Atrocities are Still Happening in Venezuela

More and more governments in the world are working to release Maduro from international isolation, as if nothing has happened. But the International Criminal Court is still working, and human rights continue to be under severe threat

International legal scholar Hersch Lauterpacht coined the term crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg Trials. It’s defined as a “widespread and systematic attack directed at a civilian population.” This includes torture, sexual violence, deprivation of liberty, persecution, enforced disappearances, and enslavement. Does this sound familiar? Right now, all these crimes are happening in Venezuela. 

There are upwards of 200 political prisoners, with the number of imprisoned military officials rising; 17 reported clandestine torture centers; and just last year, there were over 800 extrajudicial killings. 

These crimes against humanity have been planned and implemented on a national scale against large segments of the population by the President and high-level military officials. This is one of Chávez’s enduring legacies that Maduro has perfected. Most of these acts have been committed in or around vulnerable communities, through sexual slavery in the Orinoco Mining Arc—that has developed into human trafficking to neighboring countries—and young, low-income boys and men being extrajudicially assassinated by state forces. 

This has been condoned, promoted, and exercised by all government officials. Many negate their participation because they are civil servants or lower-rank military and argue that they acted on orders from their superiors. They’re equally responsible, though the chances of them being prosecuted internationally are minor. 

Because Venezuela’s judicial system has been co-opted, victims and their families must resort to international human rights and criminal courts to seek truth and justice. Information-sharing efforts on human rights violations and abuses by a wide-range of actors in Venezuela have been crucial in bringing to light the regime’s atrocities, which has been well-documented in the reports disseminated by the UN Human Rights Council-created International Fact-Finding Mission for Venezuela (FFMV). 

David Crane, who is the former chief prosecutor for one of the three international tribunals, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, says that when such atrocities have been committed, the “big fish,” or those with utmost responsibility, are the ones that should be investigated, tried, and possibly imprisoned. This is the route that the International Criminal Court (ICC) has taken in investigating crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela since February 12, 2014. The government has attempted to halt the investigation, but the ICC received more than 8,000 testimonies recounting forced displacement, targeted attacks against Indigenous Peoples, extortions, and fears of retaliation. The investigation resumed on June 27 with the Pre-Trials Chamber saying that the state is not investigating instances of crimes against humanity and domestic investigations are focusing on lower-level perpetrators.

The recently created ICC office in Venezuela will provide technical assistance to the judicial system on implementing reforms to prosecute crimes against humanity. It’ll be the first office being opened in the region, with the other seven on the African continent. Venezuela is also the first Latin American country being investigated by the Court. In parallel, a civil suit against Venezuela for crimes against humanity was filed in Argentina, following the principle of universal jurisdiction. Before that, Maduro was already exposed to being detained when traveling abroad.

International pressure doesn’t seem to be a deterrent for the Maduro regime since it’s clear that there’s a public relations machinery cleaning its image. When the recent ICC decision was made, Maduro tweeted that he’s a human rights defender. And it’s not just the Foro de São Paulo and dictatorships normalizing relations with Maduro amidst all this, like when he was welcomed to Riyadh by Mohammed bin Salman. The chavista leader even visited Brazil after an invitation by President Lula.

The regime is appalled at the route that the ICC investigation can take, insofar as the effects it can have on its power structure and has even requested that the Court reveal victims’ names. The investigation has even been brought up by the National Assembly Speaker Jorge Rodriguez as one of the points to move forward in the Mexico negotiation talks. To be clear, the Court’s an independent, apolitical body that can’t participate in the negotiation. 

Another question, for the future, regarding what domestic transitional justice would look like in Venezuela. For one, amnesty laws against military officials shouldn’t be passed, even though they’re an easy solution for intermittent peace but it’s not victim-centered. Argentina passed such measures after its military dictatorship and years later were declared unconstitutional. 

One victim is one too many to bear the weight of these atrocities. Venezuelans should feel actively involved in achieving truth, justice, and reconciliation, and providing their testimonies on why this fraught period should never be repeated. If we don’t remember, then who will?   

*Opinions are personal. They do not represent those of Freedom House.

Beatriz Godoy Rivas

Beatriz Godoy Rivas is a senior program associate for Latin America and Caribbean programs at Freedom House. She was born in Venezuela and raised in South Florida.