Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution and violence in Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity.
After President Nicolás Maduro took office in Venezuela during 2013 a catastrophic economic crisis resulted in hyper-inflation, food shortages and the collapse of essential services. Popular discontent with the government led to mass protests, which the authorities responded to with disproportionate and deadly force as well as the mobilization of pro-government groups, including so-called armed “colectivos.”
In addition to the government’s violent crackdown on protests, various state agents have been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances of perceived political opponents. According to reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 8,200 individuals were killed in “security operations” between January 2018 and May 2020 alone. On 16 September 2020 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela warned that ongoing patterns of violations and abuses since 2014 were committed as part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against the civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity. Since November 2020, the government has intensified its systematic persecution and harassment of human rights activists, humanitarian organizations and independent media.
The FFM found that President Maduro, as well as the Ministers of Defense and Interior, gave orders, exercised oversight and coordinated activities leading to the commission of possible atrocity crimes. On 2 December the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States released a report reaffirming that crimes against humanity have “increased in scale, scope and severity.” The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) also presented a report on 14 December asserting that there are reasonable grounds to believe that civilian authorities, members of the armed forces and pro-government groups have committed crimes against humanity since April 2017.
Approximately 5.5 million people have fled Venezuela since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2014. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 7 million people in Venezuela are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance and 94 percent live in poverty.
The FFM’s findings suggest that widespread impunity has emboldened state agents to continue perpetrating extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes. The Maduro government refuses to fully cooperate with the FFM and other international human rights mechanisms.
The political crisis in Venezuela escalated during January 2019 when President Maduro was sworn in for a second term amidst allegations of electoral fraud. More than 50 countries recognized the leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as “caretaker” President instead. Despite international isolation, the Maduro government remains in control of key state institutions and the security forces. The political deadlock between the government and divided opposition parties intensified after the 6 December elections, when President Maduro and allied parties regained control of the National Assembly in elections that were criticized internationally for lacking the minimal conditions for a free and fair vote.
The government is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all Venezuelans regardless of political affiliation.
Since November 2017 the European Union has imposed asset freezes on 36 senior government officials. The United States government has imposed extensive sanctions on President Maduro, his family and senior members of his government, as well as broader sanctions that have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.
On 26 September 2018 Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru requested that the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela.
On 27 September 2019 the HRC adopted a resolution establishing the FFM, which is currently mandated to investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture and ill-treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence. The mandate of the FFM was renewed for two years on 6 October 2020.
The government must end the systematic persecution of its perceived opponents, dissolve the Special Action Forces and ensure impartial investigations of all extrajudicial killings and other widespread violations and abuses of human rights. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country and fully cooperate with all UN mechanisms.
The government and opposition should commit to renewed dialogue, focusing on the urgent provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance to populations in need. Any negotiation should include the representation of Venezuelan civil society.
States should continue to impose targeted sanctions on senior government officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights, but lift measures that may further limit the population’s access to basic goods and services. In the absence of domestic accountability mechanisms, states should also consider taking legal action, including under universal jurisdiction, against those responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes against humanity.