Ongoing state-led repression and systematic human rights violations in Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity.
Following years of the gradual erosion of the rule of law, endemic corruption and democratic space, in 2014 mass protests erupted in Venezuela in response to insecurity, hyperinflation and a lack of essential services. Security forces reacted with disproportionate force, torture and sexual violence. Similar patterns of violations and abuses were perpetrated by state agents during subsequent protests, including in 2019 when the start of President Nicolás Maduro’s second term caused a protracted political crisis. Through a policy designed to repress political dissent, the Venezuelan government, including its security and intelligence apparatus, has perpetrated systematic arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, sexual and gender-based violence and short-term enforced disappearances targeting actual and perceived opponents.
Various security forces have also allegedly perpetrated tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings in the name of combating crime. Venezuelan human rights project Lupa por La Vida documented 355 alleged extrajudicial executions in the first semester of 2023 alone. Most victims were men between 18 and 30 living in low-income neighborhoods.
In 2019 the UN Human Rights Council authorized the creation of an independent fact-finding mission (FFM) on Venezuela. The FFM has established that some violations and abuses committed since at least 2014 were part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against the civilian population that may amount to crimes against humanity. Evidence collected by the FFM implicated President Maduro and other high-level government officials in directly selecting and framing targets to be arbitrarily detained and tortured. In September 2022 the FFM warned that patterns of detention, torture and other violations continue “as part of a plan orchestrated at the highest levels of the government to repress dissent through crimes against humanity.”
The multidimensional crisis has left millions of Venezuelans unable to access basic services. The Venezuelan civil society platform documenting the humanitarian emergency, HumVenezuela, warned that an estimated 19 million people inside Venezuela need assistance. On 26 November 2022 government and opposition delegates signed a “social agreement,” which aims to ensure UN supervision of unfrozen funds directed to address dire humanitarian needs, but implementation has since stalled. The crisis has also triggered the largest migration emergency in Latin America, with more than 7.7 million people having left the country since 2014.
Communities across Venezuela, including along the border with Colombia and in Venezuela’s gold mining region, Arco Minero del Orinoco, are also at heightened risk of egregious abuses by non-state armed groups or criminal gangs, acting at times with the consent and direct involvement of Venezuelan state agents who have been implicated in possible crimes against humanity.
Several governments, including Canada and Switzerland, have enforced an extensive individual sanctions regime. Since 2017 the European Union (EU) has maintained sanctions against 55 senior officials. The United States (US) government has also imposed targeted sanctions against the Venezuelan government, as well as broader sectoral sanctions that have exacerbated the country’s pre-existing complex humanitarian emergency. Despite the Venezuelan government’s refusal to cooperate with the FFM and other mechanisms, it has agreed to expanding the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presence in Venezuela. Although the government has expressed its approval for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to establish a country office in Caracas, it has continued to block ongoing investigations.
On 25 September the FFM warned of increasing selective repression targeting civil society organizations, trade and labor unionists, independent media, as well as political opponents and their families. The FFM also highlighted that high-ranking officials regularly resort to public smear campaigns and harassment against human rights defenders and journalists, which has contributed to an environment of fear and self-censorship.
On 17 October the government and groups of opposition parties signed the Barbados Agreement, which includes an electoral roadmap ahead of presidential elections in 2024. The US responded by temporarily lifting a set of non-targeted sanctions, tied to the future release of political prisoners, among other measures. In November the EU extended its existing targeted sanctions regime for a period of six months but similarly indicated a willingness to reassess measures based on implementation of the Agreement.
On 7 November the government appealed the decision by the ICC to resume investigations into alleged crimes against humanity following a previous assessment by the Court that domestic investigations are insufficient. This latest measure follows multiple attempts by the Venezuelan government to limit ICC scrutiny since the opening of an investigation in November 2021.
The Venezuelan government is deliberately pursuing policies that enable human rights violations and abuses to silence dissent. Sexual and gender-based violence has been deliberately perpetrated in the context of arbitrary detentions and to ensure control over profitable territory.
A reduction in the number of extrajudicial executions and related violations since the beginning of investigations by the FFM suggests a possible deterrent effect of international scrutiny. Increasing engagement with the ICC and OHCHR also highlights that the Venezuelan government is receptive to multilateral pressure. However, no structural changes have been implemented to the country’s judiciary, intelligence or security sector and state actors continue to perpetrate systematic abuses. Venezuelan civil society collective Justicia y Verdad has documented evidence that the Venezuelan government has failed to implement recommendations issued by the UN human rights system.
Venezuela’s judicial system is perpetuating impunity for possible atrocity crimes. Government-linked media outlets also play a key role in state repression and persecution. The systematic crackdown on civic and political space is a deliberate strategy by the government to increase repression in a critical pre-electoral period. Independent monitoring, including by the FFM, is essential to prevent the recurrence of crimes against humanity and alert the international community to appropriate prevention strategies.
While the Barbados Agreement by the government and opposition provides an important opportunity to advance minimum electoral guarantees, key issues – such as the government banning the leading opposition candidate – pose a serious risk of jeopardizing the upcoming electoral process.
Venezuelan authorities must immediately end the systematic repression of actual or alleged opponents and civil society. The government should also commit to genuine and comprehensive intelligence, security sector and judicial reform and ensure impartial investigations of all serious violations and abuses, including at the highest level. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access and implement recommendations issued by the wider UN human rights system.
Ongoing technical cooperation, including through OHCHR, should be based on the FFM’s recommendations on necessary system-wide reform, as well as address risk factors that have facilitated the commission of atrocity crimes. Regional actors, including neighboring Brazil and Colombia, should leverage their engagement with the Maduro administration to exert concerted diplomatic pressure to ensure the government implements these reforms.
Latin American governments, the EU, Canada and the US should revitalize efforts to build a common roadmap for political engagement with Venezuela which prioritizes human rights protections, accountability and humanitarian relief, while addressing structural risk factors and focusing on the implementation of electoral reforms ahead of the 2024 and 2025 elections.