Populations at Risk
Ongoing political conflict in Venezuela leaves populations at risk of potential crimes against humanity.
Since President Nicolas Maduro took office during 2013, popular discontent with the government has led to widespread protests. A catastrophic economic crisis has resulted in hyper-inflation, food shortages and the collapse of essential services. The government has routinely responded to mass protests with disproportionate and deadly force as well as the mobilization of auxiliary militias, including so-called armed "colectivos." During 2018 a panel of independent experts mandated by the Organization of American States (OAS) accused the government of crimes against humanity.
The Venezuelan government has reported that 6,856 people have been killed in "security operations" since January 2018. From 19-21 June the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights undertook her first official visit to Venezuela, raising alarm about an "unusually high" number of suspected extrajudicial killings. The High Commissioner has also reported on the arbitrary detention of government opponents and their family members, often accompanied by allegations of torture, ill-treatment and/or sexual and gender-based violence. While naming the National Guard, National Police and Intelligence Service as alleged perpetrators, the role of the Special Action Forces was particularly emphasized.
Despite allegations of electoral fraud, President Maduro was re-elected in May 2018. The start of his second term in January 2019 sparked a diplomatic crisis as the United States and many Latin American and European countries recognized the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim President. While the government of Norway has subsequently facilitated mediation between the government and opposition, no progress has been achieved thus far.
In the midst of an ongoing struggle between the government and the opposition for control of the state, Venezuelans face an enduring risk of potential atrocity crimes. Influenced by years of militarization of state institutions, the leadership of the armed forces remains loyal to Maduro, risking a protracted political crisis. Political violence has created an environment which facilitates the commission of serious violations and abuses of human rights, some of which may amount to crimes against humanity.
Current mediation efforts constitute an important opportunity, but it remains unclear whether the government is willing to work together with the opposition to resolve the political conflict.
Although the government has agreed to some humanitarian relief provided by the UN and other neutral actors, access restraints continue. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 7 million people, 25 percent of the population, are in need of urgent assistance. The recent extension of United States sanctions against the Maduro government are likely to further exacerbate the humanitarian emergency by putting at risk the importation of essential goods, including food and medicine.
The government is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all Venezuelans regardless of political affiliation.
Various governments, including the majority of OAS member states, have publicly criticized systematic human rights violations and abuses in Venezuela, and more than 50 governments now recognize Guaidó as interim President.
During November 2017 the European Union (EU) imposed an arms embargo on Venezuela. The EU has also imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 18 senior government officials. The United States has imposed extensive sanctions on Maduro, his family and senior members of his government.
On 26 September 2018 six states referred the situation in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court (ICC). By requesting the Chief Prosecutor open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru became the first countries to refer a situation to the ICC for crimes that took place in the territory of another state party.
The government must immediately end the persecution of its political opponents, demobilize auxiliary militias, ensure impartial investigations of all extrajudicial killings, and lift unreasonable restrictions on humanitarian relief. The government should uphold its expressed commitment to grant the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights full access to detention centers and release all those who have been arbitrarily detained.
UN member states should impose targeted sanctions on all government officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights, but refrain from any measures that may further limit the populations' access to basic goods and services. The mediation process led by Norway should be politically supported.
During its 42nd session the UN Human Rights Council should establish a Commission of Inquiry mandated to collect evidence of violations of international law in Venezuela and identify individual perpetrators in order to help ensure accountability for possible crimes against humanity.
Last Updated: 15 September 2019
The five most recent issues of R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert are available in the side-bar. To see previous assessments of this country, please see R2P Monitor and Atrocity Alert on our Publications page. Venezuela has been featured in R2P Monitor since November 2018.