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 and democratic space, the situation in Venezuela first escalated in 2014 when mass protests erupted 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 mass protests, including in 2019 when the start of President Nicolás Maduro’s second term sparked an intense struggle with the opposition, causing a protracted political crisis. In a systematic policy to repress political dissent, the Venezuelan government, including its security and intelligence apparatus, have perpetrated 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.
In 2019 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) authorized the creation of an independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela to investigate systematic state-led repression. 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 and members of his inner circle in directly selecting and framing targets to be arbitrarily detained and tortured. In December 2020 the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) asserted that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed since at least April 2017. An official investigation was opened on 3 November 2021.
The crisis has left millions of Venezuelans unable to access basic services, including healthcare and nutrition. An estimated 7.1 million people have left the country since 2014 in what has become the largest migration crisis in Latin America.
The European Union has had an extensive sanctions regime in place since November 2017 against 55 individuals, including senior government officials. The United States government has also imposed targeted sanctions against the Venezuelan government, as well as broader sanctions that have exacerbated the country’s humanitarian crisis.
Communities along Venezuela’s border with Colombia and other areas of the country 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 identified as perpetrators of possible crimes against humanity. Regular clashes between armed groups along the border have resulted in mass displacement, civilian fatalities, disappearances and the forced recruitment of children. In Venezuela’s gold mining region, Arco Minero del Orinoco, state agents and armed criminal groups are committing killings, sexual and gender-based violence, torture, corporal punishment and disappearances, including against indigenous populations, to ensure control over profitable territory.
Venezuelan human rights project Lupa por La Vida documented more than 700 alleged extrajudicial executions between January and November 2022 alone. 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.”
Over the past year, the government has systematically restricted civic space and limited the work of human rights defenders, independent media and civil society, including through harassment and persecution. On 24 January 2023 the ruling-party dominated National Assembly provisionally approved draft legislation aimed at essentially criminalizing the work of civil society organizations.
On 15 April 2022 the Venezuelan government requested the deferral of the ICC investigation, but the Chief Prosecutor announced he would seek approval from the Pre-Trial Chamber to proceed. A Memorandum of Understanding between the government and the ICC, signed in November 2021, remains intact.
Although the government has refused to fully cooperate with HRC mechanisms, including the FFM, on 7 October 2022 the HRC renewed the reporting mandate of the FFM and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for an additional two years. During his first visit to Caracas on 26 January 2023 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, announced the extension of OHCHR presence in Venezuela for two years.
Following more than a year-long stalemate, on 26 November government and opposition delegates resumed political negotiations within the purview of the Mexico Dialogue and signed a first “social agreement,” which aims to ensure UN supervision of unfrozen funds directed to address the dire humanitarian needs.
The Venezuelan government is deliberately pursuing policies that enable human rights violations and abuses to silence dissent. Extrajudicial killings appear to be part of a systematic strategy to reinforce social control. The number of killings reduced following the publication of the FFM’s first report in September 2020, suggesting a possible deterrent effect of international scrutiny. However, no structural changes have been implemented to the country’s judiciary, intelligence or security sector and state actors continue to perpetrate systematic abuses, including against human rights defenders.
Venezuela’s judicial system is perpetuating impunity for possible atrocity crimes committed by security and intelligence forces. Domestic investigations – undertaken to minimize international scrutiny – remain limited in scope and only target low-level perpetrators. Government-linked media outlets also play a key role in state repression and persecution.
The ICC’s decision to open an investigation is an important step in advancing accountability efforts in light of the government’s unwillingness to investigate high-level perpetrators. Public reporting to UN member states by the FFM is vital to maintain international engagement and pressure on the government to commit to system-wide reform and prevent recurrence of crimes against humanity.
The ongoing complex humanitarian emergency continues to affect large parts of Venezuela’s population in urgent need of assistance.
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 its recommendations.
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. States should exert maximum diplomatic pressure to ensure the government commits to these reforms.
Multilateral efforts to support the Mexico Dialogue must prioritize human rights protections while addressing structural risk factors and focusing on electoral reform ahead of 2024.
The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC and his investigative team should engage with survivors and civil society organizations to pursue victim-centered accountability processes.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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