May 6, 2006

Through the WTO Looking Glass: The Food Aid Fight

Nothing in the world of WTO negotiations is quite the way you'd expect. One startling example is the sprawling controversy over the US Food Aid program - at first sight, one of these motherhood-and-apple-pie programs only a monster could oppose. Hey, humanitarian disasters happen, people go hungry, and the US has a mechanism to make sure they get enough to eat: who could possibly be against that?

Plenty of people, it turns out, including - remarkably - many of the recipient countries. Lofty rhetoric aside, it's been clear to them for some time that the way the US operates its Food Aid program is just an agricultural surplus disposal mechanism in disguise. When a good harvest threatens to create a glut of food in the US, which could cause farm gate prices to collapse, the US government steps in to buy the excedent. Rather than storing it or letting it rot in the fields, they then package it up in nice, star-spangled banner sacks and ship them off to the third world - whether the food is needed or not. In fact, more than a few studies show that US Food Aid shipments are closely correlated with the size of the harvest in the US in any given year, and not at all related to food shortages abroad.

From an economic point of view, then, US Food Aid often amounts to an agricultural export subsidy by another name. The effect of so much cynical largesse is typically to depress prices in the recipient countries - hey, for local farmers, "free" is a tough price to compete with. Food Aid shipments thus tend to drive local producers out of the market, arguably exacerbating local poverty conditions.

The surreal outcome of all of this is that, in the Doha Round, one of the thorniest of the "second-tier deadlocks" involves very poor countries begging the US to stop giving them free food, while US negotiators manouver furiously to keep those aid flows going!

Into this fray comes the European Union, which gives its food aid mostly in the form of cash. It's true that US Food Aid works to depress food prices in recipient countries, so the program puts EU food exporters at a disadvantage in those markets. But it's hard to believe that's the real reason the EU is so fantastically worked up about the problem.

My feeling is that the EU is always looking for new issues to put on the table to divert attention from its own very high farm tariffs. Food aid offers the EU a rare chance to be seen siding with the poorest countries against the big, bad US - and a chance to argue that they're not the only ones to use agricultural export subsidies, it's just that the US calls them something else.

Now, the EU has been driving a very hard bargain on this issue - actually, a bargain entirely out of proportion to the issue's actual relevance to EU farmers. And here you start to see the way the structure of the negotiations gives ample room for tactical posturing and diversionary negotiating stances. It's hard to believe that the EU really cares all that much about US Food Aid, but it's easy to see how keeping the discussion centered on Food Aid ensures that it's the US that does the squirming, not the EU. The EU can then use the issue as leverage in the rest of the negotiations - and, of course, looking for second-tier issues to hold as bargaining chips against the first tier issue is much of what the minor sport of WTO positioning is all about.

May 5, 2006

Primer on the WTO's Triangular Deadlock

Well, I've just finished my week-long WTO Negotiation Simulation (so be prepared to be bored silly with the details.)

I have to say it was fantastic. The session was run by real-world trade negotiators, which kept it sophisticated and realistic. The simulation chairman, who represents South Africa in the real talks, pushed us hard to reach an agreement - which, at the cost of some realism, we did. None of us, however, was under any illusion that our simulated agreement could work in the real world. Just the opposite: as the simulation progressed, it became clear to all of us that the "zone of possible agreement" could only be reached if all the delegations gave up not on this or that peripheral point, but really on their main negotiating goals. In that sense, the exercise was valuable mainly in giving us a much more detailed, nuanced understanding of where the tangle of deadlocks really lie and why the multiple impasses have been so unmanageable.

For the few of you who really care, and at the cost of some heavy-duty oversimplification, it goes something like this:

At the center of the Doha Round there's a three-way deadlock between the three main players on the three main topics up for negotiation - a fundamental impasse we came to call "the triangle." The three players are the European Union, the United States, and the G20 group of relatively advanced developing countries - which includes Brazil, India, South Africa, Thailand, Argentina and China (and, incidentally, Venezuela as well.) The basic problem now is that these three have to agree on three very tough topics: agricultural tariffs, agricultural subsidies, and industrial tariffs.

Each of the three big players has two offensive interests (where they try to get the other two to liberalize) and one defensive priority (where they want to avoid having to liberalize themselves.) The kicker, of course, is that each player's defensive priority is also the other two players' offensive priority. Visually, it's like this:

Of course, this is a highly schematic way to set it out, and leaves out a lot of contradictory detail - the lavishly tariff-coddled US sugar industry could only smirk at all this. Still, as a first approximation to the deadlock, the triangle is a pretty good tool. It allows you to appreciate the neat symmetry in the three-way deadlock. Each issue pits two of the blocks against the third, in a kind of round-robin of futile alliances:

Why does it end up breaking down like this?

