Ongoing state-sanctioned persecution in Venezuela may amount to crimes against humanity.
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. According to 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. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) on Venezuela has also reported that more than 200 people were killed by police between January-March 2021. Since November 2020 the government has intensified its persecution and criminalization of civil society organizations and independent media.
On 16 September 2020 the FFM warned that patterns of violations and abuses over the past six years have been ordered and 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. During December the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States released a report reaffirming the FFM’s findings while noting that crimes against humanity have “increased in scale, scope and severity.” The Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) also presented a report in December asserting that there are reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed since at least April 2017.
Since March armed confrontations between state forces and armed groups have also escalated in Apure State along the Venezuelan-Colombian border, forcibly displacing nearly 6,000 civilians. Security forces, including the FAES, have allegedly committed arbitrary arrests, torture and extrajudicial executions of civilians.
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.
Approximately 5.5 million people have fled the country since 2014 and an estimated 7 million people in Venezuela are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.
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, repress dissent and reinforce social control.
Recent concessions by the Maduro government, including the announcement of a new National Electoral Council, has renewed some hope for a potential negotiated solution to the protracted political crisis.
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, regardless of political affiliation.
Since November 2017 the European Union has imposed asset freezes on 55 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.
On 26 September 2018 Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay and Peru requested that the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC 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.
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. The government should grant the FFM unrestricted access to the country and fully cooperate with all UN mechanisms.
States should actively support calls for renewed dialogue between the government and opposition 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 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.