó declared himself acting president. More than 50 countries, including President Mauricio Macri's Argentina, have since recognised him as such.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reported in July that over the previous year and a half there had been nearly 7,000 extrajudicial executions and that security forces were responsible for most of those deaths.
Maduro accused Bachelet of lying and continued to enjoy strong support from influential countries Russia and China in his country’s bid for a seat.
In Caracas, Attorney General Tarek William Saab hailed the vote as a “major achievement” and announced the release of 24 detained opposition figures. Fellow administration member Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said the country would “celebrate a new victory for Bolivarian peace diplomacy,” referencing the regime of socialist Maduro.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch condemned Thursday’s vote as a slap in the face to the people of Venezuela and the international community.
“It is discouraging to see a cynical candidacy mar the credibility of the UN Human Rights Council,” said Philippe Bolopion of HRW, which campaigned against the Venezuelan bid along with some other 50 international and Venezuelan NGOs.
Louis Charbonneau, the UN director at Human Rights Watch, said earlier that a “vote for Venezuela is a vote for the torture, murder and impunity that have become trademarks of President Nicholás Maduro’s government.”
Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado said as his country announced its candidacy two weeks ago that Venezuela was not “an adequate candidate” due to serious human rights violations.
“It would be inadmissible for those who have committed human rights violations and crimes against humanity to sit on the council,” added Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States.
Late last month, the council created a group of experts to investigate human rights violations in Venezuela since 2014. The Caracas government called this a hostile act. “There is certainly no precedent for Latin American countries to challenge one of their neighbors for a seat on a multilateral body in such a direct, provocative way,” Christopher Sabatini, who teaches international and public policy at Columbia University, said before Thursday's vote.