Well, take the Europeans first. The EU negotiates defensively on agricultural tariffs because EU farmers are protected chiefly by high tariff walls, and many would find it very hard to survive without them. So the EU's first negotiating priority is to avoid having to cut them seriously. Though European farmers also benefit from high subsidies, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy has been extensively reformed in the last two years to ensure those subsidies are allowed under WTO rules - so the EU has an interest in seeing other partners, especially the US, reform and lower their own farm subsidies as well. At the same time, European industrialists are strongly interested in selling their manufactured goods all over the world, so their foremost offensive priority is to get lower industrial tariffs in the US and G20 markets.

The United States, on the other hand, negotiates defensively on agricultural subsidies, and offensively on agricultural and industrial tariffs. US farmers are protected mostly by high subsidies, which have not been reformed to conform with WTO rules. So the US Trade Representative's major red-lines concern avoiding deep cuts in farm subsidies. Although US farmers also benefit from high tariff walls, on the whole they are not as high as Europe's. US farmers operate on a larger scale than European farmers and have higher productivity, so they could survive and thrive with lower tariffs if the EU would also drop theirs. And just like the Europeans, US industrialists are strongly interested in selling their manufactured goods all over the world, so negotiating for lower industrial tariffs in the EU and G20 markets is an offensive priority.

Though there's a lot of heterogeneity in the G20 - hell, Egypt is a G20 country! - on the whole G20 farmers enjoy few subsidies and strong comparative advantages in agriculture: if world food markets were not so distorted, the G20 would "feed the world." Their negotiators therefore push to secure deep cuts in farm tariffs and subsidies in the rest of the world. Though the G20 is officially an agriculture-only club, and therefore doesn't have an official position on industrial tariffs, everybody knows that many G20 industrialists - particularly in Brazil, Argentina, South Africa and India - are not competitive enough to survive if industrial tariffs are cut substantially, so most G20 countries negotiate against having to lower their own industrial tariffs. (This, obviously, doesn't apply to China.)

The tangle of irreconcilable differences arising from the triangle is frightful. The European Union will only agree to cut its own farm tariffs if the US cuts its farm subsidies and the G20 sharply lowers its industrial tariffs, but both the US and the G20 find these proposals unacceptable. The US will only cut its own farm subsidies if the EU sharply lowers its farm tariffs and the G20 quickly drops its industrial tariffs, but both the EU and the G20 find those proposals unacceptable. And the G20 - well, if they had a position on industrial tariffs, which they don't, it would be that they would only drop their own industrial tariffs if the EU and the US will cross their own "red-lines" on farm tariffs and subsidies respectively, which neither is willing to do. Put together, the three sets of red-lines generate an insurmountable deadlock.

The Obvious Solution
Now, you don't have to be a negotiations expert to notice a fairly straightforward potential solution to all this: for all three players to make deep concessions on their own defensive priorities at the same time. That way, each would give on their one defensive issue, but get on their two offensive priorities. This, in fact, is the solution we reached in the simulation exercise. And, of course, the real negotiators in Geneva are not stupid: they realized long ago that if there is going to be a deal, it will have to be something along those lines.

What's really interesting, though, is that this kind of common-sense solution just won't fly: they've been trying to hammer out a deal along those lines for 5 years now, and there seems to be no way to square the triangle.

The reason, I think, is that trade negotiators consistently prioritize their defensive interests over their offensive interests. As one of the speakers quipped to us this week, "no WTO negotiator has ever lost his job for saying 'no', but plenty have lost their jobs for saying 'yes.'" And with good reason: the costs you incur from caving on your defensive interests are real, rapid, and tangible. But the benefits from getting a concession on your offensive interests are uncertain, evanescent, nebulous...if they come, they rarely come right away.

If you take away a European farmer's tariff protection he notices, immediately, because the price he gets for his product falls. If the EU gets Brazil to agree to lower its own industrial tariffs, on the other hand, any given European exporter may or may not get any of the benefits. He may find that those lower tariffs just allow their US or Chinese competitors to make off with the extra market share. They may find that Brazilians don't like their brands as much as expected. The boat carrying their product could sink. Any number of problems could crop up that overwhelm the benefits, to him, of the agreed cuts in Brazilian tariffs. So getting that lower tariff in Brazil is a gain for the EU, but it's a gain in a strangely nebulous, highly uncertain, off-in-the-future kind of way.

