Defenseless

Tarek William Saab — the officer charged by the Constitution with defending Venezuelans' human rights — disgraces his office on what is now a now daily basis.

It’s been a busy few weeks for Venezuela’s National Ombudsman Tarek William Saab, the nation’s top Human Rights advocate. It’s what you’d expect: the government has been on a rampage of Human Rights violations, imprisoning more and more opposition politicians and activists, catching international attention. But what’s been keeping Tarek busy isn’t working overtime to raise his voice against these abuses: it’s deflecting blame away from the government. It…hasn’t gone well for him.

On Univision, when discussing the Leopoldo López case with Jorge Ramos and why his office hasn’t lifted a finger for him, Saab said that “(The People’s Ombudsman’s office) is not a law firm nor gives legal assistance to any person deprived of liberty…”. Then things got testy, when Ramos asked him “Why there are 95 political prisoners (in Venezuela) right now?”:

I inform you, to illustrate your general culture, the People’s Ombudsman in the world isn’t an accusing entity, we don’t incarcerate people, we don’t charge them of any crime and we don’t convict them… It’s a mistake to hint that the People’s Ombudsman has something to do with the penal aspect in the justice system.

Not content with disgracing himself in one of the highest profile show in Latin American broadcast news, Mr. Saab decided to join the diplomatic tussle between Chile and Venezuela, regarding the case of the latest political prisoner, lawyer Braulio Jatar.

Two and a half weeks ago, Jatar was detained in Margarita Island by SEBIN intelligence agents. Though he was formally charged with money laundering, everything points to his arrest having everything to do with the “cacelorazo” against Nicolas Maduro  in Villa Rosa. His news website, Reporte Confidencial, published some of the videos of the incident. One week later, he was suddenly transferred to a prison in Guarico State without any notification to his relatives or his legal team.


During an interview with State Radio (RNV), Tarek actually had the titanium-plated balls to play the Pinochet card.

Jatar was born in Chile and is a dual national, so his case caught the attention of the Chilean Foreign Ministry. The Venezuelan response was what you’d expect, accusing their Chilean counterparts of “unacceptable meddling” and “lack of diplomatic restraint”.

Enter the Ombudsman, a full-throated supporter of the government’s position. During an interview with State Radio (RNV), Tarek actually had the titanium-plated balls to play the Pinochet card: “It’s immoral that Pinochetistas from Chile are trying to give us lessons of human rights”. The Foreign Ministry’s statement contained very similar references to Pinochet and even a shout-out to the late Salvador Allende.

The Chilean Foreign Minister, for the record, served under Salvador Allende, and stayed on to organize the anti-Pinochet movement for several years after the coup, until he was exiled by Pinochet. He opposed the Pinochet dictatorship from literally its first day to literally its last. He was one of the founders one of the political parties that participated the No campaign that ended the dictatorship. Tarek William Saab isn’t fit to hold the pot Heraldo Muñoz pisses in.

In a statement, Muñoz rejected the Venezuelan claims, saying Chile will continue to demand the fulfillment “…of all guarantees that should be applied to every detained individual”.

We called Ligia Bolivar, who runs the Human Rights Center of the Andres Bello Catholic University (CDH-UCAB) to ask her about this. To her, Tarek is “stepping outside of his constitutional role” and that he’s acting more “like a political pundit”.

She corrected Saab over his earlier quote that his office is not actually a law firm: “Even if he himself is not obligated to be a lawyer, those working for the People’s Ombudsman must have legal credentials”. Her point is confirmed just by reading the Ombudsman’s main functions, which include acting as an advocate for people who’ve had their basic rights violated. You know, the kind of thing we train lawyers to do.

The role of Tarek William Saab as Ombudsman has been questioned since his far-from-by-the-book appointment, but the entire institution has already faced criticism over his political bias for years now. But last month, a sub-committee of the United Nations has recommended that the Venezuelan People’s Ombudsman could be downgraded over its lack of independence. This is remarkable: the UN’s Human Rights infrastructure is notoriously weak. You have to really screw up to get them to pick you up on it. 

