It's not What You Know, it's What You've Documented

Today, Human Rights Watch is publishing an 85 page report documenting the full spectrum of human rights abuses committed to put down the protests of earlier this year.

Photo: Aljazeera America

There’s what you think you know. And then there’s what you can prove.

It’s a distinction not everyone fully appreciates, and one that’s certainly come under assault in the era of Fake News, Twitter-bot armies and neolengua. But to a few, hardy, old-fashioned souls, documenting what people vaguely sense happened is still a pastime worth pursuing.

The 85-page report, “Crackdown on Dissent: Brutality, Torture, and Political Persecution in Venezuela,” documents 88 cases involving at least 314 people, many of whom described being subjected to serious human rights violations in Caracas and 13 states between April and September 2017. Security force personnel beat detainees severely and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual assault, and other brutal techniques. Security forces also used disproportionate force and carried out violent abuses against people in the streets, and arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted government opponents. While it was not the first crackdown on dissent under Maduro, the scope and severity of the repression in 2017 reached levels unseen in Venezuela in recent memory.

“The widespread vicious abuses against government opponents in Venezuela, including egregious cases of torture, and the absolute impunity for the attackers suggests government responsibility at the highest levels,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “These are not isolated abuses or occasional excesses by rogue officers but rather a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces.”

“It’s no longer only about political leaders, it’s no longer about public figures, it’s just regular citizens – it was me,” said Ernesto Martin (pseudonym), 34, who was detained in his home for publicly criticizing the government, and tortured to confess to alleged links to the political opposition.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of human rights violations, Human Rights Watch and the Penal Forum found no evidence that key high-level officials – including those who knew or should have known about the abuses – have taken any steps to prevent and punish violations. On the contrary, they have often downplayed the abuses or issued implausible, blanket denials.

This matters. It matters legally, as we seek to leave a documentary trace today so yesterday’s abuses can be punished tomorrow. It matters diplomatically, as we present third party governments with evidence that what we say – we say not just because we don’t like the government, but because there’s tangible, documented evidence of systematic abuse. It matters historically, as we fight to make sure what’s happened to Venezuela doesn’t just fall down the same old memory hole it always did. And it matters in human terms, as we honor the standards of rational evidence, level-headed investigation and respect for the capital-t Truth our civilization is founded on.

Make no mistake about it: this matters.