Defensive bias
For these reasons, producers are generally much more interested in lobbying to protect their defensive interests than they are in lobbying to further their offensive interests. Defense has a built-in advantage in the Doha Round, and the primacy of defensive interests in the triangle seems to be the main reason for the impasse.

This is a problem in all three trade blocks, but it's not a symmetrically distributed one: it's much more of a problem in Europe than elsewhere. European politicians are petrified of the reaction they could get from their farmers if they cut farm tariffs deeply, no matter what concessions they get elsewhere. The problem is compounded by the low level of engagement by the EU's offensive interests: the industrial lobby, whose support European negotiators badly need, sees little to gain from further tariff cuts abroad, largely because industrial tariffs are already, generally, quite low worldwide.

Interestingly, the US that has the most flexible position in the round, because their defensive priority is the easiest to fudge: the way the negotiation has developed is that only the most "trade distorting" farm subsidies would be sharply cut, while subsidy programs that are designed to be "minimally trade distorting" are still allowed. In theory, the US could agree to sharply lower its "bad" subsidies and then just shift the money over to "good" subsidies, leaving gringo farmers as well-off as they were before. All they would have to do is reform their farm policies. Indeed, that's precisely what the EU did with its own Common Agricultural Policy in the last few years. It's not politically easy, but it's not the end of the world either. For that reason, both in my simulation and in the real negotiations, the US has had a more moderate position than the EU and the G20. "Caving", for the US, would mean reforming their farm subsidies, not giving them up outright. So the US side of the Triangular Deadlock looks to be the most manageable of the three.

The G20, meanwhile, has the most offense-minded position of the three: the benefits from liberalization to their agricultural exporters are quite well established and visible to their farm lobbies. The G20's problem is a bit different: their defensive priority is industrial tariffs, but those are already very low for most products in almost all countries. In order for a G20 concession on industrial tariffs to be meaningful for the EU and the US, the G20 countries would need to make extremely aggressive cuts on the tariff lines they still have. The EU, for instance, is calling for a deal that radically cuts all tariffs and allows no single tariff to remain above 15%. This is an extremely aggressive stance, and one several G20 countries simply couldn't stomach. Kirchner, in particular, would never in a million years agree to a cut on that scale. Though the G20 does not have a single position outside of agriculture, the working guess is that the group wouldn't agree to cut its highest tariffs below 40% or so. (Needless to say, the second G20 countries float that sort of position, the EU loses all interest in serious agricultural tariff cuts.) My point here is simply that the gaps we're looking at are so wide that any question of somehow "splitting the difference" is entirely unrealistic.

Esperando en la bajadita...
Then again, this central deadlock has been clear for some time. The more valuable part of the simulation (for me anyway) was the realization that even if you somehow managed to untangle the triangular deadlock, the negotiations could still well fail. That's because a number of other deadlocks continue to lurk in the shadows of the negotiations, concealed only by the fact that the three-way big-player deadlock is even worse.

These other deadlocks are far from negligible, though. For one thing, the G10 countries (Japan, South Korea, Switzerland, Norway and Co.) are even more protectionist in agriculture than the EU and the US, so even a proposal agreeable to the three big players may not be acceptable to the G10. For another, the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group demands a separate, quicker, deeper deal to liberalize cotton (a main export product for some of their members) which sets them on a collision course with perhaps the most powerful agricultural lobby in the US. The ACP countries also demand compensation for the loss of their preference margins, which is implicit in any tariff-cutting proposal. And the G33, (yet another group, this time of larger, poorer developing countries, and led by Indonesia) has demanded two large loopholes against having to cut many of their own farm tariffs that is acceptable neither to the US nor to the G20.

These are, if you will, second-order deadlocks in the sense that they don't involve irreconcilable differences among the three big players. The EU and the US tend to think that many of these problems could be finessed with increased aid offers - though the possibility of buying off the G33 with a fat check is highly iffy. The thing that sort of staggered me about the negotiation simulation was realizing that even if the Triangular Deadlock magically disappeared tomorrow, the second-order deadlocks could well be deep enough to prevent an agreement.

At the end of all this, I'm left with a much more nuanced understanding not just of why there has been deadlocked, but also of why the deadlock has overpowered every attempt at a solution. Though trade diplomats are still hammering away on the round in Geneva, it's not hard to see that these are pro-forma efforts. On the whole the round has been given up as hopeless.

My guess is that in the next few months, the WTO's Director General will be forced to acknowledge that the existing differences cannot be bridged, and the round will go into a sort of deep freeze. Interestingly, there is no settled method to officially bury the corpse of a round, so negotiations would likely be suspended rather than ended, in the hope that they can be revived, somehow, at some point down the line. In the meantime, the US and the EU would concentrate on hammering out bilateral deals to advance their trade interests, and the G20, G33 and ACP would rely more and more on the WTO's existing dispute-settlement system to advance theirs.

