Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution and violence in Venezuela leaves populations at risk of potential crimes against humanity.
Following President Nicolás Maduro taking 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 perpetrating crimes against humanity.
The political crisis escalated further 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 United States (US) and many Latin American and European governments, have recognized the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim President instead. President Maduro has recently recognized a rival leadership in the National Assembly.
In addition to the government’s violent crackdown on protests, Special Action Forces (FAES) have been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings. The Venezuelan government has reported that 6,856 people were killed in “security operations” between January 2018 and June 2019 alone. During 2019 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, warned that the FAES is being used as an instrument to maintain social control and instill fear.
High Commissioner Bachelet has warned about ongoing threats and intimidation directed against opposition members, media, civil society, human rights defenders and military defectors. This includes the arbitrary detention of government opponents and their family members, often accompanied by allegations of torture, ill-treatment and sexual and gender-based violence.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. At least 4.9 million Venezuelans have left the country since the outbreak of the crisis in 2014, constituting the largest migration crisis in Latin America.
Despite international isolation, the Maduro government remains in control of key state institutions and the security forces. Impunity for serious human rights violations committed by various state forces has emboldened the government to continue extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes, as well as the systematic persecution of its alleged opponents. Since April nation-wide fuel shortages and COVID-19 quarantine measures have triggered renewed protests, increasing the risk of further instability and violence.
The government is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all Venezuelans regardless of political affiliation.
Since November 2017 the European Union has imposed travel bans and asset freezes on 25 senior government officials. On 3 December a number of regional governments also imposed targeted sanctions on 29 senior government officials. The US government has also imposed extensive sanctions on Maduro, his family and senior members of his government.
On 26 September 2018 Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru referred the situation in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court, requesting the Chief Prosecutor open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity.
On 27 September 2019, under the leadership the “Lima Group,” the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing an independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) for Venezuela, mandated to investigate extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment of detainees since 2014.
The government must end the systematic persecution of its opponents and ensure impartial investigations of all extrajudicial killings. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country. The government and opposition should negotiate an agreement to ensure the delivery of essential humanitarian aid and commit to renewed dialogue to ensure a peaceful solution to the crisis.
UN member states should continue to impose targeted sanctions on all senior government officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights, but refrain from any measures that may further limit the population’s access to basic goods, essential services or humanitarian aid. As requested by High Commissioner Bachelet, general sanctions imposed by the US should be eased to allow for the delivery of essential medical equipment necessary to fight against COVID-19.
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