Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution and violence against perceived political opponents in Venezuela may amount to 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.” 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 governments, have recognized the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim President, resulting in an ongoing political impasse.
In addition to the government’s violent crackdown on protests, various state agents have been accused of widespread extrajudicial killings, as well as torture and ill-treatment, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances of perceived political opponents, including human rights activists. On 16 September 2020 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela warned that ongoing patterns of violations and abuses since 2014 were committed as part of a “widespread and systematic attack” against the civilian population and may amount to crimes against humanity.
The FFM found that President Maduro, as well as the Ministers of Defense and Interior, gave orders, exercised oversight and coordinated activities leading to the commission of possible atrocity crimes. These state policies were implemented to target perceived government opponents, as well as to combat crime, particularly through extrajudicial executions. According to previous reports by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, an estimated 8,200 individuals were killed in “security operations” between January 2018 and May 2020 alone.
Approximately 5 million Venezuelans have left the country since the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2014. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 7 million people in Venezuela are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.
Despite international isolation, the Maduro government remains in control of key state institutions and the security forces. The FFM’s findings suggest that widespread impunity has emboldened state agents to continue perpetrating extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes. The political deadlock between the government and opposition parties is further exacerbating the multidimensional crisis.
The Maduro government refuses to fully cooperate with the FFM and other international human rights mechanisms and has continued to publicly threaten human rights defenders and journalists.
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. The United States government has imposed extensive sanctions on President Maduro, his family and senior members of his government, as well as broader sanctions that have exacerbated the humanitarian crisis.
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 in Venezuela.
On 27 September 2019 the HRC adopted a resolution establishing the FFM, which is currently mandated to investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and ill-treatment, and sexual and gender-based violence. The mandate of the FFM was renewed for two years on 6 October 2020.
The government must end the systematic persecution of its perceived opponents and ensure impartial investigations of all extrajudicial killings and other widespread violations and abuses of human rights. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country and fully cooperate with all UN mechanisms. The government and opposition should commit to renewed dialogue to ensure a peaceful and sustainable solution to the crisis. Particular focus must be on the provision of life-saving humanitarian assistance to populations in need.
States should continue to impose targeted sanctions on senior government officials responsible for systematic violations and abuses of human rights, but lift measures that may further limit the population’s access to basic goods and services. In the absence of domestic accountability mechanisms, states should also consider taking legal action, including under universal jurisdiction, targeting those responsible for extrajudicial killings, torture and other crimes against humanity.
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