Historical experience, however, suggests that when trade negotiations are not moving forward, the tendency is for countries to resort to more and more protectionism. If the de facto failure of the round leads to considerable backsliding, then it's imaginable that in a few years the big players will come back to the negotiating table with a renewed sense of mission. If, in the meantime, the US and France elect themselves presidents who are more committed to multilateralism, then its just about imaginable that the round could rise from the ashes sometime around 2009. Until then, though, it's dead. It's deader than dead.

May 4, 2006

Two interesting bits...

Interesting bit #1: Julio Borges welcomes the New CNE's decision to allow Venezuelan universities to audit the much-disputed Electoral Registry.

Interesting bit #2: Chavez rebuts allegations that he is meddling in other countries' internal affairs in a single phrase that magnificently joins his special brand of water-tight intellectual rigor and sense of subtlety with his trademark understated sophistication: "¡Qué injerencia, ni que nada!" (I'll let someone braver than me try to translate that one.) Chavez explains the strange phenomenon whereby some ill-intentioned people have misinterpreted his, erm, threat to end diplomatic relations with Peru if Peruvians vote for the wrong presidential candidate as "meddling" by saying that the desperate Latin American right wing made it all up. Meanwhile that standard-bearer for the desperate Latin American right wing, Ollanta Humala, condemns and deplores Chavez's earlier statements...go figure...

Documenting the documentable...

Here's just a taste of the Venezuela Chapter of the Interamerican Commission on Human Right's 2005 Annual Report:

A. Risk of segregating a sector of Venezuelan society because of its political dissent

324. In 2005, the Commission received a mounting number of complaints and information indicating a worrisome trend in discriminatory actions against persons who make public their dissent from government policies and those who called for the removal of President Hugo Chávez Frías, in the referendum on revoking the presidential mandate that was held August 15, 2004. The Commission considers that the discriminatory actions based on one’s political opinion have a serious and grave detrimental impact on the observation and enjoyment of fundamental rights enshrined in the American Convention. A pronouncement by the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations on this question recognizes that “…tolerance involves a positive acceptance of diversity and that pluralism encompasses the willingness to accord equal respect to the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of all individuals … tolerance and pluralism strengthen democracy, facilitate the full enjoyment of all human rights and thereby constitute a sound foundation for civil society, social harmony and peace[.]”[320]

325. In this regard, the Commission states its concern over the existence of a tendency to intimidate, harass, and stigmatize persons or organizations who speak out against government policies or officials. Even though over the last year the extent of social conflict characterized by violence and confrontation in public demonstrations has diminished, the Commission is concerned about the weakening of democratic checks and balances on the exercise of governmental authority, especially basic guarantees for the exercise of human rights advocacy, freedom of expression, and freedom to engage in opposition politics. The Commission was also alerted to the existence of a growing number of discriminatory acts by State entities and private sectors in giving employment and public services contracts for ideological or other related reasons. According to this information, those who have political disagreements with the current government would end up unemployed or negatively impacted by these discriminatory acts because of their views.

326. The complaints received include allegations that one of the tools used in this new pattern of discrimination is the so-called “Tascón list,” which contains the signatures of those persons who in 2004 submitted the request to call a referendum to revoke the mandate of President Hugo Chávez Frías. According to publicly-known information, the total list of the names of those persons was made public on the web site of the Movimiento Quinta República (MVR); beginning with Luís Tascón, this led to the dismissal of a large number of public employees, in various parts of the country, without recognition of their labor benefits.

327. The Commission learned that even though on April 15, 2005, the President of the Republic made an appeal to the regional authorities and those who work with them to archive and bury the so-called Tascón list[321], complaints persist to this day that “the list” is still being used to limit the signers’ access to basic services and social welfare programs, and that they continue being dismissed or not given employment in private firms as well as state enterprises.[322] Following are a few examples:

On April 15, 2005, the Center for Human Rights at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (CDH UCAB) and Provea filed an appeal against the decision of the 21st Oversight Court of the Criminal Circuit for the Caracas Metropolitan Area, which decided to consider concluded the investigation into the President and other officials of the CNE [Consejo Nacional Electoral] for applying pressure tactics to get citizens Rocío San Miguel, Magally Chang, and Thaís Peña to withdraw their signatures from the call for the referendum on revocation of the presidential mandate. Rocío San Miguel, Magally Chang, and Thaís Peña went to court to ratify their complaint alleging they had been dismissed in 2004 for political reasons, and with respect to which they have been pursuing various judicial remedies. The three of them worked in the CNF as legal counsel, public relations executive, and personnel assistant, respectively. On May 1, 2004, they were dismissed, without any reprimand in their files or any reorganization of the entity giving rise to a reduction in force. It is indicated that when they were given the notices, the Executive Secretary of the CNF informed them orally and individually that the dismissal was for having signed on against the President of the Republic.

