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The United Nations is warning countries to undertake all possible efforts to protect civilian populations, cautioning that the spread of coronavirus must not be wielded as a weapon to abuse power.

“Emergency powers should not be a weapon governments can wield to quash dissent, control the population, and even perpetuate their time in power,” U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement. “They should be used to cope effectively with the pandemic – nothing more, nothing less.”

At the same time, Bachelet noted that countries are within their rights to implement restrictions to protect public health, but she argued they must be “necessary, proportionate, and non-discriminatory.” But when the U.N. speaks of “proportionate,”  it immediately calls to mind the  disproportionate judgement and  speeches replete with rhetorical flourishes that the body is known for.

Bachelet warned that the U.N. is aware of numerous reports that authorities across different regions have used excessive force by attempting to enforce lockdowns or curfews, and these situations have been happening in the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the population. She also called on states to safely release people who have been detained for violating emergency measures, arguing that putting people in jail for breaking curfew has the reverse effect.

Georgette Gagnon, the office’s director of field operations, described in an online policy briefing with reporters how many countries are responding excessively to the virus.

In particular, she pointed to the “heavy-handed” and “highly militarized” security response to the virus in places like South Africa, where they have seen authorities using rubber bullets, tear gas, water guns and whips to maintain social distancing in shopping lines.

Gagnon identified other places (the Philippines, Peru, Honduras, Sri Lanka and El Salvador) that are also displaying “highly militarized” responses to those who violate curfew or lockdown orders or excessive detention.

It may look encouraging that the High Comissioner and the Human Rights Office is concerned about the violation of human rights in the world today, and every day. But it is not real. The accusation of abuses does not include Venezuela, Cuba and Iran. So nothing is changing. The Human Rights Council (HRC) and the High Commissioner are again endorsing – this time with silence – what happens in those countries which are the greater abusers of human rights.

Moreover, there has not been one word from the Office of the High Commissioner about the ongoing campaign of accusations of conspiracy against Israel and against the Jewish people. When Bachelet speaks about violations against freedom, she should have condemned the vicious message of hatred from Iran, the Palestinians,and their proxies accusing the Jews of the pandemic. These accusations were spread in the Middle Ages for the “Black Death”.The silence of the High Commissioner is unacceptable.

Although it is one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world, and the most brutal in the Americas, Venezuela is a member of the HRC. Is this a reason why the High Commissioner did not mention Venezuela in her speech against those who are human rights abusers in this pandemic?.

In Venezuela, in mid-March, the country’s health system was collapsing. Hospitals have closed or are operating at a fraction of their capacity, many without regular access to electricity or water. The public health infrastructure is so weak that in 2019, Venezuela had the world’s steepest rise in malaria cases. Vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles and diphtheria have already returned long before the epidemic hit.

It is difficult to know how many coronavirus cases are in Venezuela. Maduro´s regime announced on April 30th that there have been only 10 coronavirus deaths and only several hundred cases. It is hard to believe, but both U.N. political agencies and the World Health Organization accept Venezuela’s official numbers as truthful.

In such a dangerous context, every country neighboring Venezuela is concerned with its own battle against the epidemic, and the Venezuelan humanitarian tragedy is not the main issue. Instead, Colombia and Ecuador are focused on protecting their own interests and closing their borders.

Venezuela’s health care infrastructure is so weak that the most basic recommendation—handwashing—is difficult even for health care providers, who work under difficult conditions. The Venezuelan doctors and nurses say that soap and disinfectants are virtually nonexistent in their clinics and hospitals. Public hospitals in Caracas, the capital, are also suffering regular water shortages. In remote hospitals, the shortages have lasted weeks to months. Patients and personnel are required to bring their own water for drinking and sometimes for flushing toilets.

This is the country that holds a seat in the HRC, and this is the country that the High Commissioner “forgets.” The High Commissioner’s omission is even more egregious because today Venezuela is worse than ever in its humanitarian crisis.

Bloomberg reported this week that “Out of cash and desperate for help in propping up its oil industry, Venezuela is raiding its gold vaults and handing tons of gold bars to its long-time ally Iran, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. Government officials piled some 9 tons of gold — an amount equal to about $500 million — on Tehran-bound jets this month as payment for Iran’s assistance in reviving Venezuela’s crippled gasoline refineries, For Iran, the deals provide a fresh source of revenue. For Venezuela, they ensure that its supply of gasoline doesn’t totally run out.The sanctioned Tehran-based carrier Mahan Air has flown more than half a dozen jets to the South American nation in the past week alone. Most delivered gasoline additives, parts and technicians to help repair a key refinery along Venezuela’s northwestern coast. Meanwhile, Mahan has sent other planes to the international airport outside of Caracas, where they are loaded with the gold bars to take back to Tehran.”

What benefit does a collapsed Venezuela provide (health, economy, insecurity) to the HRC? Of course, none. Just a confirmation of the unfortunate role of the commission and those who silently accept the unacceptable.

Anti-Semitism has not vanished due to the pandemic. It can still be seen on social media and in several countries. The Iranians traveling every week to South America through the open doors of Venezuela is not new, and it is not the first time it has happened. But in the time of pandemic, the Iranian presence and Hezbollah´s presence present a  clear and present danger of more anti-Semitism.

Unfortunately, this is another issue that the High Commissioner is not speaking about when she says she is worried with increasing dangers to freedom in Latin America.


Eduardo Kohn, Ph.D., has been the B’nai B’rith executive vice president in Uruguay since 1981 and the B’nai B’rith International Director of Latin American Affairs since 1984. Before joining B’nai B’rith, he worked for the Israeli embassy in Uruguay, the Israel-Uruguay Chamber of Commerce and Hebrew College in Montevideo. He is a published author of “Zionism, 100 years of Theodor Herzl,” and writes op-eds for publications throughout Latin America. He graduated from the State University of Uruguay with a doctorate in diplomacy and international affairs. To view some of his additional content, click here.