Explainer: ICC Will Open an Office in Caracas

As a signatory of the Rome Statute that created the International Criminal Court, the Maduro regime is forced to allow Karim Khan’s office to provide permanent technical assistance, with a team in the field reporting to him

People in Colombia knew about the visit of ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan fifteen days before his arrival. In Venezuela, we knew he was coming the day before he landed in Maiquetía, and that was because he announced the visit when he was closing the one in Colombia. Once again, it was evident that the Prosecutor’s presence makes the governments who host him uncomfortable, because, one way or another, he advances on a path they don’t want him to go: to show that, in Venezuela, crimes against humanity are being committed, and that those responsible must be punished.

In this third visit, it was agreed that the ICC will open a technical assistance office, which was already mentioned in the first visit of November 2021.

What does technical assistance mean?

It involves training and advising officers on the international standards that the signatories of the Rome Statute should follow. The goal is to correct the weaknesses of the Venezuelan justice system and make true the Memorandum of Understanding signed in November 2021.

The terms of the agreement are not public yet, but the assistance may be available to officers working in criminal investigations, and must serve to sync local laws with the Rome Statute. For instance, the Statute considers persecution as a crime, while the Venezuelan Criminal Procedure Code does not. Maybe the office could induce some reform of the Code. Another example: the State does not apply the Istanbul Protocol to investigate once a person in custody dies; with the technical assistance, Venezuela could implement the international standards to investigate this kind of irregularities.

Will this office gather information for the case Venezuela I?

No. However, the ICC made available an app to submit information and upload possible evidence in real time and full confidentiality.

So, the investigation Venezuela I is not being renewed?

Technical assistance is under the Prosecutor’s office responsibility, the investigation is under ICC Pre-Trial Chamber I. Two different mandates, two separate paths.

Did the Prosecutor switched sides?

No. Installing the technical assistance office is part of the ICC’s obligation, especially now that a signatory State of the Rome Statute is suspected to have committed crimes described in the Statute. We can’t forget what Khan said when he required permission from the Pre-Trial Chamber to continue the investigation on Venezuela I:

“The information available shows that the patterns and policies underlying the contextual elements of crimes against humanity are not being investigated, the domestic proceedings focus on direct perpetrators (and seemingly low level members of the State security forces) and mostly on crimes qualified as being of ‘minor’ graveness, while a substantial part of the relevant criminality is not being investigated at all.”

Therefore, the pressure on the Maduro government continues, even more now that MAduro is forced to accept the assistance from the same institution that is investigating him. Notice that Venezuela signed the Rome Statute just before Chavez came to power, but it was Chavez who ratified the country’s commitment, in June 2000.

Will the office hear the victims or admit more claims about crimes against humanity?

No. It isn’t an office to service victims. But on June 9th, Khan said in Miraflores Palace that during the past few years some Venezuela civil society organizations went to The Hague to talk about persecution. In other words, victims, activists and lawyers are being heard by the ICC. In fact, Khan met with civil society groups during his first visit to Venezuela, and the ICC Section for Victims Participation gathered more than 8,900 testimonies.

Why is this kind of stuck?

Because the government provided limited, incoherent and non relevant information, in order to sabotage the investigation. The ICC has heard arguments, but it has no documents issued by the Venezuelan courts that could prove real progress. The government’s narrative insists on the total absence of crimes against humanity. They say incarcerations were very short and in temporary facilities, that instead of torture there was mistreatment and abuse, and that all this was already investigated and punished through the Criminal Procedure Code.

The government is hiding its crimes, it’s not investigating the systematic and generalized pattern, and there has been no punishment for people on the top tiers of the chain of command, so there’s no progress according to the Rome Statute. This is why the ICC’s technical assistance office in Caracas is important, and especially the fact that the government remains unable to convince the ICC that it hasn’t committed crimes against humanity.

So, what to make of the third visit?

Khan said in Miraflores that his team saw where the office will be, and that they will be coming to Venezuela more frequently, to work closer. For the director of the NGO Acceso a la Justicia, Alí Daniels, installing the office is more than an institutional decision: “The ICC’s trying to punish those responsible for the crimes. The Prosecutor’s office is providing tools to make this happen. The loser here is the government, always, because if it refuses to punish criminals after the technical assistance, it is not because of ignorance, but because it doesn’t want to do it.”

For Daniels, this office is part of the ICC’s strategy to set up shop in Venezuela and remain here, which means that personnel close to Prosecutor Khan will be in Caracas and maybe could travel to other cities. Even if they have problems gathering information, they will have a first hand experience of what’s happening here.