The United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) established the Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela in September of 2019. For a year, they investigated alleged human rights violations committed in the country since 2014, and the findings have just been made public.
The 411-page report is based on a review of 223 cases of human rights violations. The Mission carried out 274 interviews with victims, relatives, witnesses, former state officials, lawyers, NGOs and international personnel. They also reviewed documents, legal case files, press reports, and other available information.
The regime didn’t respond to the council’s request to visit Venezuela, and the constraints to travel to the country during the investigation increased with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, as well as with power outages and internet problems.
The Mission believes that most of the violations and crimes included in the report, though, “were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population, with knowledge of the attack, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State policy.”
With this, their conclusion is that crimes against humanity were committed in the country, including: imprisonment, deprivations of physical liberty (which violate international law), acts of torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, arbitrary detentions and extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, and other inhumane acts.
These crimes, the report stresses, were committed against civilians.
Detentions for Political Motives
The report harps on the fact that arbitrary detentions targeted citizens based on their political affiliation, participation, and opinions. It also concludes that these detentions were not “isolated or random acts”. The similarities between cases and the involvement of state institutions at different levels proved that the detentions “of opponents or critics were carried out in a systematic manner”. Dissidents were also victims of enforced disappearances, torture, and cruel treatment from intelligence agencies.
These state intelligence agencies played a role in the repression by “carrying out initial investigations into potential crimes committed by the targeted dissidents, arresting them, interrogating them and detaining them.”
Most of the violations and crimes included in the report, though, “were committed as part of a widespread and systematic attack directed against a civilian population.”
In the case of civilians, officers of the National Bolivarian Intelligence Service (SEBIN) are believed to have “used force or violence during arrests.”
“Victims alleged that SEBIN officers assaulted them during arrest [and during] initial detention, such as Victor Navarro, who was beaten at gunpoint,” the report says.
The Mission also investigated 33 cases with “reasonable grounds to believe that SEBIN arrested, detained and/or tortured or ill-treated political targets and associates.”
SEBIN was also responsible for enforced disappearances, such as in the cases of National Assembly deputies Juan Requesens and Gilber Caro.
Tortures and Inhuman Treatment
The Mission reviewed 13 cases in which SEBIN carried out torture or cruel treatment against detainees. These could be performed to obtain a confession, or to impose punishment, humiliation and intimidation.
The report highlights the “patterns of conduct in torture methods used by SEBIN officers both male and female, against political targets and others perceived to be critical of the government.” The cases they cited occurred mostly between 2014 and 2018, with the torture including beatings, shocks, “stress positions” like “crucifixion,” asphyxiation, threats of death or rape, threats of violence, psychological torture and forced nudity.
The HCR also reviewed 77 cases in which the General Directorate of Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence (DGCIM), “arrested, detained and tortured current and former military officers and civilians associated with them.” Some military dissidents were also subjected to short term enforced disappearances.
An example: “DGCIM officers subjected detainees to a practice they called “breastfeeding” (dar la teta), during which they beat detainees with a bat, with the word “tit” (teta) written on it. Female relatives taken to ‘safe houses’ were sexually assaulted and/or tortured with asphyxiation, beatings and electric shocks.”
The report says Venezuela has one of the highest rates of violent deaths in the world, attributed to several factors like organized crime, weak rule of law, corruption and poverty. But some of those violent deaths were committed by security forces, like the police and the military.
The mission points out that many of these killings were not within the legal framework of these security forces.
The HCR investigated human rights violations in the hands of police or military security operations by the Operations for People’s Liberation (OLP) and Operations for People’s Humane Liberation (OLHP), both of these allegedly started to reduce crime in the country. They also investigated cases of violations during “targeted security operations” by one state force or combined operations.
The mission reviewed 16 cases, of which five violated the security framework of the OLP and OLHP. They involved the deaths of 57 people and the detention of about 1,420. Furthermore, 11 cases are related to killings by state police forces, particularly the National Police (PNB), the Special Actions Forces (FAES) and the CICPC detectives corps. These led to the deaths of 18 people.
While the CICPC and the PNB are allowed to use lethal force “if necessary to protect the life of a police officer or a third party,” the mission points out that many of these killings were not within the legal framework of these security forces. Thus, the mission concludes that the PNB/FAES and CICPC committed extrajudicial executions during operations.
