By Kyra Fox
High-level Venezuelan authorities, security forces, and intelligence agents committed “egregious” human rights violations that amount to crimes against humanity, according to a United Nations Fact-Finding Mission in a report submitted to the UN Human Rights Council last week.
The UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela released its first report on September 16. The report finds “reasonable grounds to believe” that the Venezuelan government and associated agents and groups have, since 2014, committed murder; imprisonment and other severe deprivations of physical liberty; torture; rape and other forms of sexual violence; and enforced disappearance, as part of a “widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population,” thus qualifying as crimes against humanity.
Though human rights organizations have levied accusations of crimes against humanity against the Venezuelan state in the past, this is the first time such violations have been investigated by a UN Fact-Finding Mission. UN Fact-Finding Missions and Commissions of Inquiry have found crimes against humanity in other cases, including Syria, North Korea, and Myanmar.
The violations in Venezuela were highly coordinated and committed in accordance with state policies to repress anti-government opposition and combat crime through extrajudicial execution and other violent means. According to the Mission, “President Maduro and the Ministers of the Interior and of Defence were aware of the crimes. They gave orders, coordinated activities and supplied resources in furtherance of the plans and policies under which the crimes were committed.”
In response to the release of the report, the Venezuelan Foreign Minister tweeted that it was “plagued by falsehoods.”
Background to Venezuela’s crisis
Since the turn of the century, Venezuela’s rulers have consolidated power in the executive branch. Tensions between the government and its citizens came to a head in 2014 when Venezuelan civilians organized demonstrations against widespread poverty, inflation, and growing insecurity in the country. These demonstrations were met with a swift and violent crackdown by the government of Nicolás Maduro, who accused the opposition of planning a coup.
Over the next several years, the Venezuelan Supreme Court narrowed the powers of the opposition-dominated legislature and broadened the powers of the executive branch to respond to repeated “states of economic emergency.” Protests proliferated. The government responded with violence and militant rhetoric, activating “anti-coup commandos” made up of armed forces and civilians. President Maduro, referring to a period of heightened protests in 2017, stated, “We will go into combat. We will never surrender. What could not be done with votes, we will do with arms.”
Meanwhile, Venezuela’s humanitarian crisis worsened. By 2018, 94% of Venezuelans lacked access to basic food and services, despite having been one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America. After a failed challenge to power by opposition leader Juan Guaidó in 2019, President Maduro remains in power and the political and humanitarian crisis persists, with an estimated 1 in 6 Venezuelans having fled the country as a result.
Establishment of a Fact-Finding Mission
The UN Human Rights Council established the Mission in September 2019 with a mandate to investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, and torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment that occurred since 2014 in the context of Venezuela’s political crisis. The mandate also prioritized determining responsibility for the above violations.
Due to a failure of the government to respond to requests for access and travel restrictions related to COVID-19, the experts could not complete in-person investigations. The Mission conducted 274 remote interviews with victims, family members, witnesses, former and current state and military officials, and other experts, and examined videos, social media content, satellite imagery, and government statements, laws, policies, and directives. In total, the Mission investigated 223 incidents where there was an alleged violation of international law and reviewed an additional 2,891 reported human rights violations to corroborate its findings. It highlighted 48 in-depth case studies in its 411-page report.
Findings of the Mission
The Mission found that security forces committed extrajudicial killings and other violations in operations ostensibly undertaken to combat crime. In some cases, security forces would plant evidence or accuse individuals--mostly young males--of resisting arrest to warrant these killings. Many victims were shot at point blank range. In a review of 140 joint military and police operations, dubbed Operations for People’s Liberation, the Mission identified 413 killings.According to insiders, supervisors of Special Action Forces of the National Bolivarian Police gave officers a “green light to kill.”
Individuals who spoke out against the Maduro government also faced physical attacks, arbitrary detention, and torture and ill-treatment (including sexual and gender-based violence) at the hands of Venezuelan officials. State intelligence agencies used stress positions, asphyxiation, beatings, electric shocks, death and rape threats, psychological torture, and acts of sexual or gender-based violence to torture detainees, often with the goal of eliciting confessions.
The Mission documented cases in which security forces used lethal force unnecessarily against demonstrators, resulting in the killing of 36 protestors.
The Mission found that “the weakening of democratic, judicial and institutional accountability mechanisms resulted in increasing impunity, which exacerbated the violations.” The report emphasized the need for independent and impartial investigations, accountability for perpetrators, and justice and reparations for victims. Venezuela is currently under preliminary investigation at the International Criminal Court.
The report recommends that states condition security assistance to Venezuela on compliance with international law, mandate further investigations through the UN Human Rights Council or General Assembly, pursue domestic legal proceedings against human rights violators, and urge the International Criminal Court to pursue justice in a “timely fashion.”
As widespread and systematic violence against civilians in Venezuela continues, the UN Mission’s detailed findings underscore the urgency of concerted international action aimed at ending the crisis.
Kyra Fox is the research assistant at the Simon-Skjodt Center.