The president of the public-sector workers’ union Federación Unitaria Nacional de Empleados Públicos (FEDEUNEP) stated that he has documented 780 cases of persons negatively affected by political discrimination, and the sanctions meted out by those public employees who applied this measure against those who signed petitions for the referendum to be held. Of this total, 200 were dismissed, 400 were subjected to pressure tactics, and 180 transferred. According to the records of the FEDEUNEP, at the Ministry of Interior and Justice (MIJ) 20 persons were dismissed; in the Deposit Guarantee and Bank Protection Fund (FOGADE), 42, although it is estimated that the actual figure is 120; in the water works (Operadora de Acueductos) of the Capital District and the states of Vargas and Miranda (Hidrocapital), 12; in the city government of Sucre, seven; in the National Elections Council (CNE), five; in the Ministry of Higher Education (MES), two; in the Ministry of Production and Commerce (MPC), two; in the National Parks Institute (INPARQUES); in the Urban Transportation Fund (FONTUR), four; in the Caracas Metro, 11; in the Corporation for Recovery and Development of the state of Vargas (CORPOVARGAS), 3; in Venezolana de Televisión (VTV), one; and also one each in the office of the Governor of Guárico, the National Sports Institute (IND), the National Tourism Institute (INATUR), the Office of the Controller of the state of Mérida, the National Council on Culture (CONAC), the Instituto Universitario del Este, the Commission for the Administration of Foreign Exchange (CADIVI), the Ministry of Labor (MINTRA), the Ministry of Finance (MF), the Ministry of Agriculture and Lands (MAT), the Ministry of Infrastructure (MINFRA), the Ministry of Health and Social Development (MSDS), the Ministry of Science and Technology (MCT), the Hospital Universitario; the municipal government of Libertador, and the Metropolitan Education Zone.

Manuel Cova, Secretary General of the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV), alleged that ”political-labor persecution continues in the public sector through the list of those who signed the request for the presidential referendum, disseminated by deputy Luis Tascón.” Cova said that “in recent days 421 workers from city hall and the governor’s office in Miranda were removed from their positions by dismissals and forced retirement.”

Gloria Pacheco, representative of the first slate in the upcoming elections of the Venezuelan Dentistry Association (COV: Colegio de Odontólogos de Venezuela), alleged that Venezuelan dentists who participate in the Misión Barrio Adentro (MBA) program are being threatened with dismissal for political reasons: “the regional coordinating body of dentists who work in the Barrio Adentro program in Barinas, Olida Santiago, brought together her subordinates to tell them that in the upcoming elections for the Board of Directors of the COV they had to place their ballots open in the ballot boxes, so they could be identified by the slate they were voting for, and anyone who did not do so would be fired.” Pacheco indicated that "this, clearly, is a flagrant violation of the Constitution and the Law on Voting and Political Participation, which provides that voting is universal and by secret ballot."

328. One of these basic pillars of democratic government is respect for the fundamental rights of individuals under the principle of equality and non-discrimination. The consolidation of democracies requires stepped-up participation of all social sectors in the political, social, and cultural life of each nation. In this regard, Article 1 of the American Convention establishes the need for the States party to “undertake to respect the rights and freedoms recognized herein and to ensure to all persons subject to their jurisdiction the free and full exercise of those rights and freedoms, without any discrimination for reasons of race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic status, birth, or any other social condition.”

329. Given that the American Convention does not define discrimination, one can take as a basis the definitions contained in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women to argue that discrimination is any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on certain motives, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, economic position, birth or any other social condition, which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons.[323] Accordingly, the Commission considers that any treatment that may be considered discriminatory with respect to the rights enshrined in the Convention is, per se, incompatible with it.[324]

330. The Commission is of the view that the lack of equitable participation impedes the broad development of democratic and pluralist societies, exacerbating intolerance and discrimination. The inclusion of all sectors of society in the processes of communication, decision-making, and development is fundamental to ensuring that their needs, opinions, and interests are considered in designing policies and in decision-making.[325]

331. The Commission notes that the discriminatory acts of the State against persons who have an ideology or political opinion different from whatever administration is in office may take on more subtle indirect forms which at times may be more effective for deterring criticism or for exercising coercion that leads to a change of position, at least in public, resulting in greater apparent alignment with the positions of the governing party. The Commission finds that dismissing employees and obstructing access to social benefits, among other measures, to punish those persons who express their voice of dissent from the administration are violations of human rights and should be subject to generalized censure, and should be investigated.

