Atrocity Alert No. 144: Venezuela, Nigeria and North Korea

27 February 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.

Deadly border protests as Venezuela rejects humanitarian aid

Over the weekend of 22-24 February violence erupted along Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil as state security forces blocked the entry of humanitarian aid into the country. Venezuelan security forces fired tear gas, rubber bullets and live-ammunition at crowds gathered along both sides of the border, killing at least four people and injuring over 300. In response the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, condemned the excessive use of force as well as the role of pro-government militias, or so-called “colectivos,” in the deadly clashes.

Government mismanagement and a catastrophic economic crisis has resulted in hyper-inflation, food shortages and the collapse of essential services in Venezuela. Since anti-government protests erupted during 2014 the government has pursued a strategy of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture of its perceived critics, possibly amounting to crimes against humanity. As most Venezuelans face chronic food insecurity, the provision of humanitarian aid has become deeply politicized by all parties to the conflict. The situation has been further complicated by the fact that most humanitarian aid currently arriving at the border has been supplied by the United States, which is openly hostile to the Venezuelan government.

Following allegations of election fraud during 2018, approximately 50 states have refused to recognize the January 2019 inauguration of Nicolás Maduro as President. Instead they have recognized the head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, as interim President. Throughout January opposition-led protests were violently repressed by the security forces, resulting in at least 40 deaths and the detention of an estimated 850 people. Both Maduro and Guaidó are now engaged in an intense political struggle for domestic legitimacy and international recognition.

The intensifying crisis, including violence along Venezuela’s borders, has increased the risk of possible mass atrocity crimes. This risk is further exacerbated by the mobilization of pro-government militias, which have allegedly been deployed against protesters and opposition politicians. Threats of military intervention by international opponents of Maduro, especially the United States, are fueling instability and endangering the limited potential for political negotiations. Meanwhile the displacement crisis threatens to overwhelm the region with more than 3 million Venezuelans having fled the country since 2014.

While many Latin American countries have welcomed Venezuelans, all countries should open their borders to those who are fleeing persecution and violence. At the request of the United States, the UN Security Council convened a meeting yesterday afternoon to discuss the latest developments in Venezuela, but the Council remains deeply divided regarding how to respond.

Humanitarian relief efforts should be strictly guided by the principles of independence and impartiality, and aid deliveries should be coordinated with UN agencies. The colectivos and all other pro-government militias must be demobilized and disarmed. Finally, the government and opposition – with the support of the region and wider international community – should commit to a national dialogue, which remains the only viable solution to the crisis.

Nigerian election triggers violence 

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has been declared the winner of Saturday’s election in Africa’s largest democracy. As millions of Nigerians awaited the results of the Presidential and National Assembly Elections, at least 53 people were killed in 11 different states due to violence. This included at least 17 people killed in an attack by the armed extremist group, the so-called Islamic State in West Africa.

The elections were originally scheduled to take place on 16 February, but were postponed for one week by Nigeria’s Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) due to logistical challenges as well as a spate of arson attacks on INEC offices. On 27 February the INEC declared that Buhari, of the ruling All Progressives Congress party, had secured 56 percent, or 15.2 million votes. The main opposition candidate, former Vice President Atiku Abubakar of the People’s Democratic Party, received 41 percent, or 11.3 million votes. Abubakar has since publicly rejected the results and vowed to appeal the outcome in court.

Since campaigning for the election began in October 2018, more than 260 politically motivated killings have reportedly been committed. Deficiencies in electoral preparations, premature claims of victory by various political contenders, and the delayed announcement of official results have exacerbated political tensions. Nigeria has a history of violence following elections – an estimated 800 people were killed and 65,000 displaced in three days of clashes following the 2011 election of former President Goodluck Jonathan.

As Nigerians both celebrate and protest the outcome of Saturday’s election, the government should increase police and military deployments to vulnerable areas in an effort to mitigate the risk of further violence. It is also essential that as President Buhari forms a new government he continues the campaign against armed extremist groups in the north of Nigeria, confronts the need for far-reaching security sector reform, and addresses the growing problem of deadly inter-communal violence across Nigeria’s “Middle Belt” region.

Denuclearization versus human rights at the US–North Korea summit

Today, 27 February, United States President Donald Trump and the supreme leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Kim Jong Un, are holding a summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. The two-day meeting is primarily focused on discussions regarding North Korea’s nuclear program.

In March 2013 the UN Human Rights Council-mandated the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in DPRK to investigate systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights within North Korea. The Commission’s February 2014 report established responsibility at the highest level of the government for ongoing crimes against humanity, including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”

Five years since the Commission’s findings were released, North Korea remains one of the most repressive governments in the world. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on DPRK, Tomás Ojea Quintana, the dire human rights situation remains “unchanged.” In December the UN General Assembly condemned the “ongoing systematic, widespread and gross violations of human rights” in the country and “reiterated the importance of maintaining high on the international agenda the grave human rights situation.” Despite these pronouncements, in December the UN Security Council failed to hold its annual meeting on human rights in DPRK for the first time since 2014.

Regardless of the outcome of the summit in Vietnam, the United States, UN and wider international community should urge DPRK to immediately begin active cooperation with Special Rapporteur Quintana and with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Seoul. The legitimate pursuit of denuclearization on the peninsula should not be allowed to overshadow the need to uphold the universal human rights of all Koreans.

Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect


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