Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution in Venezuela amounts to crimes against humanity.
Since 2014 Venezuelan security and intelligence forces have been accused of widespread torture, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention and short-term enforced disappearances in an attempt to silence political dissent. State agents, including the Special Action Forces (FAES), have also allegedly perpetrated thousands of extrajudicial killings. 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. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela has also reported that more than 200 people have been killed by police forces since January.
On 16 September 2020 the FFM warned that patterns of violations and abuses over the past six years have been ordered and authorized at the highest level of government, committed as part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against the civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity. The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) 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 individuals have committed crimes against humanity since at least April 2017.
On 2 December the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States released a report reaffirming the FFM’s findings while noting that crimes against humanity have “increased in scale, scope and severity.” Security operations continue, and at least 14 people were killed in the La Vega neighborhood of Caracas between 7-9 January. Since November 2020 the government has also intensified its systematic persecution and harassment of human rights activists, humanitarian organizations and independent media.
The ongoing crisis in Venezuela began after a catastrophic economic crisis resulted in hyper-inflation and the collapse of essential services during President Nicolás Maduro’s first term. Popular discontent with the government led to the launch of mass protests in 2014, which the authorities responded to with disproportionate force. The political crisis escalated further during January 2019 when President Maduro was sworn in for a second term amidst allegations of electoral fraud. More than 50 countries recognized the then leader of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as “caretaker” President instead. However, the Maduro government remained in control of key state institutions and allied parties regained control of the National Assembly during December 2020.
Approximately 5.5 million people have left Venezuela since 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.
Widespread impunity has emboldened state agents to continue perpetrating extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes. Structural factors that facilitated the commission of possible crimes against humanity in the past remain in place. Extrajudicial killings appear to be part of a systematic strategy to combat crime and reinforce political and social control.
The government refuses to fully cooperate with the FFM and other human rights mechanisms. The ongoing deadlock between the government and divided opposition parties risks further instability.
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 55 senior government officials. The United States government has imposed extensive targeted sanctions against the 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.
Venezuelan authorities must end the systematic persecution of civil society and their political opponents. The government should also dissolve the FAES and ensure impartial investigations of all serious violations and abuses of human rights. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country and fully cooperate with all UN mechanisms.
States should continue to impose targeted sanctions on officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights, but lift all measures that may further limit the population’s access to basic goods and services.
In the absence of domestic accountability mechanisms, other states should consider taking legal action, including under universal jurisdiction, against those responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and other possible crimes against humanity.