Violence Related to Protests
Evidence collected from protests shows 36 cases of killings during demonstrations and 61 cases of detentions that resulted in torture and degrading treatment. They also analyzed nine cases of “sexual or gender-based violence against protesters.”
They noted that security plans for demonstrations and protests “provided scope for military and paramilitary intervention in protests and sometimes for the participation of colectivos, or armed citizen groups in security tasks.”
Much like the cases of arbitrary detentions mentioned above, people arrested during protests were victims of torture and cruel treatment. They were also kept in inhumane conditions: “facilities used to hold detainees before the initial appearance hearing were not adequately equipped as detention centers, with no sleeping space and restrooms, inadequate washing facilities and lack of food and water. Overcrowding in small cells was common. In many instances, detainees had to relieve themselves in their cells, using plastic bottles and bags, including in front of other detainees.”
While the violations and crimes within the report affected both women and men, the Mission says that the crimes underscore “underlying gender roles, inequalities and stereotypes previously established within Venezuelan society.” For example: some women were forced to shower with detainees of the opposite sex, sometimes receiving sexual advances from officers, and some menstruating women were not provided with appropriate hygine products or sanitary conditions.
The report lists 61 recommended actions for the state and four for the international community. These include ensuring accountability for the crimes within the report by, among other things, carrying out impartial investigations into the human rights violations and crimes, and ensuring that state institutions (including security forces and intelligence services) cooperate with the investigations. Other recommendations are meant to reduce targeted political repression, the arbitrary arrests and detentions, guarantee judicial independence, and stop enforced disappearances, torture and cruel treatments, and work with colectivos. One recommendation regarding extrajudicial killings is to “dismantle the FAES given the high number of extrajudicial executions carried out by this police force since its creation.” Lastly, among the actions for the international community, the report says that states should consider legal actions against people responsible for the violations and crimes described, and to mandate more investigations through UNHRC and/or the UN General Assembly into the crimes reported.
Among the 47 countries represented at the UNHRC are a bunch of human rights violators themselves, such as Venezuela (meaning the Maduro regime itself) and some allies of the dictatorship like China (which has the capacity to pressure many others), Nicaragua, Cuba, Russia, and Vietnam. Why are they there, if they don’t respect human rights? Precisely to avoid UN pressure on the matter. Yes, it’s a bug of the UN, born from its very collective nature. Of course, many other countries in the UNHRC won’t defend Maduro, like Spain, Canada, or Germany.
For example: some women were forced to shower with detainees of the opposite sex, sometimes receiving sexual advances from officers.
Rafael Uzcátegui, coordinator of Venezuelan NGO Provea, says that next week the UNHCR will have a meeting to discuss this report among its 47 members, which will increase attention (on the report). This meeting is the expected step given that the mission was created for a year; now we’re going to see how the regime will say that they have an agreement with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, another UN office, and that what they’re doing is enough to improve the human rights situation in Venezuela, while Provea and the human rights community will try to make the UNHCR extend the mission for at least two more years, in order to complete more reports and include what they weren’t able to achieve, the report on the Mining Arc.
“Given that the report established responsibilities, this could be a critical input to make the Venezuela dossier advance from the phase of preliminary exam to the phase of formal investigation at the International Criminal Court,” says Uzcategui. “The ICC, which has never opened a case about Latin America, doesn’t work at the pace reality demands, and Colombia has been waiting for 12 years to get the formal investigation phase, but this UNHRC report torpedoes the image the regime still has in some places, because it’s not Provea or Juan Guaidó who are saying this, but a highly respected UN agency.”
So this report is relevant as a new body of arguments against the regime, that could be used in specific prosecutions from individuals or states against the Maduro regime or its officers, and increases the cost of internationally supporting a government with such a horrible list of unspeakable crimes. Beyond the countries we can expect to openly defend or attack Maduro for the facts described in this investigation, we’ll see others handling this more discreetly. We can’t forget the historical experience: the ICC, not recognized by the United States, has only prosecuted a few genocidal leaders from the Balkans or West Africa, once they have lost their power; the wide network of politics and interests that is the UN system of agencies has been both the scene for brave accusations (like this report) and a tool for all kinds of criminals to defend themselves on the global arena.
Many factors could impact the stance every specific government, oil company or international organization will have from now on in their respective relationships with the Venezuelan dictatorship, but this is neither the end of the story nor the definitive strike against Maduro.
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