WASHINGTON, United States – A UN human rights report has urged the Government of Venezuela to take immediate, concrete measures to halt and remedy the grave violations of economic, social, civil, political and cultural rights documented in the country.
The recent report by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights warns that if the situation does not improve, the unprecedented outflow of Venezuelan migrants and refugees will continue, and the living conditions of those who remain will worsen.
Embattled Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro has written a letter to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to reject the content of a report in which Bachelet highlighted “patterns of violations of all human rights” at the hands of the Venezuelan state.
The letter is dated July 11, and states that Bachelet “presented a report plagued by false statements, misrepresentations and mishandling of data and sources”.
The report, mandated by the UN Human Rights Council, states that over the last decade – and especially since 2016 – the Government and its institutions have implemented a strategy “aimed at neutralizing, repressing and criminalizing political opponents and people critical of the Government.” A series of laws, policies and practices has restricted the democratic space, dismantled institutional checks and balances, and allowed patterns of grave violations. The report also highlights the impact of the deepening economic crisis that has left people without the means to fulfil their fundamental rights to food and health, among others.
Based on 558 interviews with victims and witnesses of human rights violations and the deteriorating economic situation, in Venezuela and eight other countries, as well as other sources, the report covers the period from January 2018 to May 2019.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet was able to visit the country for three days last month to meet a wide range of actors, including President Nicolas Maduro, other senior Government officials, the President of the National Assembly, civil society, business representatives, academics and other stakeholders, as well as victims and their families. A team of two UN human rights officers remained in the country after her visit, with an agreed mandate to provide technical assistance and advice, and to monitor the human rights situation.
“During my visit to Venezuela, I was able to hear first-hand the accounts of victims of State violence and their demands for justice. I have faithfully conveyed their voices, and those of civil society, as well as the human rights violations documented in this report, to the relevant authorities,” High Commissioner Bachelet said.
“We have the Government’s commitment to work with us to resolve some of the thorniest issues – including the use of torture and access to justice – and to allow us full access to detention facilities. The situation is complex, but this report contains clear recommendations on immediate steps that can be taken to stop ongoing violations, bring justice to victims, and create a space for meaningful discussion. We are ready to work constructively with all relevant stakeholders, and to continue to advocate for the rights of all the people of Venezuela, no matter what their political affiliations may be.”
The report details how State institutions have been steadily militarized over the past decade. During the reporting period, civil and military forces have allegedly been responsible for arbitrary detentions; ill-treatment and torture of people critical of the Government and their relatives; sexual and gender-based violence in detention and during visits; and excessive use of force during demonstrations.*
Pro-government armed civilian groups, known as colectivos, have contributed to the deteriorating situation by exercising social control and helping repress demonstrations. The UN Human Rights Office has documented 66 deaths during protests between January and May 2019, 52 attributable to Government security forces or colectivos.
The incidence of alleged extrajudicial killings by security forces, particularly the special forces (FAES), in the context of security operations has been shockingly high, the report states. In 2018, the Government registered 5,287 killings, purportedly for “resistance to authority,” during such operations. Between 1 January and 19 May this year, another 1,569 people were killed, according to Government figures. Other sources suggest the figures may be much higher.
The report also notes that as of May 31, 2019, 793 people remained arbitrarily deprived of their liberty, including 58 women, and that so far this year, 22 deputies of the National Assembly, including its President, have been stripped of their parliamentary immunity.
While the High Commissioner welcomed the recent release of 62 political prisoners, she called on the authorities to release all the others in detention or otherwise deprived of their liberty, for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights.
The report highlights that the majority of victims of human rights violations have not had effective access to justice and remedies.
“According to interviewees, few people file complaints for fear of reprisals and lack of trust in the justice system,” the report states. Those that do, mainly women, face pervasive obstacles, with no progress in the majority of the investigations. “The Attorney-General’s Office has regularly failed to comply with its obligation to investigate and prosecute perpetrators, and the Ombudsperson has remained silent vis-à-vis human rights violations.”
On freedom of expression, the report notes that the space for free and independent media has shrunk through the banning and closure of media outlets, and detention of independent journalists: “Over the past years, the Government has attempted to impose a communicational hegemony by enforcing its own version of events and creating an environment that curtails independent media.”
While the economy of Venezuela was in crisis well before any sectoral sanctions were imposed, the report says that the latest economic sanctions linked to oil exports are further exacerbating the effects of the crisis.
In addition, it says, the State is violating its obligations to ensure the rights to food and health. The progressive scarcity and unaffordability of food have meant fewer meals of lower nutritional value, high levels of malnutrition, and a particularly adverse impact on women, some of whom reported spending an average of 10 hours per day queuing for food. Despite the Government’s efforts to tackle the situation through social programmes, large sections of the population do not have access to food distribution, and interviewees accused the authorities of excluding them because they are not Government supporters.
The health situation in the country is dire, with hospitals lacking staff, supplies, medicines and electricity to keep vital machinery running. The report cites the 2019 National Hospital Survey, which found that between November 2018 and February 2019, 1,557 people died because of lack of supplies in hospitals.
The report also sheds light on the disproportionate impact of the humanitarian situation on indigenous peoples, and their loss of control of their land for various reasons, including the presence of military forces, and because of the presence of organised criminal gangs and armed groups. “Mining, particularly in Amazonas and Bolivar…has resulted in violations of various collective rights, including rights to maintain customs, traditional ways of life, and a spiritual relationship with their land,” the report states.
The report sets out a series of recommendations for the Government on the key human rights violations documented by the UN Human Rights Office.
“I sincerely hope the authorities will take a close look at all the information included in this report and will follow its recommendations. We should all be able to agree that all Venezuelans deserve a better life, free from fear and with access to adequate food, water, healthcare, housing and all other basic human needs,” Bachelet said.
“A Catholic priest in Caracas said to me: ‘This is not about politics, but about the suffering of the people.’ This report too is not about politics, geopolitics, international relations or anything other than being about the human rights to which every Venezuelan is entitled.
“I call on all those with the power and influence – within Venezuela and elsewhere – to work together, and to make the necessary compromises to resolve this all-consuming crisis. My Office stands ready to continue doing its part,” she added.