Media Center



July 22, 2004 - Washington, DC

Madame Chair, my delegation has listened attentively and with great interest to the presentation this afternoon by Magistrate Luis Martinez, delivered to this body at the behest of the Permanent Mission of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.

We wish to note, that enactment and implementation of this measure has been immensely controversial, and has generated profound concern in the international community, especially among very distinguished non-governmental human rights organizations dedicated to the promotion and defense of a strong and independent judiciary as an essential element of democratic governance.

Madame Chair, my government shares the concerns that have been raised about this legislation’s impact on judicial independence and democracy in general, because any steps to diminish judicial autonomy or the separation of powers serve to fundamentally weaken and undermine democracy.

In a 24-page report issued on June 17, Human Rights Watch cited this measure as a development that could undermine “the independence of the country’s judiciary ahead of a presidential recall that may ultimately be decided in the courts…” The report, entitled “Rigging the Rule of Law: Judicial Independence Under Siege in Venezuela,” raises some very alarming concerns about how this measure could make judges vulnerable to political persecution and potentially serve to ensure that legal controversies surrounding the recall referendum are resolved in favor of the current government of Venezuela.

The report, Madame Chair, recommends that the Venezuelan government “suspend implementation of the new court-packing law immediately and eliminate the provisions that undermine the independence of the judiciary.”

Today, Madame Chair, as we listen to the presentation delivered before this body on this matter, a very fundamental question comes to mind: Is this action compatible with the principles of democracy and human rights that the states of our hemisphere have embraced?

It is important to underscore, Madame Chair, that the Inter-American Democratic Charter, in recognizing a right to democracy and the obligation of governments to promote and defend it, also highlights judicial independence as a central component in the advancement of democratic governance. Article 3 clearly defines the “essential elements of representative democracy” to include “the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.”

It is also critical to highlight, Madame Chair, that Venezuela is party to several human rights treaties that commit it to protecting the independence of its judiciary — including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights.

In addition, OAS Resolution 833, of December 16, 2002, which calls for a “constitutional, democratic, peaceful and electoral” solution in Venezuela — and which remains the cornerstone of our approach to resolving the current impasse — clearly states as one of its primary objectives: “To support the right of the Venezuelan people to elect their government officials in accordance with constitutional norms and to express categorically that any situation that violates the rule of law and the democratic institutional structure in Venezuela is incompatible with the inter-American system …”

Madame Chair, sixty-seven years ago last month, the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate issued a scathing report against efforts by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt — frustrated by rulings that struck down social initiatives he championed — to pass legislation that would have allowed him to name six new justices to the nine-member U.S. Supreme Court. The committee’s report, on June 14, 1937, branded President Roosevelt’s proposal “a needless, futile and utterly dangerous abandonment of constitutional principle….[that] would subjugate the courts to the will of Congress and the President and thereby destroy the independence of the judiciary.” The report concluded that the plan “violates all precedents in the history of our Government and would in itself be a dangerous precedent for the future.”

This proposed action in my own country, very similar to what has actually happened in Venezuela, Madame Chair, was widely met with public disapproval and repudiation, and rejected by the committee controlled by Roosevelt’s own Party, and whose reasoning then remains important today. I quote: “Let us now set a …precedent that will never be violated. Let us, … in words that will never be disregarded by any succeeding Congress, declare that we would rather have an independent Court, a fearless Court, a Court that will dare to announce its honest opinions in what it believes to be the defense of the liberties of the people, than a Court that, out of fear or sense of obligation to the appointing power, or factional passion, approves any measure we may enact. We are not the judges. We are not above the Constitution.” [End quote.]

Madame Chair, we join those voices that today urge the Government of Venezuela to take heed of the concerns that these developments have raised. They perhaps can be summed up as follows — Does this represent a blow to separation of powers, because the balance of powers is essential to truly democratic governance? What does it truly mean for the rule of law? Of course, only Venezuelans can in the end deal with these issues. But in this new era of the Democratic Charter, Madame Chair, we all have a stake in Venezuelan democracy.

Thank you, Madame Chair.