332. In this context, and with a view to encouraging analysis, the Commission takes this opportunity to refer to some decisions of the United Nations Human Rights Committee[326] and the European Court of Human Rights that exemplify the case-law in international law, and which are relevant for discouraging a possible deepening of a culture of discrimination and intolerance for political pluralism in Venezuela.

333. In Yong Joo Kang vs. Republic of Korea[327], the Human Rights Committee of the UN held that the application of “an ideology conversion system” to a prisoner convicted of espionage for distributing publicly available information violated his right to freedom of expression. The petitioner, along with other acquaintances of his, was an opponent of the military regime. In 1984, he distributed pamphlets in which he criticized the regime and the use of the security forces to harass him and others. In January, March, and May 1985, he distributed dissident publications that addressed political, economic, social, and historical matters. On July 1, 1985, the petitioner was arrested without court order by the Agency for National Security Planning (ANSP) and tried on charges of violating the National Security Law, and sentenced to life in prison, after the Criminal District Court of Seoul related on his confessions.

334. In his communication, the petitioner argued that being coerced to change his political opinion and the withholding of benefits (such as the possibility of release on parole) if he did not “convert” were tantamount to a violation of his right to freedom of conscience. The Committee concluded that the “ideology conversion system” to which the author had been subjected while he served his sentence was coercive and applied in a discriminatory fashion for the purpose of changing the political opinion of a prisoner, offering him incentives in the way of special treatment in prison and a greater possibility of parole, constituting a violation of Article 19(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

335. In a case decided by the European Court of Human Rights, Vogt vs. Germany[328] (1995), the European Court held that the state’s action of placing the petitioner at a disadvantage, mindful of her political convictions as an active member of the German Communist Party since 1972, violated Articles 10(2) and 11 of the European Convention. The case had to do with the dismissal of a language teacher from a public high school for having participated in public events as a member of her party and having run as a candidate in regional parliamentary elections in 1982. The dismissal went forward even though the petitioner had a satisfactory record in her performance as a professional and even though those activities were held outside of the school setting. In 1982 the Regional Council of Weser-Ems brought disciplinary proceedings against the petitioner for breach of the duty of every public servant to serve and swear loyalty to the Constitution, as she was involved in political activities of the German Communist Party since 1980. For her part, the petitioner argued that her political activity as a member of the Communist Party was lawful, and that every citizen has the right to participate in political activities.

336. In view of the international case-law on the matter, even the possibility that discriminatory actions might be taking place in Venezuela because of the political or ideological expression of persons is highly alarming. The Commission maintains that every person has the right to legitimately exercise his or her freedom of expression, assembly, association, and conscience, and that these constitute a form of pluralism that is necessary to ensure the rights recognized in the various international human rights instruments, and to strengthen democratic institutions. The obstruction or intimidation of persons seeking to exercise these liberties strips individuals and the various sectors of society of instruments for defending their interests, protesting, criticizing, making proposals, and exercising oversight and active citizenship in their pursuit of popular sovereignty within the democratic framework.

B. Human rights defenders[329]

337. In 2005 harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders continued. The Commission was informed that judicial proceedings were instituted against human rights defenders, whose purpose is allegedly to silence their reports. In addition, high-level officials continued to question the legitimacy of their work. The IACHR expresses its grave concern over the impact these statements could have on the security of human rights defenders.

1. Threats and violence against human rights defenders

338. The Commission has learned that a climate of hostility and threats to the lives and physical integrity of human rights defenders continues to exist in Venezuela. In this respect, the Commission was informed that on January 23, 2005, in the city of Caracas, eight alleged officers of the Metropolitan Police entered and searched, without court order, the residence of Luís Rafael Ugas, president of the Fundación para las Garantías, Prevención y Defensa de los Derechos Humanos (FUNGAPDEHCA). According to the information provided to the Commission, the police agents arbitrarily and illegally detained Mr. Ugas’s brother, when they found that Mr. Ugas was not home. Ten days later, Rafael Ugas was intercepted in the street by four unidentified individuals, who placed him in a vehicle. There he was beaten and cigarette burns were inflicted on his back several times. Before being released, death threats were made to Mr. Ugas.[330]

