Human Rights Watch welcomes the Universal Periodic Review report on Venezuela, which includes recommendations to improve the precarious human rights situation in the country. Although Venezuela’s government accepted many of these recommendations, it also rejected several critical ones aimed at addressing some of the country’s most pressing human rights problems. Venezuela still needs to take concrete steps to strengthen judicial independence, protect free speech, support the independent work of NGOs, and comply with the Inter-American Court’s binding rulings.
Venezuela rejected recommendations to respect the independence of the judiciary and to comply with its international obligations and implement recommendations, resolutions and decisions of the international and regional human rights protection systems. The Venezuelan Supreme Court has repeatedly refused to recognize binding rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights aimed at protecting fundamental rights of Venezuelans. Since 2004, the Supreme Court has routinely failed to act as a check on executive action. That year, President Hugo Chávez’s allies in the National Assembly adopted a court packing law that allowed it to carry out a political takeover of the Supreme Court, packing it with government supporters. After national elections in 2010 significantly reduced the size of its pro-government majority — but before the newly-elected opposition legislators were seated — pro-Chávez legislators modified the procedure for appointing justices and packed the Court a second time.
The most glaring example of lack of judicial independence in Venezuela is the prosecution and arbitrary detention since December 2009 of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, who was imprisoned on the day she lawfully released a banker accused of corruption who opposed Chávez. The president called her a “bandit” and called for her to be sentenced to the "maximum penalty."
Without judicial checks on its actions, the government has repeatedly undermined the right to free speech and human rights defenders' ability to work independently. It has abused its regulatory authority to punish critical media outlets and censor media content. It has publicly condemned human rights defenders and members of civil society organizations and sought to limit their ability to obtain international funding. At the UPR Venezuela rejected several recommendations relating to the need to strengthen free speechand protect the rights of human rights defenders.
In December 2010, moreover, the pro-government majority in the National Assembly adopted a series of laws that further enhance the government's ability to limit free speech and curtail the work of human rights defenders.
Human Rights Watch urges Venezuela to comply more fully with its international human rights obligations by strengthening judicial independence, the right to free speech, and the ability of defenders to work without fear of suffering reprisals, by implementing the binding rulings of Inter-American Court on Human Rights, and by immediately releasing and dropping all charges against Judge Afiuni.