Venezuela

1 September 2021
Risk Level: Current Crisis
5.6 million people have fled the country since 2014

Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution in Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity.

BACKGROUND:

Since 2014 Venezuelan security and intelligence forces have been accused of widespread torture, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances in an attempt to silence political dissent. State agents, including the Special Action Forces (FAES), have also allegedly perpetrated thousands of extrajudicial killings in the name of combatting crime. According to reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, an estimated 8,200 individuals were killed in “security operations” between January 2018 and May 2020. Provea, a Venezuelan nongovernmental organization, documented 2,853 killings by state agents in 2020 alone. Since November 2020 the government has also intensified its persecution of civil society organizations, independent media and opposition members. In June 2021 High Commissioner Bachelet warned that previously identified patterns of serious violations and abuses persist.

On 16 September 2020 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela warned that patterns of violations and abuses over the past six years have been 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) also asserted that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed since at least April 2017.

Venezuela continues to experience an unprecedented humanitarian, economic and political crisis. When mass protests erupted against insecurity, hyperinflation and a lack of essential services in 2014, security forces responded with disproportionate force, torture and sexual violence. The protracted political crisis further escalated in January 2019 when President Nicolás Maduro was sworn in for a second term. Although Juan Guaidó, then President of the opposition-led National Assembly, declared himself caretaker President, President Maduro remained in control of key state institutions and the security forces.

Civilians also remain at heightened risk along the perilous Venezuelan-Colombian border, where fighting between government forces and armed groups escalated in March 2021. FAES and other state agents allegedly committed arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial executions in line with patterns of violations identified by the FFM.

More than 5.6 million people have left the country since 2014 and at least 7 million people in Venezuela are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

ANALYSIS:

Widespread impunity emboldens state agents to continue perpetrating possible crimes against humanity. Extrajudicial killings appear to be part of a systematic strategy to combat crime and reinforce social control. Venezuela is facing several security crises, with recurring violent confrontations involving state agents or criminal gangs across the country.

While a new round of talks between the government and opposition began on 13 August, the arrest of some key opposition figures and human rights defenders calls into question whether the government is willing to reform its policies and practices.

The government refuses to fully cooperate with the FFM and other human rights mechanisms and 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.

In February 2018 the ICC announced a preliminary examination of the situation in Venezuela, analyzing alleged crimes committed since April 2017 in the context of demonstrations and related political unrest. On 26 September 2018 Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru requested that the Chief Prosecutor open a formal investigation into possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela.

On 27 September 2019 the HRC adopted a resolution establishing the FFM. The mandate of the FFM was renewed for two years on 6 October 2020.

NECESSARY ACTION:

Venezuelan authorities must end the systematic persecution of civil society, the media and their political opponents. The government should also dissolve the FAES and ensure impartial investigations of all serious violations and abuses of human rights committed by various state agents and agencies. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country and fully cooperate with all UN mechanisms.

States should actively support renewed negotiations between the government and the wider opposition that are set to resume during September and lift all measures that limit the population’s access to basic goods and services. Venezuela and Colombia should work together to prevent further violence along their shared border, ensure safe migration routes and protect vulnerable populations.

In the absence of domestic accountability mechanisms, other states should consider taking legal action, including under universal jurisdiction, against those responsible for possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela. UN Security Council members should invite the FFM to brief the Council on necessary action to ensure accountability for ongoing crimes against humanity.

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