-OpEd-

BUENOS AIRES — Since 1983, a major part of Argentina's credibility on the international stage had been its defense of human rights. The extraordinary achievement of the late Raúl Alfonsín, the president who succeeded the military regime in the 1980s and put junta members on trial, and the later progress made under President Néstor Kirchner ending impunity for rights violators, have made Argentina an example to the world.

The vision of certain national political leaders and the will of the Argentine people was the natural extension of the revolution that began on Dec.10, 1948, when the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was ratified. From that moment, the individual became the state's ultimate objective, and the impregnable wall of sovereignty and nonintervention showed its first crack in favor of preventing the violation of human rights.

Unfortunately, the ultra-conservative ideas that defend sovereignty and nonintervention in the internal affairs of states, even in cases of rights violations, continue to affect billions of people. Our region is no exception. Despite approving numerous instruments for protecting human rights, many regional governments and entities prefer to remain silent or, worse, to justify these violations.

The recent sentencing in Venezuela of opposition politician Leopoldo López is an example of the persistent difficulty of defending human rights. Without a doubt, López is a political prisoner, as several reputable organizations have declared. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and the High Commissioner for Human Rights, among others, have urged his release. Amnesty International calls him a prisoner of conscience.

The gravity of the situation in Venezuela is not limited to López's arbitrary detention. There are 70 other political detainees. The UN Committee Against Torture has reported more than 1,200 cases of extra-judicial executions, and the Inter-American Court recently determined that failure to renew the broadcasting licence for RCTV, one of the main television channels, violated free expression. All these bodies and other international and UN entities have unequivocally voiced their concerns about the state of human rights in Venezuela.

Standing by doing nothing

But while the rest of the world is indignant, Latin America wallows in a ghastly silence. For the regional trading group Mercosur, it seems that political prisoners don't affect democracy. So far, it has been mute. Worse is the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which not only has observed the deteriorating violations over the past two years, but also has actually legitimized López's detention by issuing a communiqué respecting the court decision.

On the other hand, Luis Almagro, the new secretary-general of the Organization of American States, has done in two months what his predecessor failed to do in 10 years: He has met with the opposition and criticized Venezuela's leftist government. Let's hope the impetus will not be lost and the body will soon join voices with those giving priority to human rights and urging López's release.

Fortunately, certain states in the region haven't forgotten that our history is replete with political prisoners. That's true for Peru and Chile, while in Uruguay, it was the Sen. Rafael Michelini who raised his voice for justice, in contrast with so many Argentine politicians.

Argentina and Brazil are key actors — Brazil, as the chief regional power, and Argentina as Venezuela's ally. Brazil has at least taken the step of naming a special envoy in one of the most important politicians of the recent decade, Nelson Jobim. It is especially significant knowing the cautious nature of Brazilian diplomacy.

And where is Argentine President Cristina Kirchner? Why is her government staying quiet? It wasn't just Argentine society collectively that suffered under the junta in the 1970s, but her party in particular, which endured persecution for decades. Its historical leaders were also prisoners of conscience in their time.

A memorial to the desaparecidos of the Argentine Dirty War. Photo: Wikilaurent

Is it to avoid meddling in Venezuela's internal affairs? Considering her silence in the face of support from important foreign politicians to her favored candidate in upcoming presidential elections, it doesn't seem that she's particularly bothered by the idea of interfering in a country's internal affairs. Is it because López is right-wing? I don't think so. The president comes from a party that spans practically the entire political spectrum, and her favored successor to the presidency, Daniel Scioli, doesn't seem like a typical representative of the revolutionary or progressive left, even if some supporters pretend to believe he is.

Both the entire government and Scioli himself are remaining silent. Faced with questions about López's incarceration, he said he would "not comment on such questions." Somebody should urgently explain to him that "such questions" involve violations of human rights that cannot be ignored, under any circumstance.

The president has the opportunity to help pick up a Venezuela teetering near the precipice, but she prefers to keep quiet. The revolution begun in 1948, and our history in Argentina and Latin America are sufficiently strong arguments to justify a firm condemnation of the López jail sentence. The keys to his cell doors are in your hands, Madame President. Stop looking the other way.

*Santiago A. Canton is the director of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.