Venezuela

1 December 2022
Risk Level: Current Crisis
More than 7 million people have left the country since 2014

Ongoing systematic human rights violations in Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity.

BACKGROUND:

In a systematic policy to repress political dissent, Venezuelan state agents are perpetrating arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, sexual and gender-based violence and short-term enforced disappearances targeting actual and perceived government opponents. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela has found evidence implicating President Nicolás 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.

Since at least 2014, various security forces have also allegedly perpetrated tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings in the name of combatting crime. Venezuelan human rights project Lupa por La Vida documented 485 alleged extrajudicial executions in the first quarter of 2022 alone. The government has also systematically restricted civic space and limited the work of human rights defenders, independent media and civil society, including through harassment and persecution.

In September 2020 the FFM 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. 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.

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. The FFM reported in September 2022 that chains of command within the intelligence services function as “well-coordinated and effective structures in the implementation of a plan orchestrated at the highest levels of the government to repress dissent through crimes against humanity.”

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.

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. State agents responded with similar patterns of violations and abuses during subsequent mass protests, including in 2019 when the start of President Maduro’s second term sparked an intense struggle with the opposition, causing a protracted political crisis. An estimated 7.1 million people have left the country since 2014 in what has become the largest migration crisis in Latin America.

ANALYSIS:

The Venezuelan government is deliberately pursuing policies that enable systematic 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 exposing ongoing violations. Government-linked media outlets play a key role in state repression and persecution.

The limited actions taken by the national judicial system – which is complicit in ongoing violence – emboldens state agents to continue perpetrating possible crimes against humanity, including politically motivated arbitrary detentions and torture. The ICC’s decision in November 2021 to open an investigation is an important step in advancing accountability efforts in light of the government’s unwillingness to investigate high-level perpetrators.

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 is essential to prevent the recurrence of crimes against humanity and alert the international community to 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. 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.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:

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.

The HRC established the FFM in September 2019 and renewed its mandate for an additional two years in October 2022.

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, signed with the government in November 2021, remains intact.

NECESSARY ACTION:

Venezuelan authorities must 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 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 support the anticipated political negotiations between the government and members of the opposition – the Mexico Dialogue – must prioritize human rights protections while 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.

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