Since President Maduro came to power in 2013, there has been an alarming rise in the intensity of abuses and the severity of the rights crackdown in Venezuela. Political and civil society repression has stifled dissenting voices. Severe shortages of food and essential medicines have created life-threatening conditions. More than one and a half million Venezuelans have fled the country in response to the human rights and humanitarian crisis. In its report launched during the current Council session, OHCHR highlighted the climate of complete impunity, leading the High Commissioner to comment that “the rule of law is virtually absent in Venezuela”.
Civil and political crackdown
In its recent report, OHCHR highlighted that arbitrary arrests and detentions have been used increasingly by the Venezuelan intelligence and security forces since July 2017 to repress and intimidate civil society, political opponents, or any voices that might criticize the government or publicly express discontent. More than 12,000 people have been arbitrarily detained since 2014, with at least 570 people, including 35 children, detained in the period of 9 months between August 2017 and May 2018 alone. Many who have been detained have been held incommunicado, and have suffered cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment which clearly amounts to torture, including electric shocks, severe beatings, asphyxiation, and sexual abuse including rape.
Many of those who protest against the government have been summarily executed by security forces. The Bolivarian National Guard has actively blocked attempts to identify perpetrators, creating a climate of impunity. Between July 2015 and March 2017, 505 people including 24 children were murdered by security forces in ways that could amount to extrajudicial killings. In February, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced that her office is opening a preliminary investigation into the use of excessive force, including killings and unlawful detentions.
The OHCHR report documents numerous cases of extrajudicial killings, perpetrated with impunity, including the following testimony from a mother whose sons were killed by State security forces:
“In August 2016, I was at home with my two sons; the oldest was 22 years old and the youngest 16. I was doing laundry in the courtyard when CICPC officers broke into my house. … One officer was leaning over my son who was on the floor and I heard [the officer] ask his boss if he should arrest him. The boss answered that the instruction was to kill him. I was taken to another room and I heard two shots…. If he had done something bad, they should have taken him back to court, rather than simply kill him. …
I was brought to a police station where they told me that I did not have the right to sit in a chair. They started asking questions about my son. They beat me and threw me on the floor. They kept me there for one day without food and water and told me that I was responsible for having given birth to a criminal. They also told me that they would visit my home whenever they wanted and that within less than a year they would come back for my other son.
On 19 July 2017, the OLP came back to my neighbourhood. This time they arrested my youngest son who was out in the street with some friends. After searching for him at hospitals and police stations, someone told me that he was in the morgue. They showed me a photo of his body.”
Severe shortages of food and medicine are making it increasingly difficult for many Venezuelans to feed their families and have access to the most basic healthcare. The population lost an average of 11 kilos in 2017. Most Venezuelans go to bed hungry, and moderate to severe malnutrition among children under age 5 increased by more than 50 percent in 2017. Venezuela’s then-health minister released official data last year indicating that, in 2016 alone, infant mortality increased by 30 percent, maternal mortality 65 percent, and malaria cases 76 percent. Days later, she was fired.
The UN special rapporteur on the right to food has said that strategies to cope in times of crisis have “dramatic longer-term effects, particularly for women and children”. Stories such as Kim’s - a nurse who worked two jobs to provide for her children, trying to cure the sick amid the country’s shortages of basic medicines and supplies, but at the cost of barely seeing them – tells of how the crisis has disproportionate effects on women, who remain, in many families, the primary caregivers for children or other family members.
Earlier this year, a group of Special Procedures, including the Special Rapporteurs on food, health, adequate housing and extreme poverty issued a joint statement, saying: “Vast numbers of Venezuelans are starving, deprived of essential medicines, and trying to survive in a situation that is spiralling downwards with no end in sight”.
According to UNHCR, more than 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the country, for reasons including political persecution, violence, and the ongoing humanitarian crisis. As a result, a 2,000 percent increase in asylum applications has been recorded across Latin America since 2014. Those caught in this state of limbo are "particularly vulnerable to exploitation, extortion, violence, including sexual and gender-based violence, human trafficking, forced recruitment into criminal groups, discrimination and xenophobia". Despite this, many interviewed by HRW hope to return home — but cannot do so, until they can return to a Venezuela where they do not have to fear that they, their family or friends will face execution, starvation, or enforced disappearance.
Need for Human Rights Council action
The Lima Group has shown consistent leadership in bringing attention to the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, but the Human Rights Council should also play its part. Ultimately, the Council should put in place the international investigation that the High Commissioner has called for, and which is desperately needed.
This session, Human Rights Watch urges States to express a strong, clear message of collective concern at the deteriorating situation in Venezuela, and to encourage continued reporting by the High Commissioner to the Council.