Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution and violence in Venezuela leaves populations at risk of potential crimes against humanity.
After President Nicolás Maduro took office during 2013, a catastrophic economic crisis resulted in hyper-inflation, food shortages and the collapse of essential services in Venezuela. Popular discontent with the government led to widespread protests, which the authorities have responded to with disproportionate force as well as the mobilization of pro-government groups, including so-called armed “colectivos.” During 2018 a panel of independent experts mandated by the Organization of American States (OAS) accused the government of crimes against humanity.
The political crisis escalated during January 2019 when President Maduro was sworn in for a second term amidst allegations of electoral fraud. Since then more than 50 countries, including many Latin American and European governments, have recognized the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim President instead, resulting in an ongoing political impasse.
In addition to the government’s violent crackdown on protests, the Special Action Forces have been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, these killings are utilized to maintain social control and instill fear. The Venezuelan government has reported that 6,856 people were killed in “security operations” between January 2018 and June 2019 alone. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has also assessed reports of 1,324 individuals allegedly extrajudicially killed during security operations from January-May 2020.
High Commissioner Bachelet has also warned about increasing violence, arrests and public threats directed against opposition members, media, human rights defenders and military defectors. This includes patterns of arbitrary detention, as well as allegations of torture and sexual and gender-based violence. Systematic violations and abuses of human rights have intensified since the imposition of a “State of Alarm” in March in response to COVID-19, including the prosecution of government critics.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 7 million people in Venezuela are in need of humanitarian assistance. Approximately 5 million Venezuelans have left the country since the outbreak of the crisis in 2014.
Despite international isolation, the Maduro government remains in control of key state institutions and the security forces. The government has utilized the COVID-19 pandemic to further empower the security forces to systematically persecute alleged opponents.
Widespread impunity has emboldened the security forces to continue perpetrating extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes. Although the Human Rights Council (HRC) established a Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela, the government refuses to fully cooperate with OHCHR and other international human rights mechanisms.
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 36 senior government officials. On 3 December 2019 a number of regional governments also imposed targeted sanctions on 29 senior officials. The US government has imposed extensive sanctions on President Maduro, his family and senior members of his government.
On 26 September 2018 Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru requested that the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity.
On 27 September 2019, under the leadership of the “Lima Group,” the HRC adopted a resolution establishing the FFM, which is mandated to investigate extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees since 2014. Despite ongoing human rights violations and abuses, on 17 October 2019 Venezuela was elected to the HRC for the 2020-2022 term.
The government must end the systematic persecution of its opponents and ensure impartial investigations of all extrajudicial killings and other violations and abuses. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country and fully cooperate with UN mechanisms, including OHCHR. The government and opposition should commit to renewed dialogue to ensure a peaceful solution to the political crisis.
The HRC should renew the mandate of the FFM during its 45th session. UN member states should continue to impose targeted sanctions on all senior government officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights.
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