29 February 2024
Risk Level: Current Crisis

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 violations were perpetrated during subsequent protests, including in 2019 when the start of President Nicolás Maduro’s second term caused a protracted political crisis. 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, predominantly targeting 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. 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. Venezuelan civil society platform HumVenezuela warned that an estimated 19 million people inside Venezuela need assistance. The crisis has also triggered the largest migration crisis in Latin America, with more than 7.7 million people having left the country since 2014. Communities across Venezuela 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 54 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.

Venezuela’s government has refused to cooperate with the FFM and other mechanisms. Despite initially agreeing to expand the presence of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), on 15 February 2024 the government demanded the withdrawal of OHCHR staff within 72 hours. 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.


Government repression has continued to rapidly intensify in recent months ahead of the scheduled presidential elections in 2024. 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 self-censorship.

On 9 January 2024 the ruling party announced renewed efforts to expedite the adoption of an undisclosed bill that would effectively hinder the free functioning of civil society organizations. The National Assembly initially announced plans to pass such legislation a year ago. On 26 January the Supreme Court upheld a ban on the leading presidential opposition candidate amidst ongoing harassment and threats against political opponents. Since January the government has carried out several enforced disappearances of actual or alleged opponents, including a prominent human rights defender and her family.

Current measures jeopardize the Barbados agreement, which was signed on 17 October between the government and groups of opposition parties and includes an electoral roadmap. In response to the signing of the agreement, the US temporarily lifted a set of non-targeted sanctions. In November the EU extended its existing targeted sanctions regime for a period of six months, but indicated a willingness to reassess 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.

Increasing engagement with the ICC and, until recently, OHCHR highlights that the Venezuelan government has been 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 government has failed to implement recommendations issued by the UN human rights system.

Human rights organizations have warned for over two years that presidential and general elections in 2024 and 2025 pose a severe risk of intensifying government repression, similar to previous voting cycles. The suspension of OHCHR in-country activities, as well as increasing targeted persecution, attacks against civic space and a systematic campaign against political opposition, are early warning signs of a deteriorating situation and possible recurrence of atrocity crimes. Draft legislation to restrict civic space would have disastrous consequences for populations across the country as civil society organizations have become the main provider of assistance and relief.

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. 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, including in the context of upcoming elections.


    • Senior government officials involved in the planning and commission of violent acts, including possible crimes against humanity, to crush political dissent and combat crime.
    • Lack of independent and impartial judiciary, as well as impunity for or tolerance of serious violations of international law, including atrocity crimes.
    • Adoption of measures to criminalize civil society organizations and attacks against democratic institutions and electoral guarantees, particularly ahead of scheduled elections.
    • Absence of accountable state authority, presence of non-state armed actors and high levels of crime, corruption and illicit economic exploitation in large parts of the country.
    • Targeting of indigenous peoples by state and non-state actors aiming to control territory and resources.


Venezuelan authorities must immediately end the systematic repression of all actual or alleged opponents, release all individuals subject to arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances and revoke the draft legislation aimed at effectively closing civic space. The government should also commit to genuine and comprehensive reform and ensure impartial investigations of all serious violations and abuses, including at the highest level, and implement recommendations issued by the wider UN human rights system.

Regional actors, including Colombia and Brazil, should leverage their engagement with the Maduro administration to exert concerted diplomatic and political pressure to ensure the government reverts repressive policies. The EU should continue to push for the deployment of an independent electoral observer mission and respect for the Barbados agreement.

Latin American governments, the EU, Canada and US should revitalize efforts to build a common roadmap for political engagement with Venezuela which prioritizes human rights protections, accountability and humanitarian relief, while focusing on prevention and mitigation strategies in relation to targeted repression. The international donor community should expand their support for civil society organizations documenting human rights violations and providing humanitarian relief to populations in need.


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