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, have 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 824 alleged extrajudicial executions in 2022 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, other high-level government officials and members of his inner circle 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.” In November 2021 the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced the opening of an investigation into possible crimes against humanity.
The multidimensional crisis has left millions of Venezuelans unable to access basic services, including healthcare and nutrition. The Venezuelan civil society platform documenting the humanitarian emergency, HumVenezuela, has estimated 18.7 million people inside Venezuela need assistance. The crisis has also triggered the largest migration crisis in Latin America, with an estimated 7.3 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 government 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.
On 26 November 2022, as part of negotiations under the Mexico Dialogue, government and opposition delegates signed a first “social agreement,” which aims to ensure UN supervision of unfrozen funds directed to address dire humanitarian needs, but implementation has since stalled.
Over the past year, the government has systematically restricted civic space and limited the work of human rights defenders, independent media, civil society and union workers. On 24 January 2023 the ruling-party dominated National Assembly provisionally approved draft legislation aimed at essentially criminalizing the work of civil society organizations, many of which are the primary providers of assistance and relief.
During his first visit to Caracas on 26 January the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, welcomed the Venezuelan government’s decision to extend the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presence in Venezuela for two years. On 10 June the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC announced the establishment of a country office in Caracas.
Ahead of presidential elections in 2024, as well as the parliamentary, municipal and governorship elections in 2025, the government has imposed arbitrary disqualifications against leading opposition candidates since June. On 15 June the government announced the replacement of the National Electoral Council, further jeopardizing the upcoming electoral process.
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, including the Arco Minero region. High Commissioner Türk has warned that fear of reprisals and limited access to areas where violations and abuses have occurred means cases remain underreported.
A reduction in the number of extrajudicial executions and related violations since the beginning of investigations and public documentation 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 space and further dismantling of electoral guarantees 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 and response strategies.
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.
Technical cooperation, including through OHCHR, should be based on the FFM’s recommendations on necessary system-wide reform, as well as address risk factors and institutional weaknesses that have facilitated the commission of atrocity crimes. Regional actors, including neighboring Brazil and Colombia, should leverage their engagement with the Maduro government 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 electoral reform ahead of the 2024 and 2025 elections.