GENEVA (22 June 2018) – A UN Human Rights report published on Friday spotlights the failure of Venezuelan authorities to hold accountable perpetrators of serious human rights violations that include killings, the use of excessive force against demonstrators, arbitrary detentions, ill-treatment and torture. The report also lays bare the grave impact of the economic and social crisis in the country on the rights to food and health.
The report provides an update on several key human rights violations documented in the August 2017 UN Human Rights Office report on Venezuela. While the previous report focused on the excessive use of force and alleged extrajudicial killings in the context of demonstrations, this new report also documents credible, shocking accounts of extrajudicial killings in the course of purported crime-fighting operations carried out since 2015, known as the Operations for the Liberation of the People (OLPs). From July 2015 to March 2017, the then-Attorney-General’s Office had recorded the killing of 505 people by security forces during such operations. Witness accounts suggest a pattern: raids in poor neighbourhoods conducted to arrest “criminals” without a judicial warrant; the killing of young men who fit the profile, in some cases in their homes; and finally security forces tampering with the scene so that the killings would appear to have occurred in an exchange of fire.
“Victims’ accounts raise questions as to whether OLPs were really meant to dismember criminal groups,” the report states. “A number of elements seem to indicate they were an instrument for the Government to showcase alleged results in crime reduction.”
Under the previous Attorney-General, who was replaced in August 2017, 357 security officers were reportedly under investigation in relation to the killings. But since then, there has been no information publicly available about the cases, with a key obstacle being that the Bureau for Scientific, Criminal, and Forensic Investigations (CICPC) that is in charge of the investigations, is also allegedly responsible for most of the killings.
The OLPs were in January 2017 replaced with another operation, called the Operations for the Humanitarian Liberation of the People, which is much less transparent and difficult to track than the OLPs, but civil society accounts suggest that the killings have continued. The report also documents the killing of 39 detainees in the state of Amazonas in 2017 and of seven members of an alleged armed group in Caracas in 2018, where security forces allegedly used excessive force.
Impunity also appears to be pervasive in favour of security officers allegedly responsible for the killing of at least 46 people during protestors last year. The former Attorney-General had issued at least 54 arrest warrants but so far, the UN Human Rights Office is aware of only one case in which a formal trial has started. Evidence has reportedly disappeared from case files, and members of the Attorney-General’s office in charge of investigating the cases were replaced when the new Attorney-General took office in August last year. The Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) has also reportedly blocked investigations.
“State authorities have failed to promptly and effectively investigate the excessive use of force and the killings of protestors by security forces,” the report states, citing testimony from several relatives of victims stating that “they had lost trust in the justice system and did not expect the Government to ensure accountability.”
According to information received, security forces suspected of extrajudicial killings of demonstrators have in some cases been released despite judicial detention orders. All of the victims’ relatives interviewed said they did not have faith in the Government’s Commission on Truth, Justice, Peace and Public Tranquility.
“The failure to hold security forces accountable for such serious human rights violations suggests that the rule of law is virtually absent in Venezuela,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said. “For years now, institutional checks and balances and the democratic space in Venezuela have been chiseled away, leaving little room to hold the State to account. The impunity must end.”
As the Venezuelan Government has not granted the UN Human Rights Office access to the country despite repeated requests, and given the scale and scope of violations, High Commissioner Zeid has recommended that the UN Human Rights Council establish a Commission of Inquiry into the situation in Venezuela.
“Given that the State appears neither able nor willing to prosecute serious human rights violations, there is also a strong case to be made for deeper involvement by the International Criminal Court,” Zeid added.
Several health professionals also described to the UN Human Rights Office the acute deterioration of healthcare facilities.
Systemic shortages of key supplies and medicine; doctors leaving the country, unable to make ends meet on meagre salaries given hyperinflation; and the lack of transparency by the Government, which on occasion has reportedly responded to criticism by threatening or even detaining healthcare workers and journalists who are critical of the healthcare situation, all appear to be contributing to the dramatic healthcare crisis in the country.
Similarly, the Government has refused to acknowledge the scale of the food crisis in the country, failing to comply with its international obligations to put every possible effort into fulfilling the rights to health and food, the report notes. Available data indicates a rapid increase in child malnutrition.
“Families are having to search for food in rubbish bins. By some measures, 87 per cent of the population of Venezuela is affected by poverty, with extreme poverty at 61.2 per cent and 1.5 million people having fled the country since 2014,” High Commissioner Zeid said. “The human rights situation of the people of Venezuela is dismal. When a box of hypertension pills costs more than the monthly minimum wage and baby milk formula more than two months’ salary, but protesting against such an impossible situation can land you in jail, the extreme injustice of it all is stark.”
“I urge the Government and the international community to take immediate action to prevent further deterioration.”
Civil society organizations working on human rights issues also continue to face severe legal restrictions, smear campaigns, threats and harassment, as well as accusations of terrorism, treason and other crimes. Arbitrary and unlawful detentions, while at a lower rate than the numbers during the mass protests last year, continued in a more targeted fashion. In one case, a group of young friends exchanging messages on social media about joining a protest were arrested and deprived of any contact with their families or lawyers for more than four months. They have recently been conditionally released.
The UN Human Rights Office understands that at least 280 individuals who had been arbitrarily deprived of their liberty for their political opinions, for exercising their human rights, or because they were perceived as a threat to the Government, remain in detention in dreadful conditions.* According to civil society estimates, more than 7,000 others were conditionally released, but live in fear of re-arrest or await the start of trial proceedings against them. Systematic violations of due process rights continued to occur. The report also documents some 90 cases of detainees subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment since 2014, which in many cases could constitute torture. It details the degrading ill-treatment which some family members are subjected to when they visit detainees.
The report was compiled following some 150 interviews and meetings with Venezuelans, including with at least 78 victims or witnesses, as well as the review of information from a wide range of sources. The findings of the report indicate the continued existence of a policy to repress dissent.