Uruguay’s Foreign Policy Returns to Decency and Dignity

Declarándose a favor de los derechos humanos en Venezuela, Nin retomó la tradición política uruguaya sobre derechos humanos (Biendateao)
Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa has replanted Uruguay’s firm international commitment to human rights. (Biendateao)

EspañolUruguay is a small country, but it’s traditionally ranked alongside the biggest hitters in one respect: its unflinching defense of human rights.

Historically – aside from periods of dictatorial rule – our leaders have stood out internationally in this area. A Uruguayan diplomatic delegation featured prominently at the 1945 Conference of San Francisco, whose objective was the creation of the United Nations.

On that occasion, ignoring all pressures to the contrary, our delegate presented a paper signed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which condemned racial and religious persecution and stood in solidarity with the Jewish people. Other delegates present described the motion as “imprudent.”

In the same line, when in 1948 the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Uruguay was among the first 48 countries to sign up to it. In 1965, it was the first to recognize the 1915 Armenian genocide.

It’s worth emphasizing that it took another 20 years before any other government did so officially. Through the approval of a law, the Uruguayan state recognized the existence of the slaughter, condemned it, and remembered the victims. At the time, it was a striking decision, without precedent at the global level. It demonstrates that the Uruguay of the period was home to an engrained understanding of human rights and justice.

This situation began to change with the “pink tide” in early 21st-century Latin-American politics reaching Uruguay, specifically with the election of President Tabaré Vázquez to his first term (2005-2010). Vázquez was already lenient towards regimes that clearly violated human rights, such as that of Cuba and Venezuela. But such pandering reached, frankly, indecent levels under the administration of José “Pepe” Mujica (2010-2015).

During Mujica’s term in office, it was impossible to feign ignorance about what was going on in Venezuela. Since the rise to power of Hugo Chávez, the judiciary had been submitted to the whim of the president, the government controlled and threatened the media — directly and indirectly — the police and paramilitaries repressed peaceful protests with firearms, and the authorities locked up, tortured, and possibly murdered opposition leaders or ordinary students for representing a “destabilizing” threat to the status quo.

This state of affairs was denounced by organizations dedicated to the defense of human rights, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Inter American Press Association, and the World Organization Against Torture, among many others of recognized international standing.

Despite this unavoidable reality, Mujica supported the brutal dictatorship that assailed Venezuelans with ambiguous rhetoric, sophistic sleights of hand, and meaningful silences. He sheltered behind the argument of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other states. To cap it all was his participation on March 23 in a demonstration in solidarity with the Chavista regime.

However, the third leftist government, newly headed by Tabaré Vázquez (2015-2020), seems to have decided to retake the honorable route and re-embrace our country’s characteristic values. The about-turn was heralded by recent public declarations by current Foreign Minister Rodolfo Nin Novoa.

In a radio show, Nin said he was observing with “with great concern several happenings which don’t coincide with democratic excellence” in Venezuela.

He stated that “in Uruguay it would be unthinkable for the government to send the police to break down the door and drag a mayor from his office by force. We said it to the Venezuelan foreign minister and the ambassador. Here, if there’s a legal complaint, you’re called to a trial, you give evidence, and the guarantees of due process are fulfilled … imprisoning opposition figures is definitely a worrying issue.”

From the moral point of view, Nin further questioned the authorization given by the Venezuelan government for soldiers to use firearms against protesters, describing it as “excessive by any standards.” Moreover, he revealed during a UNASUR meeting in Ecuador in March, he has requested that the Red Cross inspect Venezuelan jails.

The objective was to ascertain firsthand the situation and treatment of political prisoners in the Ramo Verde military prison. The answer, Nin reported, “was silence.” But Uruguay “will insist on this point,” he added.

Nin described events in Venezuela as “enormously worrying,” especially for a country like Uruguay that barely 30 years ago suffered “the same conditions that some Venezuelans are living now.” As a result, “we have to go to ask help from the world.”

He put particular emphasis on how human rights are “the only issue on which the argument of non-intervention in internal affairs is not valid. Human rights are to be defended in every part of the world.”

Mujica is admired globally for being “the poorest president in the world.” This stance is based on an undeniable fact: the former Uruguayan president is not particularly interested in money. This is certainly a striking and unusual aspect of his personality, and to a certain degree constitutes a virtue.

In essence, virtue is an acquired condition which makes human beings seek the common good. It’s rooted in ethical values which contribute to community life being respectful. It’s manifested by right thought and right action. Put another way, it’s the regular disposition towards doing good.

Virtue is intimately linked to decency, and decency means demonstrating honor and uprightness in a broad sense, including intellectual honesty.

Human rights constitute the ethical standard and moral conscience of humanity. They’re the combination of basic and irrevocable values, at whose heart is the recognition of the intrinsic dignity of every person. This sense of dignity helps us determine what is just and good for all mankind.

As an Uruguayan, I can do nothing less than applaud our rulers for returning to the noble traditions that once were a hallmark of our country. It demonstrates that decency and dignity are not the property of the left nor of the right — but are shared by all people working for the common good.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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