Venezuelan opposition deputy Julio Borges ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP/Getty Images

Justice Without Borders for Venezuela

With Venezuela’s humanitarian catastrophe worsening by the day, governments in the region and beyond are pondering how to respond. But it may be civil society that needs to invent new ways of taking action.

TIRANA – As Venezuela’s humanitarian catastrophe worsens by the day, governments in the region and beyond ponder how to respond. It may be time for civil society to invent new ways of taking action.

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According to estimates from MIT’s Billion Prices Project, month-on-month food inflation in Venezuela reached 117.6% in January, or the equivalent of 1,130,000% a year. At the same time, the exchange rate depreciated at an annual rate of more than 700,000%, while the real purchasing power of wages – which barely represented 1,400 calories a day in December – was decimated further. A survey published in early January estimated recent out-migration at four million people, nearly as many as from Syria.

Governments in the Americas and Europe find themselves in rough, uncharted waters. If the problem were simply a matter of gross violations of the Organization of American States’ Democratic Charter – convincingly certified by OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro – solutions measured in months or years could be considered. But Venezuela is not just a political problem; it is a humanitarian catastrophe of unprecedented proportions.

True, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro is ruling unconstitutionally, relying on emergency decrees and an all-powerful, one-party, illegally established constituent assembly, while ignoring the elected National Assembly and banning opposition political parties. But the impact of his misrule is such that Venezuelans are dying from starvation, the health-care system has collapsed, and violence and contagious diseases are now practically out of control.

Under these circumstances, time – measured in human lives – is intolerably expensive, which is why I recently proposed a political solution that involved international military assistance to shore up a new government appointed by the National Assembly. Some Latin American countries, starting with Brazil, quickly issued statements indicating that this option is off the table. Others in academia and the media also came out against the idea.

But none of them proposed a better solution, except to hope that United States-led individual sanctions or an oil embargo might do the trick. As the situation worsens, all will have to reconsider their options. They just cannot seem to devise a more palatable one.

It may be time for civil society to act. In fact, the solutions developed there may reshape responses to similar crises elsewhere.

In their excellent book The Internationalists, Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro describe how the idealistic 1928 Briand-Kellogg Pact and its successors dramatically reduced wars of conquest, not by confronting aggressors militarily but by denying them recognition of sovereignty over their ill-gotten gains. Hathaway and Shapiro then go further, arguing that international cooperation in areas such as trade, environmental protection, and tax coordination has made remarkable progress, despite the absence of a centralized international enforcement mechanism. Again, the key has been to deny recognition to rogue actors.

Hathaway and Shapiro take their intellectual cue from the ancient Icelandic tradition of banishment or ostracism of those who violate social norms. Because life is social to the core, disconnecting people from the networks we all use to survive and thrive can be a powerful punishment – and can be meted out in a decentralized way.

We all depend on people willing to sell to us, buy from us, lend to us, manage our savings, educate our kids, accommodate us at their hotels, feed us at their restaurants, connect us to the Internet, allow us to travel to their countries, pay with credit cards, and afford us the respect that people are normally entitled to. Life without access to these links must be a living hell.

Whether exclusion from these connections can deter would-be tyrants and their henchmen is an empirical question. But it is surely worth a try.

So here’s another proposal. Venezuelan civil-society institutions like the award-winning Foro Penal should crowdsource the preparation of a carefully curated list of regime henchmen. The list should include all those who have grossly violated people’s rights by abusing state authority or have acted to enforce unconstitutional rule. This should include government ministers, members of the Electoral Council, the Supreme Court, and the Constituent Assembly ex officio, as well as the attorney general, the heads of the National Guard and the civilian and military intelligence services, and others.

But a dictatorial state relies on many more henchmen. Prosecutors, civil and military judges, policemen, National Guard members, security agents, and others who have fabricated criminal charges, abused prisoners, and delayed or denied justice should be included as well. So should members of the militias and the Chavista armed gangs called colectivos, if they have acted to terrorize the population, and anyone who has coerced public employees by threatening to fire them unless they vote as ordered or carry out particular measures.

Credible institutions such as Human Rights Watch should audit the list to certify the accuracy of the information and give the accused an opportunity to refute the claims. But this is not a criminal court. The list is to be used precisely because the law in Venezuela actually emboldens, rather than constrains, those in power. Under such circumstances, all who help to sustain the regime deserve to be punished.

As the list is made public, governments, corporations, and organizations should be encouraged to banish the named persons, lest their reputations be tarnished. The 12-member Lima Group of Latin American countries, the US, Canada, the European Union, and others, should deny visas and access to services provided by national companies. Banks, airlines, credit card companies, social media firms, hotel chains, social clubs, and other organizations should participate as well, to avoid being perceived as profiting from serving such criminals. And the list should be rolled out gradually (and perhaps at random), to give the henchmen time to defect and the regime to crumble.

The goal of this strategy is not revenge. It is to deliver a form of decentralized punishment that makes it very costly for dictatorial regimes to violate other people’s rights with impunity and to create pliant cadres of henchmen who “only follow orders,” as if that exempted them from moral responsibility. In fact, most henchmen have sent their families abroad, saving them from the mayhem they have created. Placing the spouses and children of henchmen on the list would make ostracism particularly effective.

In democratic countries, we expect justice to be the government’s responsibility. But in cases such as Venezuela, the world needs effective and inexpensive ways to dispense decentralized means of achieving deterrence. After all, are we not all our brother’s keeper?;