But what does a downgrade actually mean?

All national human rights institutions (NHRI) around the world (like the People’s Ombudsman in Venezuela) must follow a series of foundations known as the Paris Principles. A special committee known as the GANHRI (formerly ICC-NHRI) which works under the UN’s Human Rights System, monitors that those institutions are following those principles closely.

According to Ms. Bolivar, the GANHRI’s Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) recently decided to change Venezuela’s status from “A” to “B”. Meaning that our Defensoria del Pueblo is not fully complying with the Paris Principles and it can lose its right of voice and vote in the UN’s Human Rights System, including the Human Rights Council in which Venezuela is currently a member.


The response from Tarek was to discredit the report and to argue that even if the institution is eventually degraded, “…it will continue working in the international stage”.

The SCA considered that the People’s Ombudsman  has failed to respond appropriately in cases such as Leopoldo Lopez’s, Antonio Ledezma’s and Judge María Lourdes Afiuni’s among others. It also complained about several public statements in support on the actions of the central government.

The response from Tarek was to discredit the report and to argue that even if the institution is eventually degraded, “…it will continue working in the international stage”. Interestingly enough, GANHRI’s negative recommendation was based mostly in the work of Saab’s predecessor at the job, Gabriela Ramirez and even gave Saab one full year to prove his case.

The SCA recognized the collaboration of Saab but the information he provided was not considered enough to overcome their concerns. Venezuela has appealed the committee’s report and the case will be reviewed in mid-October during a GANHRI meeting in Berlin, Germany.

This comes as several local NGOs (including the CDH-UCAB) released the second edition of their special report (“Y a ti quien te defiende? II”) on the People’s Ombudsman’s work. This one cover Saab’s period between his controversial selection by the AN in late 2014 and March of this year. For Ligia Bolivar, GANHRI’s recent ruling on the People’s Ombudsman is “not surprising”.

The issue of human rights in Venezuela and the constant lack of access of international observers to investigate it in situ was also brought out by the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein during his recent opening address to the UN Human Rights Council:

For the past two and a half years, Venezuela has refused even to issue a visa to my Regional Representative. Its comprehensive denial of access to my staff is particularly shocking in the light of our acute concerns regarding allegations of repression of opposition voices and civil society groups; arbitrary arrests; excessive use of force against peaceful protests; the erosion of independence of rule of law institutions; and a dramatic decline in enjoyment of economic and social rights, with increasingly widespread hunger and sharply deteriorating health-care…

With the State’s institutions turning a blind eye to the current deterioration of human rights and foreign observers being denied any access, it is our civil society (through numerous groups and networks) which has become, in a certain way, the last line of defense of local citizens against those kind of abuses. And many of them met earlier this month in the capital Caracas.

The second National Encounter of Human Rights Defenders took place in the Andres Bello Catholic University, organized by several local NGOs. 150 representatives from 17 states gathered to share their personal experiences and discuss issues like the ongoing socio-economic crisis and the recall referendum as a possible political mechanism to solve it.

“There has been growth in human rights groups (in Venezuela) during the last two, three years”. That’s the impression of Nelson Freitez, sociologist and professor of Lisandro Alvarado University in Barquisimeto. In an interview with Caracas Chronicles, he shared his views on the encounter.

When asked about the role these human rights groups are having in today’s events, he told us,

“NGOs and other similar organizations have more social recognition because people see those groups as capable of protecting and defending them from the abuses of the Venezuelan State”.

Ligia Bolivar agreed with Mr. Freitez’s comments, adding,

“As the country is going through a crisis, civil society is organizing given the lack of attention from the State. But it doesn’t want to replace it, but simply filling the void that the institutions are leaving empty for its inaction”.

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