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Venezuelan Authorities Should Pay for their Crimes

Published in: El Mercurio
Members of the Lima Group nations attend a meeting in Santiago, Chile, January 23, 2018.  © 2018 Reuters

The Lima Group—a coalition of 11 Latin American governments and Canada that is monitoring Venezuela’s crisis—will meet in Santiago today to address the situation in Venezuela.

After their first meeting in Lima in August, the group published a comprehensive statement that condemned the assault on democratic order and the systematic violation of human rights in Venezuela. The 12 said they would not recognize Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly (created by the government to sideline a body led by its opponents), pledged to stop the transfer of weapons to Venezuela, and expressed concern about the humanitarian crisis and the government’s refusal to accept international aid.

Also in August, some Lima Group members—who also belong to the regional trade bloc Mercosur—indefinitely suspended Venezuela. They applied an agreement that allows them to suspend a member when there’s a “rupture of [its] constitutional order.”

However, except for Canada, the Lima Group members have not adopted targeted sanctions against key Venezuelan officials implicated in serious human rights violations. Such sanctions, which are directed at specific people, would not have a negative impact on the Venezuelan population, which is already suffering a dramatic humanitarian crisis. 

On January 18, the European Union announced the names of seven high-level Venezuelan officials, who are subject to travel restrictions and asset freezes in Europe. The United States, since Obama’s time, has also sanctioned dozens of Venezuelans.

In the past year, the government has systematically used brutal treatment, including torture, against anti-government protesters and political opponents. In the streets, security force personnel have used disproportionate force against demonstrators, leading to dozens of deaths, hundreds of injuries, and thousands of arrests. Once opponents are in detention, security forces or intelligence agents have beaten them severely and tortured them with electric shocks, asphyxiation, sexual assault, and other vicious techniques. Authorities have also arbitrarily prosecuted more than 750 civilians in military courts.

Our research shows that the abuses were not isolated cases or the result of excesses by rogue security force members. Rather, various security forces committed widespread abuses repeatedly, in multiple locations across the country—including in controlled environments such as military installations—during a period of several months. Our research supports the conclusion that the abuses have been part of a systematic practice by Venezuelan security forces.

The UN high commissioner for human rights said in September that “crimes against humanity may have been committed” in Venezuela and called for an international investigation. For over a decade, the Venezuelan government has not cooperated with international human rights bodies.

In Venezuela, it is impossible for the thousands of victims to have access to justice. There is no judicial independence and, in practice, the judiciary guarantees impunity for these crimes.

Rights groups have petitioned the International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor to open an investigation. Venezuela is a member of the ICC, a court of last resort for the world’s worst crimes—including war crimes and crimes against humanity—when national authorities fail to carry out their primary responsibility to investigate and prosecute. The court’s jurisdiction can be triggered in a number of ways, including a referral of a country situation by a member state to the prosecutor. The prosecutor’s office considers information it receives to determine whether a full investigation is merited and can open what is known as a preliminary examination to that end. But the ICC has a narrow mandate, and its jurisdiction is limited to very specific crimes and circumstances. The prosecutor’s office would need to carefully consider whether the court’s requirements are met.

Given the grotesque deterioration of the situation in Venezuela, the Lima Group members meeting in Santiago should consider imposing sanctions, including cancelling visas and asset freezes, to high-level Venezuelan officials. These sanctions should be applied to those who, exercising their role in civilian, military, and judicial positions, are responsible for systematic human rights violations carried out in the country. Moreover, the Lima Group members should evaluate the contribution that international human rights bodies, including those described here, can make to bring those responsible to justice, to contribute to stopping further deterioration in Venezuela. 

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