Human-rights groups at odds over who is Venezuela's legitimate leader

OTTAWA — Two of the world's leading human-rights organizations have sharp differences over the decision by Canada and dozens of other democratic countries to support Venezuela's opposition as the country's legitimate government.

The gulf between Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch became evident in interviews this week as international calls intensified for Venezuela's socialist president Nicolas Maduro to step down.

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Canada, its Western Hemisphere allies in the Lima Group, the United States, and many across Europe are among the more than three dozen countries demanding Maduro's ouster.

They recognize opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as the country's interim president and are calling for new elections after what they say was a fraudulent win by Maduro in a May 2018 election.

Alex Neve, Amnesty's Canadian secretary-general, said it doesn't support the stance taken by Canada and the Lima Group, and that a strictly neutral political position that upholds the status quo is the best way to protect the human rights of Venezuelans.

Tamara Taraciuk, the senior Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch, said her organization fully supports the Lima Group's efforts because it views them as helpful in ending the abuse of Venezuelans' human rights.

The debate is unfolding as the South American crisis escalated Thursday with a standoff at the Venezuela-Colombia border, where a Maduro-backed military was blocking the flow of United States aid into the country. Maduro blames the Trump White House for trying to engineer his overthrow.

Monday's declaration from the Lima Group's emergency meeting in Ottawa calls for a "peaceful" transition of power in Venezuela, and Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland ruled out any military intervention.

"Amnesty doesn't take a side on the political part of this tussle — who should or should not be in power," Neve told The Canadian Press.

But the fact that Canada has chosen a side means it no longer has any ability to directly push the Maduro government to end human-rights abuses, including its targeting of children and journalists, he said.

"Human rights is not about regime change. Human rights is about whoever is in power, or whoever may be in power — what's the strategy to ensure human-rights protection today, right now?"

The Lima Group called on Monday for Venezuela's military to switch allegiance and back Guaido to force Maduro from power. Taraciuk said that while Human Rights Watch generally supports the Lima Group stance it can't comment specifically on matters related to the military.

"We fully support that as a way to push the Venezuelan government to end its abuses," she said. "This is not about siding with the government or siding with the opposition. It's about siding with the hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans that took to the streets because they want to restore democracy and human rights in their country."

Taraciuk said her organization has documented rights abuses committed against members of the Venezuelan military, by a government trying to keep them in line.

"This is not a conversation among equals inside Venezuela. You don't have two equal sides sitting at the table talking," she said.

At the end of January, U.S. President Donald Trump's national-security adviser John Bolton told reporters that no options are off the table in dealing with the situation in Venezuela. That has rekindled fears of a repeat of past U.S. interventions in Latin American that gave rise to bloodshed, and ended up installing corrupt governments.

"I think the very real concern about the very serious human-rights violations that the Maduro government are responsible for cannot be overlooked or white-washed in any way," said Neve. "Similarly, the dangers and perils, especially the past track records of U.S.-led and encouraged intervention in Latin American states is not a rosy one. There's very real reason to be concerned on both fronts."

Taraciuk rejected any suggestion that the U.S. imperialism is a factor in the current situation, saying the country is one of dozens of calling for peaceful change in Venezuela. She noted the Trump administration has imposed sanctions on Venezuelan oil exports to ratchet up pressure on Maduro.

Part of the Lima Group's strength lies in the fact that it does not included the United States, said Taraciuk.

"It's the first time since the crisis started deepening that we are seeing both things going hand in hand — this strong international pressure, including from the Lima Group, and internal massive peaceful demonstrations in favour of democracy and human rights in Venezuela."

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