Atrocity Alert No. 140: Venezuela, Yemen and Zimbabwe

30 January 2019

Atrocity Alert is a weekly publication by the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect highlighting situations where populations are at risk of, or are enduring, mass atrocity crimes.

Venezuela on the brink

The situation in Venezuela continues to deteriorate following the 23 January declaration by Juan Guaidó – leader of the opposition-controlled National Assembly – that he will assume the position of interim president. Venezuela’s opposition parties and a number of Latin American states dispute the legitimacy of an election held during May 2018 that resulted in Nicolás Maduro being sworn in for his second presidential term on 10 January. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 40 people have been killed in riots and mass anti-government protests that began on 21 January. An estimated 850 people have also been detained, including 77 children.

Since anti-government demonstrations in 2014 and 2017 the government has pursued a systematic strategy of persecution, arbitrary detention and torture of its perceived domestic critics. During May 2018 a panel of independent experts mandated by the Organization of American States (OAS) found that the government had committed crimes against humanity since 2014, including 8,292 extrajudicial killings. These killings represented “a policy put in place by the Government of Venezuela through acts directed by the highest State authorities.” As Venezuelans again take to the streets, civilians face an increased risk of further systematic human rights violations and abuses.

Last Friday, 25 January, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed her concern that “the situation in Venezuela may rapidly spiral out of control with catastrophic consequences” and called for an independent investigation into the killing of protesters. The following day the UN Security Council formally discussed the escalating crisis, but the Council remains divided on an appropriate response.

Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful assembly are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The government of Venezuela must ensure the safety of all those who are peacefully participating in protests. The security forces must strictly comply with their obligations under international law and refrain from the use of disproportionate and deadly force against unarmed protesters. All individuals subject to arbitrary detention for participating in peaceful demonstrations should be immediately released.

The government and opposition should engage in direct political negotiations – facilitated by the OAS and with the active support of the UN. Foreign opponents of Maduro’s government must refrain from threatening military intervention and should actively support efforts to mediate an end to Venezuela’s catastrophic economic and political crisis. Potential crimes against humanity must be impartially investigated and the perpetrators held accountable, regardless of rank or political affiliation.

War crimes continue in Yemen as Stockholm Agreement falters

Despite the political breakthrough represented by last December’s Stockholm Agreement, ongoing hostilities between Houthi and Yemeni government forces have escalated in Hajjah Governorate. Civilian casualties and displacement have increased dramatically due to airstrikes by the Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led international coalition and sustained shelling by Houthi forces. On 26 January suspected Houthi artillery targeted an internally displaced persons camp, killing at least eight civilians. The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Yemen, Lise Grande, emphasized that “any attack on a civilian site is unconscionable and a clear violation of international humanitarian law.”

Hajjah Governorate has remained one of the regions worst affected by Yemen’s ongoing civil war. Hospitals and public service providers have closed due to fighting in Haradh district, and more than 1.5 million people out of a total population of approximately 2.5 million are severely food insecure. This includes 19,000 people classified as Integrated Food Security Phase 5, or “catastrophe” level.

Meanwhile parties to the conflict have failed to implement the key components of the Stockholm Agreement, raising fears that initial progress toward a political solution will be lost and that a major battle for control of the crucial port city of Hodeidah will resume. The UN Security Council must facilitate the swift operationalization of the UN Mission to support the Hodeidah Agreement and pressure all parties to fully implement their obligations under the Stockholm Agreement.

The distinction between military and civilian targets is central to International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and ongoing attacks on civilian infrastructure in Yemen constitute war crimes. In keeping with the Arms Trade Treaty, all UN member states should immediately halt the sale of weapons to parties to the conflict who routinely violate IHL, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Security Council should also adopt targeted sanctions against all those responsible for potential war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Zimbabwe’s security forces accused of systematic torture of protesters

Security forces in Zimbabwe have been accused of perpetrating systematic human rights violations while attempting to suppress large protests and strikes that have broken out across the country. At least 12 people have been killed and hundreds arbitrarily arrested since the government’s 12 January announcement of a 150 percent increase to the price of fuel. While protesting against the price rise and the ongoing economic crisis, some people engaged in looting, established roadblocks and set fire to a police station, triggering a violent crackdown by the security forces. On 15 January the government blocked access to some social media sites and shut down internet services, claiming that they were being used by protesters to spread misinformation.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the security forces have engaged in “generalized intimidation and harassment” while participating in door-to-door searches for activists and have used live ammunition to disperse protests. Some members of the security forces have also been accused of rape and sexual abuse. According to the national Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), the security forces have carried out “systematic torture” of protesters, extracting men and boys from their homes and beating them with batons. Zimbabwe’s Justice Minister, Ziyambi Ziyambi, has questioned the veracity of the ZHRC’s findings.

The security forces in Zimbabwe have a history of perpetrating human rights abuses. According to a national commission of inquiry chaired by former South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, sections of the security forces used disproportionate and deadly force against protesters following Zimbabwe’s July 2018 national elections. President Emmerson Mnangagwa has pledged to investigate allegations of serious misconduct, asserting that such violence is a “betrayal of the new Zimbabwe.”

The government should fully implement the recommendations of the national commission of inquiry and investigate all deaths that have resulted from recent protests. All those who have been arbitrarily detained because of their participation in peaceful demonstrations should be released immediately. Neighboring states, including members of the Southern African Development Community, should urge the government to accept its primary responsibility for ending the violence and upholding the human rights of all Zimbabweans, regardless of their political orientation.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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