Ongoing systematic human rights violations in Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity.
Since at least 2014 Venezuelan security and intelligence forces have perpetrated arbitrary detention, short-term enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment and sexual and gender-based violence, largely targeting actual and perceived government opponents. Various state agents have also allegedly perpetrated thousands of extrajudicial killings in the name of combatting crime. According to the Venezuelan human rights project, Lupa Por la Vida, at least 1,414 killings were carried out in 2021 alone. The government has also taken steps to restrict civic space and limit the operations of human rights defenders, independent media and civil society, including through harassment and persecution.
In September 2020 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela warned that patterns of violations and abuses since at least 2014 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 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 investigation was opened in November 2021.
In September 2021 the FFM warned that Venezuela’s judicial system is perpetuating impunity for possible atrocities. Despite efforts by the government to minimize international scrutiny, the FFM further warned on 18 March 2022 that domestic investigations remain limited in scope and only target low-level perpetrators.
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. Regular clashes between armed groups along the border have resulted in mass displacement, civilian fatalities, disappearances and the forced recruitment of children.
Following years of the gradual erosion of the rule of law and democratic space, the situation in Venezuela 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. State agents responded with similar patterns of violations and abuses during subsequent mass protests, including in 2019 when the start of President Nicolás Maduro’s second term sparked an intense struggle with the leader of the then opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, causing a protracted political crisis. More than 6 million people have left the country since 2014 in what has become the largest migration crisis in Latin America.
The Venezuelan government is pursuing policies that enable systematic human rights violations and abuses in an apparent attempt 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, state security forces have continued their targeted repression and systematic abuses. Government-linked media outlets play a key role in state repression and persecution.
The limited actions taken by the national judicial system emboldens state agents to continue perpetrating possible crimes against humanity, including politically motivated arbitrary detentions and torture. 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. Continued independent, impartial scrutiny, including by the FFM, remains essential for ensuring accountability and preventing further atrocities.
The run-up to presidential elections in 2024 poses a serious risk of heightened government repression and a further crackdown on civic space. Independent monitoring will be essential to prevent the recurrence of crimes against humanity and alert the international community of appropriate prevention and response strategies.
For the past eight years Venezuela has faced a humanitarian catastrophe as a result of endemic corruption, economic collapse, political conflict and repression. The absence of accountable state authority along Venezuela’s borders and other areas across the country has facilitated violent organized crime, the proliferation of non-state armed actors and systematic abuses against civilians. Many Venezuelans leaving the country remain at high risk of exploitation, violence or trafficking.
The government is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all Venezuelans.
Since November 2017 the European Union has imposed asset freezes on 55 individuals, including senior government officials. The United States government has imposed targeted sanctions against the government, as well as broader sanctions that have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.
Under the leadership of Canada and a group of Latin American governments, the HRC established the FFM in September 2019 and renewed its mandate for an additional two years in October 2020.
After Venezuela requested the deferral of the ICC investigation into crimes against humanity on 15 April 2022, the Chief Prosecutor announced he would seek approval from the Pre-Trial Chamber to proceed with his investigation. A Memorandum of Understanding, signed with the government of President Maduro in November 2021, remains intact.
Venezuelan authorities must end the systematic repression of actual or alleged opponents and civil society. The government should also commit to genuine and comprehensive 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 to the country and implement its recommendations. During its upcoming September session, the HRC should renew the mandate of the FFM for a period of two years.
Technical cooperation, including through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, 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 diplomatic pressure to ensure the government commits to these reforms.
Multilateral efforts to revitalize political negotiations between the government and members of the opposition – the Mexico Dialogue – must prioritize closing human rights protection gaps and addressing structural risk factors.
The Chief Prosecutor of the ICC and his investigative team should engage with survivors and civil society organizations to pursue victim-centered accountability processes.