Explainer: Another UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Visits Venezuela

The new UN High Commissioner for Human RIghts came to Venezuela amid a new wave of detentions and threats to NGOs. He met the regime’s heads, NGOs and victims, and said he will continue the investigations. But he also left several unsolved questions


It was brief and discreet: Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, attended the invitation made by vice president Delcy Rodriguez in a 48-hour visit from January 26 to 28, to have a closer look at the human rights violations in Venezuela.  

Some days before he arrived, nine protesting workers were detained in Guayana. Two days before, the National Assembly approved in a first-round a bill designed to wipe out the NGOs the chavista regime sees as a threat. One day before, CICPC detained a journalist from El Nacional and military police raided the houses of two opposition lawmakers. On the same day, Türk landed in Maiquetía, the national police detained a teacher because of a picture sent through Whatsapp.

On January 26th, a group of protesters was waiting for the High Commissioner in front of the institution’s offices in Caracas, claiming for more pressure on human rights causes. And even after Türk met some human rights defenders, one of them, university professor María Fernanda Rodríguez, was detained (later released) by CICPC.

Türk sat with the regime’s elite: Nicolás Maduro, Delcy Rodríguez, Admiral Remigio Ceballos (interior minister), General Vladimir Padrino López (defense minister) and Jorge Rodríguez (National Assembly Speaker), and also with the president of the Supreme Court, the attorney general and the ombudsman. His agenda included a meeting with delegates to the negotiation table in Mexico (including opposition envoys Gerardo Blyde and Stalin González), and more importantly more than 125 people from civil society, human rights NGOs, victims and priests. During his closing press conference in the airport, Türk said he had “frank conversations” with the authorities where he expressed his worries about arbitrary detentions, torture, imprisonment conditions, killings and all kinds of irregularities in the justice system. He also was updated about the continuing hardships common Venezuelans have to endure, which led to the protests the government is repressing with such brutality. 

The most relevant outcome of the visit is that the memorandum of understanding with the Maduro regime, which engages it to cooperate with the investigators, was renovated. The High Commissioner also announced his office will keep working in Venezuela for two more years. However, the precise terms of the memorandum remain unknown, as well as whether the High Commissioner will visit the country again. 

Türk handed the government a list of victims of arbitrary detentions, mistreatment and torture, and asked publicly for their release. Türk also said in his statement that the authorities promised to hear and process the accusations of torture, and he said he expects his team will have access to any detention center.  

But as the father of political prisoner Franklin Caldera Martínez said, “one thing is what the regime says it will do, and another thing what it really does. I asked Türk for help to avoid all this is forgotten, as happened with (former High Commissioner Michelle) Bachelet.” Ivonne Parra, one of the Madres Poderosas, remembers that Bachelet demanded the dissolution of FAES, which killed Parra’s son, “and they only changed their uniforms, and remain as a death squad in the poor communities… The High Commissioner only gives generic advice that the government ignores.

Amnesty International has demanded more visits. Ninety NGOs want the High Commissioner to support other teams such as the UN Independent Fact-Finding Mission, as well as local organizations. The problem is not that Türk may be unable to understand what’s happening here; Theresly Malavé, director at Justicia y Proceso Venezuela, tweeted that he worked in Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Congo and Kuwait, so the government won’t be able to trick him. The problem is how to keep a productive dialogue with the same regime that perpetrates so many abuses in Venezuela. 

Elvira Llovera de Pernalete, president of Alianza de Familiares y Víctimas de Venezuela, the mom of Juan Pablo Pernalete, concludes: “We still have no real expectations on justice, while international organizations are so ambiguous in their messages and the Venezuelan State keeps violating human rights, mocking the victims and protecting the perpetrators.”