2. Discrediting of human rights work by state authorities

339. Since 2001 the Commission has received repeated reports of state acts aimed at de-legitimizing and criminalizing the actions of Venezuelan and international human rights organizations working in Venezuela. In 2005, the IACHR has observed an increase in such reports due to the statements made by representatives of the Legislative branch, the Executive branch, the Public Ministry, and the even Judicial branch. High-level members of these government bodies have publicly accused several human rights organizations and their members of being part of a pro-coup strategy, or of having improper ties with foreign countries supposedly plotting to destabilize the Government.[331]

340. The Commission is concerned by the statements made by public authorities aimed at discrediting and stigmatizing human rights defenders, especially when such statements are made by members of the Judiciary in charge of judicial investigations or proceedings against defenders. In addition, the Commission considers it lamentable that high-level state officials have made statements aimed at attacking the professionalism of persons who have appeared before the organs of protection of the inter-American system. In this respect, the Commission has learned of the statements by Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez, discrediting the professional activity of attorney Carlos Ayala Corao in his participation before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights[332]; and the statements by Interior and Justice Minister Jesse Chacón, in which he discredits the work of human rights defender Humberto Prado just days after he appeared in a hearing at the headquarters of the IACHR concerning the prison situation in Venezuela.[333]

341. As reported to the Commission, these statements seek to get human rights organizations to desist from making use of the international protection mechanisms, and help maintain and intensify the risk that human rights defenders face to their personal integrity. Official speeches and pronouncements that stigmatize, de-legitimize, and criminalize the work of human rights defenders have been followed by statements and opinion articles by persons close to the government that suggest that human rights defenders are participating in criminal acts aimed at overthrowing the established government. These declarations seek to create a mistaken perception in society regarding the work of human rights defenders.

342. The Commission was informed of this situation in a communiqué dated June 29, 2005, in which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested that the organizations providing counsel to the victims in one of the cases before the Inter-American Court were seeking to use human rights for economic and political gain. To this communiqué followed various editorial opinions in the media known as aligned with the government where the representatives of the victims which participated in the Court’ hearing were single out as conspirator against the regime[334].

343. The Commission recommends that the Government foster a culture of human rights in which the role of human rights defenders in guaranteeing democracy and the rule of law in society is recognized. Public officials should refrain from making statements that stigmatize human rights defenders or that suggest that human rights organizations operate improperly or illegally, merely because of their work promoting and protecting human rights.

3. Restrictions on access to international financing

344. The Commission has been informed that the State has imposed restrictions on the operation of human rights organizations by making it impossible for them to gain access to resources provided through international cooperation.[335] This prohibition, in a context in which financing for civil society organizations in Latin America and the Caribbean generally comes from foreign cooperation, in fact makes it impossible for organizations working in the area of human rights to operate. In previous reports, the Commission has referred to judicial measures that unlawfully restrict the work of organizations by preventing them from participating in public matters, based on their having received funds from international cooperation.[336]

345. In 2005, the Commission received more reports indicating that criminal proceedings were being instituted against several human rights organizations in retaliation for having raised and executed funds from foreign cooperation.[337] Those charges, according to available information, have been made in keeping with provisions of the Criminal Code, whose vague and imprecise content violates the principle of legality and makes it possible to consider any conduct criminal.

346. Specifically, human rights defenders have noted that Article 132 of the Criminal Code is being used to criminalize organizations’ foreign financing.[338] Through this provision, several members of human rights organizations are currently being investigated for the crime of requesting foreign intervention in Venezuela’s domestic political affairs, because they raised money for the legitimate exercise of constitutionally and internationally recognized rights exercising and societal efforts to keep tabs on the State, and fostering political participation.

347. The Commission recalls that the punitive power of the State and its justice organs should not be used to harass those who are engaged in legitimate activities. States have the duty to investigate those who violate the law in their territory, but they also have the duty to take all measures necessary to prevent state investigations from being used to submit to unfair or unfounded trials persons who legitimately call for respect for and protection of human rights.

4. Instituting criminal actions to the detriment of the work of human rights defenders

348. The Commission has also received reports of criminal proceedings being instituted against human rights defenders on charges of defamation, libel, and conspiracy. According to what was reported to the Commission, such proceedings are brought for the purpose of hindering the work of human rights defenders. The Commission received information that indicates that the prosecutors from the Public Ministry in charge of those investigations have committed procedural irregularities that limit the defense of the accused, including restrictions on access to the terms of the indictments and the discretional blocking of the production of evidence. In particular, it is noted that in the proceedings instituted against human rights defenders, the actions of the prosecutorial authorities are always aimed at shifting the burden of proof to the accused, contrary to the principle of the presumption of innocence.[339]

