The release of the Independent Fact-Finding Mission’s first report on Venezuela in September 2020 triggered a mix of tremendous shock and relief. Shock because the Mission had documented the full extent of the government’s systematic patterns of human rights violations and abuses over the past 6 years, which may in fact amount to crimes against humanity. Relief, because after years of similar documentation and investigations by human rights defenders across the country, an independent UN investigative body had publicly called on the Maduro government—and the international community—to ensure accountability for perpetrators, justice for victims, and to address the root causes which facilitated committing these crimes in the first place.
While the Fact-Finding Mission has a unique mandate to contribute to justice and accountability—and its investigations are of essential value for ongoing and potential future judicial proceedings, including at the International Criminal Court—its analysis should also be used beyond the Office of the Prosecutor in The Hague. The international community can—and should—also use the Mission’s findings to intensify pressure on the government to commit to broader system-wide reform.
Use FFM Information for Venezuela’s Upcoming UPR Review
In January 2022, Venezuela’s human rights record will be assessed in the context of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), a Human Rights Council (HRC) process in which all UN member states review other governments’ adherence to the protection and promotion of human rights; each country undergoing a detailed review every 4.5 years. During Venezuela’s last review in November 2016, civil society organizations already pinpointed the areas the FFM would later investigate and report on. This includes criminalization, intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders, which the FFM called out in March 2021 (and which, as the case of Fundaredes highlights, continues to intensify); the government’s refusal to invite Special Procedures to the country (after the FFM specifically recommended it in their 2020 report, 56 governments reiterated last week the call on Venezuela to allow visits of special rapporteurs), as well as persecution of opposition leaders, activists, journalists and ordinary citizens who publicly criticize the government—which was one of the main elements of the report in September 2020, and reached a dramatic new height with the arbitrary arrest of Freddy Guevara on Monday.
In January, states at the UPR will have an opportunity to ask representatives of the Maduro government what happened with the vast set of recommendations made in 2016, and subsequently by the FFM—and amplify the calls by the Fact-Finding Mission for cross-cutting institutional change to tackle pervasive impunity, dismantle the FAES, disarm colectivos and cease collaboration with them, and hold perpetrators accountable, including those at the highest level.
While it’s highly unlikely that the Venezuelan delegation will provide answers any different than it has given to date, the UPR will be an opportunity to force the government to directly address and respond to ongoing systematic violations and abuses, which the FFM referred to as “a policy to silence opposition to the Maduro government.” As Venezuela continues refusing to accept the findings of the FFM, let alone taking meaningful steps to implement their recommendations, the government should be put on the spot with the uncomfortable questions it’s so desperately trying to avoid.
Use FFM Information to Revitalize Discussions in the UNSC
Despite a new U.S. administration, there are few remaining illusions that the UN Security Council will adopt a unified approach towards the Venezuelan crisis—it’s unlikely they will even agree to meet and discuss it. Yet, the Council remains a key mechanism to draw attention to the wider multidimensional crisis, which has long spilled over to the entire region. In fact, when the mandate of the FFM was renewed in September 2020, the resolution specifically recommended that the UN General Assembly submit the report “to all relevant UN bodies for appropriate action,” of which the UNSC is the most obvious one. Inviting the FFM to brief the Security Council could help reframe the conversation from polarized politics to a human rights and atrocity crisis with regional implications, regardless of which side of the political spectrum Council members are on. This should be seen as complementary, rather than contradictory, to mediation efforts involving current Council members Norway and Mexico. And while it’s no secret that appetite among members to revitalize discussions on Venezuela is practically non-existing, governments who particularly commit themselves to advancing accountability efforts and engaging in long-term conflict and atrocity prevention, including members Ireland, Estonia, France or the UK could be influential in inviting the FFM to share their analysis and recommendations with the UNSC, and by doing so exert greater pressure on the government to end systematic state-led persecution and fully cooperate with the UN human rights system.
Use FFM Information to Exert Political Pressure on Structural Reform
Two months from now, at the upcoming September session, the FFM will present its second report to the Human Rights Council. It’s certain that most member states will issue strong statements of concern against ongoing abuses; but governments should also actively utilize the information produced by the FFM to guide policy decisions on long-term engagement with Venezuela through the UN system and beyond. Venezuela requires system-wide change, from the security and intelligence sector to the judiciary, and up along the highest level of government. That’s a monumental effort to say the least—and we know that the government has few incentives to commit to any of it.
In 2019, the FFM was asked to investigate human rights violations, help combat impunity and provide recommendations to ensure full accountability for perpetrators. It has done precisely that. But the FFM can only give recommendations, not enforce them. It’s on the international community, most importantly UN member states, to exert maximum political and diplomatic pressure on the Maduro government to take these recommendations seriously. We can do so by using the information produced by the Mission to hold perpetrators of crimes against humanity to account and focus our multilateral engagement on amending structural factors within Venezuela, which have allowed those crimes to be committed in the first place.
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