South American Countries Should Speak Out on Excessive Use of Force
June 26, 2014
The lack of an independent judiciary to curb the government's abuses in Venezuela makes it all the more important that Unasur press the Maduro administration to protect the rights of protesters.
José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director

(New York) – Member states of the Union of South American Nations (Unasur) should press the Venezuelan government to immediately address the serious human rights problems the country is facing, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to several Latin American foreign affairs ministers.

Unasur – represented by the governments of Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador – has attempted to promote dialogue between the Venezuelan government and opposition since massive public protests broke out on February 12, 2014. Venezuela has responded to the protests with excessive use of force, and justice officials have been complicit in security force abuses. The dialogue was stalled, and Unasur’s involvement has failed to deliver concrete results to improve the human rights situation in the country.

“International bodies including United Nations human rights monitors and the European Parliament have expressed concern over the human rights violations in Venezuela, but Unasur has yet to speak out on the very serious abuses committed by Venezuelan state agents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “The lack of an independent judiciary to curb the government's abuses in Venezuela makes it all the more important that Unasur press the Maduro administration to protect the rights of protesters.”

In the letter that was sent to foreign affairs ministers Héctor Timerman of Argentina, Luiz Alberto Figueiredo Machado of Brazil, Heraldo Muñoz of Chile, María Ángela Holguín of Colombia, Ricardo Patiño of Ecuador, Gonzalo Gutiérrez Reinel of Perú, and Luis Almagro of Uruguay, Human Rights Watch described the findings of its report on abuses during the Venezuela protests, “Punished for Protesting: Rights Violations in Venezuela’s Streets, Detention Centers, and Justice System.”

Human Rights Watch research shows that, since February 12, members of the Bolivarian National Guard, the Bolivarian National Police, and state police forces have routinely used unlawful force against unarmed protesters and even bystanders. The abuses have included severe beatings; firing live ammunition, rubber bullets, and teargas indiscriminately into crowds; and firing pellets deliberately, at point blank range, at unarmed people already in custody. These violations constituted a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces against the protesters, Human Rights Watch found.

Security forces deliberately targeted journalists and others photographing and filming the repression, and tolerated and sometimes collaborated directly with armed pro-government gangs that attacked protesters with impunity.

Detainees were often held incommunicado on military bases for 48 hours or more before being taken before a judge. The violations they suffered during detention included severe beatings, electric shocks or burns, and being forced to squat or kneel, without moving, for hours at a time. In some cases, the ill-treatment clearly constituted torture.

Justice officials failed to fulfill their role as a safeguard against abuse of power and instead were party to serious due process violations, Human Rights Watch found.

President Nicolás Maduro and Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz have both acknowledged that security forces have committed human rights violations, and have publicly pledged to investigate these cases. However, there are reasons to doubt the credibility of these investigations, including the fact that the Venezuelan judiciary has largely ceased to function as an independent branch of government. In addition, the government has repeatedly sought to blame its political opponents, or simply the opposition as a whole, for the violence without providing credible evidence.

Under the Unasur Constitutive Treaty of 2008, “South American integration and union are based on the guiding principles of … democracy, citizen participation and pluralism; [and] universal, interdependent and indivisible human rights.” The treaty also states that, “fully effective democratic institutions and the unrestricted respect for human rights are essential conditions for building a common future of peace, economic and social prosperity and for the development of integration processes among the Member States.”

Unasur member states should call on President Maduro and other competent authorities to stop unlawful use of force during crowd-control operations and end all rhetoric that incites violence against protesters and journalists, Human Rights Watch said. Venezuelan authorities should conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations, immediately and unconditionally release people who have been unlawfully detained for exercising their basic rights, and take steps to restore the independence of the judiciary.

“In light of the guiding principles of Unasur, its members should press Venezuelan authorities to modify their record and adopt concrete measures to respect fundamental rights of citizens,” Vivanco said.