Venezuela

1 December 2021
Risk Level: Current Crisis
More than 5.7 million people have left the country since 2014

Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution in Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity.

BACKGROUND:

Since 2014 Venezuelan security and intelligence forces have been accused of widespread torture, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention and 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 in the name of combatting crime. According to reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, an estimated 8,200 individuals were killed in “security operations” between January 2018 and May 2020. Provea, a Venezuelan nongovernmental organization, documented 2,853 killings by state agents in 2020 alone.

For more than seven years Venezuela has experienced an unprecedented humanitarian, economic and political crisis. When mass protests erupted in response to insecurity, hyperinflation and a lack of essential services in 2014, security forces reacted with disproportionate force, torture and sexual violence. Security forces responded with similar patterns of violations and abuses during other mass protests, including in 2017 and 2019. During 2018 a panel of experts mandated by the Organization of American States accused the Venezuelan government of crimes against humanity. The same year, six states from the region – Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru – requested that the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity. Throughout the crisis, civil society, human rights defenders, independent media and opposition members have faced persecution by the government.

The protracted political crisis further escalated in January 2019 when President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for a second term. Although Juan Guaidó, then President of the opposition-led National Assembly, declared himself caretaker President, President Maduro remained in control of key state institutions.

In August government representatives and the opposition began a new dialogue process in Mexico City. Following the extradition of a close Maduro-ally to the United States (US), the government suspended its participation in the latest round of talks on 16 October.

In September 2020 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela warned that patterns of violations and abuses between 2014- 2020 were authorized at the highest level of government and committed as part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against the civilian population that may amount to crimes against humanity. In December 2020 the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC asserted that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed since at least April 2017. In September 2021 the FFM warned that Venezuela’s judicial system has contributed to ongoing state violence by perpetuating impunity for possible crimes against humanity. The FFM also warned that previously identified patterns of serious violations and abuses persist.

Millions of Venezuelans are suffering from a complex humanitarian emergency, including a collapsed healthcare system, widespread malnutrition and food insecurity. More than 5.7 million have left the country since 2014 in what has become the largest migration crisis in Latin America.

ANALYSIS:

Extrajudicial killings appear to be part of a systematic strategy to combat crime and reinforce social control. The judiciary serves as a key instrument of government repression by enabling widespread impunity, which emboldens state agents to continue perpetrating possible crimes against humanity. The ICC’s decision to open an investigation is an important step in advancing accountability efforts and exerting pressure on the government to overhaul its judiciary.

Venezuela is facing a humanitarian catastrophe as a result of endemic corruption, economic collapse, political conflict and repression. The situation has been exacerbated by the government’s failure to ensure full access to humanitarian relief.

Despite being a current member of the HRC, the government refuses to commit to genuine and system-wide human rights reform and is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all Venezuelans.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

Since November 2017 the European Union has imposed asset freezes on 55 individuals, including senior government officials. The US government has imposed targeted sanctions against the government, as well as broader sanctions that have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.

Following the announcement by the ICC on the opening of a preliminary examination in February 2018, the Chief Prosecutor signed a Letter of Understanding with the Maduro government on 3 November 2021, declaring the opening of an investigation. Under the principle of complementarity, Venezuela agreed to adopt all necessary measures to ensure the effective administration of justice and to establish mechanisms to enhance cooperation with the ICC.

The HRC established the FFM in September 2019 and renewed its mandate for an additional two years in October 2020.

NECESSARY ACTION:

Venezuelan authorities must end the systematic persecution of actual or alleged opponents. The government should also dissolve the FAES and ensure impartial investigations of all serious violations and abuses of human rights committed by various state agents and agencies, including at the highest level. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country and resume its participation in the Mexico talks.

States should actively push for renewed negotiations between the government and the wider opposition and lift all measures that limit the population’s access to basic goods and services. States should also exert diplomatic pressure to ensure the government commits to system-wide reform and urgently expand their funding for the humanitarian response within Venezuela and for migrants and refugees across the region.

Complementary to the ICC’s investigation, other states should consider taking legal action, including under universal jurisdiction, against those responsible for possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela. UN Security Council members should invite the FFM to brief the Council on necessary action to ensure accountability for ongoing crimes against humanity.

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