International Crisis Group on Role of the UN
3. Facilitating reconciliation in Venezuela. The struggle for control of Venezuela created drama in the Security Council in the first half of this year, as U.S. officials including Vice President Mike Pence came to New York to press for President Nicolás Maduro’s ouster. Maduro’s allies, notably Russia, responded with strident statements in his defence. Yet the UN could still have a role in helping both sides find a way out of an impasse that is contributing to a humanitarian catastrophe and massive refugee flows and could have regional spillover effects.
By the middle of the year – with neither Maduro nor his rival for the presidency, Juan Guaidó, able to secure victory – UN debates over the crisis lost energy. The foreign backers of both sides appear to have concluded that there was little to gain from public disputes in New York. Some Guaidó supporters, including European governments, also hope that Secretary-General Guterres could play a more impartial role in resolving the crisis if the Security Council can avoid further fights on the issue.
So far, Guterres and UN officials in Venezuela have been wary about engaging in the crisis too publicly. The Secretary-General has held back from any effort to assist in Caracas until both sides clearly want him to do so, and has taken a back seat to the on-again, off-again negotiations between the government and opposition currently being facilitated by Norway; the Trump administration’s view that the UN should not be involved certainly has played a role.
While some commentators and human rights organisations have called for the Secretary-General to approach the situation less cautiously, the UN has not been entirely silent or absent. After her visit to Caracas in June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet released a damning report listing major violations by the Maduro government. UN agencies in Venezuela have also prepared a plan for greatly increased humanitarian aid to the country, with the aim of supporting 2.6 million people in urgent need.
If the two sides [in Venezuela] reach a compromise along the lines under discussion, the UN may be well placed to observe elections and assist in building the institutions required for good governance.
The conditions for further substantive UN engagement in Venezuela could at some point ripen. Though a counterproductive round of new U.S. sanctions soured the mood in August, Crisis Group discussions with elements in both the Maduro and Guaidó camps suggest a compromise around early, credible, internationally monitored elections could be possible – with the caveat that the pro-government electoral commission will need to be changed, National Assembly powers restored, some U.S. sanctions lifted and institutional guarantees introduced to escape the winner-take-all dynamic of past polls.
If the two sides reach a compromise along the lines under discussion, the UN may be well placed to observe elections and assist in building the institutions required for good governance. It may also be able to help make a political settlement stick. A special representative of the Secretary-General, backed by a political mission, could manage these roles. Either the Security Council or UN General Assembly could give a mandate for this work, though a Security Council resolution backed by all the P5 would carry the most weight. Coming together behind a Security Council resolution would also be an elegant way for the U.S. and Russia, in particular, to step back from their earlier clashes over Venezuela, lest the situation hurt their relations further.