ISSN 2330-717X

Venezuela: UN Inquiry Finds Crimes Against Humanity

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The United Nations Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela has concluded that Venezuelan authorities and armed pro-government groups committed egregious violations amounting to crimes against humanity, Human Rights Watch said.

The report, published on September 16, 2020, said the independent experts leading the mission had reasonable grounds to hold that “most of the violations and crimes … were part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population … in furtherance of a state policy.” The experts found that “High-level authorities had knowledge of and contributed to the commission of these crimes” and that “Commanders and superiors knew or should have known about them, and … did not take measures to prevent or repress them.” 

“This report is a solid indictment that attributes direct responsibility to high-level authorities, including the head of state, for violations that include extrajudicial executions, politically motivated detention and torture, and abuses against protesters in Venezuela,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The findings also expose the role of the Venezuelan judiciary in contributing to arbitrary arrests and impunity for these egregious abuses and denying justice to the victims.” 

The UN Human Rights Council created the mission through its Resolution 42/25 on September 27, 2019. Its mandate was to investigate human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture, and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment since 2014, with a view to ensuring accountability for those responsible and justice for victims. 

The report describes the independent experts’ findings, based on the investigation of 223 cases and the review of an additional 2,891 cases to identify whether there were patterns of violations and crimes. A detailed description of 48 of these cases is included in the 411-page report. The experts’ conclusions are based on interviews with victims and their family members, lawyers, and witnesses, as well as former and current members of the judiciary and security forces, verified images and videos, and government documents, including laws, policies, and directives. Despite repeated requests, Venezuelan authorities did not allow the experts to visit Venezuela.

The experts concluded that they had “reasonable grounds to believe that both the President and the Ministers of Interior and of Defence ordered or contributed to the commission of the crimes documented in this report, and having the effective ability to do so failed to take preventive and repressive measures.” Commanding officers, including high-level authorities within intelligence services, had full knowledge of the patterns that often took place inside their installations, the experts found. They said they had identified more than 45 intelligence officials directly responsible.

In a statement to the media, the experts said that the competent authorities in Venezuela, other national governments, and the International Criminal Court should consider legal actions against those responsible for the violations and crimes they documented. 

The experts documented 53 extrajudicial executions and reviewed 2,552 additional incidents involving 5,094 killings by security forces, although not all were necessarily arbitrary. It found that the investigative police and the Special Action Forces of the National Bolivarian Police were responsible for 59 percent of all killings by security forces.

The experts also found that intelligence agents carried out politically motivated detention and torture. Specifically, in 110 documented cases, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service targeted political dissidents, human rights activists, and others perceived to be opponents, and the General Directorate of Military Counter-Intelligence targeted military personnel and associated civilians allegedly involved in rebellions or coup attempts, holding them in unofficial or clandestine facilities. The experts identified six of these sites. 

In the case of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service, the experts found that orders establishing who would be investigated often came from President Nicolás Maduro or the powerful pro-government politician Diosdado Cabello to the agency’s director, who delivered the instructions to others. 

The experts said that some detentions amounted to short-term enforced disappearances. Detainees were tortured – including with stress positions, asphyxiation, beatings, electric shocks, cuts and mutilations, death threats, and sexual violence – to extract confessions or as punishment. 

In addition, the experts documented 97 cases of human rights violations against protesters, particularly during the crackdowns in 2014, 2017, and 2019. The violations included killings of 36 protesters and torture and other ill-treatment in detention such as beatings and humiliation, sexual and gender-based violence, and mock executions. Protesters were often charged with crimes based on information planted or fabricated by security forces.

Most unlawful killings by security forces have not resulted in prosecutions, and at no stage have officials with command responsibility been brought to justice, according to the experts. Moreover, some public prosecutors and judges played “a direct role” in arbitrary arrests, the experts found.

The lack of judicial independence in Venezuela has led to impunity for human rights crimes, Human Rights Watch said. 

During the current UN Human Rights Council sessions, members will vote on a resolution drafted by Latin American governments members of the Lima Group to extend the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate. The current draft also says that The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights should continue reporting on the situation of human rights in Venezuela, and that Venezuelan authorities should cooperate with both.

Human Rights Watch, together with dozens of international and Venezuelan human rights groups, has said that member states should ensure that the Fact-Finding Mission has sufficient funding and the authority to collect, consolidate, preserve, and analyze evidence for future prosecutions or other accountability purposes, including by international justice mechanisms, to avoid impunity for the crimes under international law and gross human rights violations committed in Venezuela.

“This is the closest the victims of the Maduro government have been to seeing their abusers held accountable,” Vivanco said. “It is essential to extend and expand the Fact-Finding Mission’s mandate so victims can eventually exercise their right of access to justice.”

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