Following President Nicolás Maduro taking office during 2013, popular discontent with the government led to widespread protests. A catastrophic economic crisis has resulted in hyper-inflation, food shortages and the collapse of essential services. The government has routinely responded to mass protests with disproportionate and deadly 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 Venezuelan government has reported that 6,856 people have been killed in “security operations” since January 2018. During 2019 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised alarm about an “unusually high” number of suspected extrajudicial killings, as well as the arbitrary detention of government opponents and their family members, often accompanied by allegations of torture, ill-treatment and/or sexual and gender-based violence. The High Commissioner also highlighted the role of the Special Action Forces in alleged extrajudicial killings and warned about threats and intimidation directed against opposition members, media and civil society organizations.
Due to allegations of electoral fraud, the start of President Maduro’s second term in January 2019 sparked a diplomatic crisis as the US and many Latin American and European countries recognized the leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim President instead. On 5 January 2020 the government prohibited Guaidó and other lawmakers access to the National Assembly. While Guaidó was re-elected by opposition legislators in a separate session, the government recognized a rival leadership in an attempt to regain control over the National Assembly.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 7 million people, 25 percent of the population, are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. At least 4.6 million Venezuelans have left the country since the outbreak of the crisis, and the UN warns that an additional 2 million may leave by the end of 2020.
In the midst of an ongoing struggle between the government and opposition for control of the state, Venezuelans face an enduring risk of potential atrocity crimes. Following years of the militarization of state institutions, the leadership of the armed forces remains deeply politicized. Despite efforts by numerous regional and international actors to end the political crisis, the government continues to operate in a climate of impunity.
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. The United States has imposed extensive sanctions on Maduro, his family and senior members of his government. On 3 December a number of regional governments imposed targeted sanctions on 29 individuals, including the Foreign Minister and other high-level government officials. More than 50 governments now recognize Guaidó as interim President.
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 so-called “Lima Group,” the Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution establishing an independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFM) for Venezuela, mandated to investigate these violations and abuses of human rights. Despite ongoing human rights violations and abuses, on 17 October Venezuela was elected to the HRC for the 2020-2022 term.
The government must immediately end the systematic persecution of its political opponents, ensure impartial investigations of all extrajudicial killings, and fully cooperate with all UN agencies and mechanisms. The government should fully cooperate with the FFM and grant its members unrestricted access to the country.
All parties involved in the political conflict should commit to genuine and inclusive dialogue to find 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.
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Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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