349. The Commission has also learned of judicial proceedings and steps supposedly aimed at carrying out international measures of protection, by which the burden of proof is shifted, and they end up being used against the beneficiaries of such measures. Threats and acts of harassment such as phone threats and being followed are very difficult to prove, which could lead to the authorities initiating criminal inquiries against the defenders on charges of simulation of a criminal act. The Commission was informed that these measures, in addition to seeking to subordinate international rulings to domestic law, are aimed at getting human rights defenders to assume the role of being the ones to lodge the complaints, which, given Venezuela’s system of criminal procedure, shifts the burden of proof to them, requiring them to prove that the facts they allege are true.[340]

350. For the IACHR, the pronouncement by the Twenty-ninth Court illustrates the that it is ill-advised to submit the decisions of international human rights organs to the review and decision of domestic judicial organs, and therefore it urges that this judicial interpretation be recognized as that which is most compatible with international law and the American Convention, as indicated in the introductory section of this chapter.

351. The Commission reiterates that the failure to implement effectively and in good faith the measures of protection granted by the organs of the inter-American system increases the risk to these persons, which in turn weakens democracy and the rule of law. In addition, the Commission is concerned that cases of violence and harassment targeting human rights defenders, even though criminal inquiries have been instituted, have remained in total impunity to date.

May 3, 2006

Thank you, Mr. Chávez

Katy says: I have many friends who left Venezuela in the early '90s to study abroad, thanks to Fundayacucho's loan programs. Some of these friends of mine stayed abroad, and some came back home. Some paid back their debts, some had their debts condoned, and some never even bothered to pay just like Fundayacucho never bothered to charge them. Some of their outstanding debts run in the thousands of dollars.

Most of these friends of mine went to private school and private university. Although they didn't have the money for graduate studies abroad, they weren't exactly middle class either.

Yesterday, President Chávez announced that Fundayacucho would no longer issue loans. From now on, it will only issue scholarships. He also announced that all outstanding debts would be pardoned. I believe his exact words were "the loans system is over, and whoever owed money does not owe anything anymore." He said that this new system erradicates a mercantile vision of the program and implements a revolutionary vision - or something like that.

So, Mr. Chávez, on behalf of my well-to-do friends who benefit from this policy, I thank you.

PS.- They still won't vote for you. Don't take it personally.

May 2, 2006

Keller's snapshot

Katy says: Alfredo Keller has made public the results of his April study, which seem to confirm that:
  • 8 months before the election, Chávez has a commanding lead in the polls (no surprise there);
  • getting out the vote will be key for both camps; and
  • people like the idea of an opposition primary.

May 1, 2006

Inmature Maduro

Katy says: One of the bad things about having a candidate with a history in the IVth Republic is that the campaign can quickly center on the past and not on Venezuelans' current ills.

Case in point: Nicolás Maduro, president of the National Assembly, speaking today at a pro-government May Day rally, criticized Teodoro Petkoff because the Caldera government allegedly "stole" workers' compensation benefits. It's never too late to retread issues that may have been relevant 8 or 9 years ago, and in all fairness, Maduro should have added: "... and the Chávez government let them get away with it!" After all, nobody is in jail for this alleged swindle.

Perhaps Venezuelan scientists should find a way to create politicians whose head is not so full of gas.

PS.- The pic is from Daniel Duquenal's blog, originally from Descifrado.

April 30, 2006

WTO Posts

When I'm not rambling about Chavez, I'm preparing a doctoral dissertation about the World Trade Organization. Here are a few posts on that entirely unrelated topic.

First off, there's my attempt to syntethize, in non-technical language, why it is the current round of WTO negotiations is hopelessly deadlocked:
  • Primer on the WTO's Triangular Deadlock

  • Second is this short write-up on the way the deadlock is concentrated on just a handful of products:
  • Arroz con leche, te quiero proteger...

  • Next, a note on how the WTO's monstrously convoluted Agricultural Subsidy classification system came into being:
  • Creative Diplo-bureacrats and their Little Boxes

  • Then, a write-up summing up the outcome of the December 2005 WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong:
  • Taking Stock of Hong Kong

  • My post from Day 4 of the Hong Kong ministerial, explaining the European Union's oddly inflexible position:
  • Mandelson's Straightjacket

  • My post from Day 3 of the Hong Kong ministerial, noting the developing world's increased engagement with the negotiations:
  • The WTO Turned on its Head

  • This post from Day 2 of Hong Kong is an early attempt to deconstruct some of the more baffling aspects of WTO Diplo-bureaucratic jargon - particularly that most slipperly of formulations - "a balanced agreement."
  • Beginners' Guide to WTOese: "A Balanced Agreement"