Skip to main content

Ben Rowswell is president of the Canadian International Council. He served as ambassador to Venezuela from 2014 to 2017.

Open this photo in gallery:

Venezuelans are dying by the thousands thanks to the total collapse of their economy.Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

The dramatic uprising in the streets of Caracas on April 30 changed little in Venezuela. Nicolas Maduro’s intelligence chief Manuel Cristopher Figuera turned against him, but few others in the inner circle followed. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets, again. Yet another brutal crackdown ensued.

Meanwhile, the most urgent crisis continues unabated. Venezuelans are dying by the thousands thanks to the total collapse of their economy. Roughly 3.4 million citizens have left, looking primarily for food. A breakdown in public services means that millions who remain have no access to water, cooking gas, even gasoline, though they sit atop the world’s largest proven reserves. Public hospitals have become little more than morgues as they are emptied of medication, equipment and electricity. Hyperinflation adds so many zeros to the currency that most people have stopped counting, their life savings depleted long ago.

Outside Venezuela, events are viewed through the prism of power politics, each development a gain or a loss for world powers. As if the campaign to prevent abuses of U.S. power tomorrow mattered more than the lives of individual Venezuelans threatened today. As if Russia’s efforts to prop up yet another unloved dictator mattered more than the largest mass migration in the history of Latin America.

Geopolitics divide us, but what Venezuelans need from the international community is unity.

We can achieve that unity if we stop subordinating the needs of Venezuelans to the agendas of outsiders. Maybe Venezuela will be the country where the global left finally halts the advance of U.S. military ambitions, or maybe not. Maybe the crisis will prove the arguments the global right makes about the evils of socialism, or maybe not.

While those debates rage on, surely we can find common ground in a shared concern for the human impact of the crisis. The middle-aged woman from Valencia who had to carry her deceased teenager to the morgue in her arms because the hospital had no transport doesn’t care if the left or the right prevails. Let us focus on her needs instead.

The international community does have a set of rules for responding to man-made humanitarian crises when they involve the kind of crimes against humanity documented in Venezuela. We call it the responsibility to protect (R2P). And it comes down to three simple precepts.

First, the government of Venezuela has the primary responsibility to protect its own people. Not just the citizens who vote for Mr. Maduro, who enjoy the preponderance of food deliveries, but all citizens in all parts of the country.

Second, the international community has a responsibility to assist national authorities protect their population. Canada has made an important start with $53-million in humanitarian assistance and the Red Cross will now spearhead the delivery of aid inside the country. Given the scale of the suffering, much more will be required.

Third, where the government proves unable or unwilling to protect its own citizens, the international community itself has a remedial responsibility.

The 2005 World Summit, at which more than 190 countries adopted R2P, lays out the diplomatic, political and humanitarian measures we can take to live up to our responsibilities. Three are critical in this case: Mediation, which has been offered and rejected many times, should be more forcefully pursued. Collective decision-making, which will require building bridges between the Lima Group that represents most of the Americas with extra-regional initiatives such as the International Contact Group. And capacity-building to deliver assistance. Given the parallel existence of two governments on the ground in Venezuela, capacity-building should be offered to whichever administration is able to reach the population.

Many states shy away from the responsibility to protect because it has sometimes triggered the use of force. But the principles those 190-some countries signed up to clearly rule out any unilateral use of force. No military action can be contemplated without a resolution of the UN Security Council. In this case, Russia and China would surely veto any such resolution.

And indeed, there should be no use of force at all. The objective is to save lives, not to sacrifice them as so much collateral damage in the fighting that would ensue as foreign military forces confront the paramilitary groups and criminal gangs that defend Mr. Maduro. As we embrace the responsibility to protect Venezuelan lives, we should loudly and explicitly rule out armed action.

It is time for the international community to come together to protect Venezuelans. Their lives matter more than our geopolitics.

Interact with The Globe