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Letter to Colombian President Gustavo Petro on the restablishment of diplomatic relations with the Nicolás Maduro government

Washington, D.C., October 24, 2022

Gustavo Petro
President of Colombia
Casa de Nariño
Bogotá, DC – COLOMBIA

Dear President Petro,

We are writing to respectfully urge that, in light of the Colombian government’s reestablishment of diplomatic relations with the Nicolás Maduro government, your government maintains a strong focus on helping to address the human rights and humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. In its discussions with the Maduro government, Colombia should prioritize obtaining concrete human rights commitments from Venezuelan authorities; supporting access of humanitarian assistance; reestablishing the rule of law; ending Venezuelan security forces’ complicity with the National Liberation Army (ELN); and addressing violence, abuse, and human trafficking at the border.

Venezuela is facing a human rights and humanitarian crisis that has forced over 7.1 million people to flee. The United Nations International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela has concluded that there are “reasonable grounds to believe that . . . crimes against humanity were committed” by Venezuelan authorities, including murder, arbitrary detentions and torture. At the same time, Human Rights Watch has documented lawlessness and abuses by armed groups and gangs affecting the local population and migrants in different areas along the Colombian-Venezuelan border.

Colombia’s response to the Venezuelan exodus has been mostly exemplary, despite the enormous challenges posed by a large influx of people and the economic consequences of the pandemic. We applaud the landmark steps taken to grant legal status to Venezuelans who have fled their country, including the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) adopted in March 2021. The implementation of this program could serve as a model for the region in a context where other governments have increasingly adopted policies that violate the rights of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants and restrict their ability to obtain asylum or legal status.

In the past, Venezuelan authorities, who are clinging on to power through the government’s repressive machinery, have not made concessions voluntarily. They have repeatedly violated Venezuelans’ rights to run for office and vote in free and fair elections, including through the arbitrary disqualification of political opponents.

Colombia could play a key role in helping curb human rights violations in Venezuela and at the border with Colombia, and restoring political rights and the rule of law, including by implementing the EU electoral observation mission’s recommendations to protect Venezuelans’ right to vote in elections scheduled for 2024.[1]

This letter outlines central recommendations we urge your government to adopt:

  1. Promoting Human Rights Progress in Venezuela

Venezuelan authorities continue to commit serious human rights violations, including harassing and prosecuting independent journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society organizations. The Venezuelan organization Foro Penal counts that, to date, there are 245 political prisoners.[2] Detainees have experienced horrendous torture, including electric shocks, waterboarding, and sexual violence.

Security forces have engaged in multiple extrajudicial executions in which officers planted arms and drugs or fired their weapons into walls or the air to suggest the victim had “resisted authority.”[3] Between 2016 and 2019, over 19,000 people died in “resistance to authority” killings which, in many cases, amounted to extrajudicial executions. Such killings continue as of this day, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.[4]

Since 2020, the United Nations International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, an independent group of experts, has reported finding reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela.[5] Most recently, in September 2022, the Mission reported that intelligence services committed such crimes following orders from high-level authorities, including Nicolás Maduro, in accordance with a “plan” to repress government opponents.[6]

Venezuela also faces a severe humanitarian emergency, with millions unable to access adequate health care and nutrition. Venezuela’s collapsed health system has allowed a resurgence of vaccine-preventable and infectious diseases.[7] As of March, some 8.4 million gravely ill people had trouble obtaining medical services, according to HumVenezuela, an independent platform monitoring the humanitarian emergency.[8] The decline in health service provision continues to force many Venezuelans to cross the border to Colombia in search of medicines, medical supplies, health providers, and basic health services.

Colombia’s engagement with Venezuela should not be seen as a reason to be silent about human rights violations and the country’s humanitarian crisis. The full reestablishment of functional diplomatic and consular relations, including any military cooperation, requires adopting progressive steps by the Colombian and Venezuelan governments, and this situation should be seen as an opportunity to obtain concrete human rights commitments from Venezuelan authorities, such as the release of all people who have been arbitrarily detained or allowing international monitors to visit people arbitrarily held in intelligence services facilities. In this regard, we welcome reports that you urged the Venezuelan government to become a party again to the American Convention on Human Rights, and urge you to take these efforts much further.[9]

Your government should also rally further humanitarian aid to help address this crisis and, taking advantage of your access to Venezuelan authorities, request that they support the effective implementation of a large-scale apolitical humanitarian response. Today, the UN Humanitarian Response Plan is providing much more aid to the Venezuelan people than years ago; however, with 16.5 percent of financial coverage it remains hugely underfunded.[10] Efforts should also be made to ensure adequate humanitarian support to Venezuelans and the vulnerable Colombian population along the border.[11]

The Colombian government should support international efforts to investigate human rights violations in Venezuela, which are a key incentive for the Maduro government to return to the negotiating table. In this regard, we were disappointed to see that your government was not part of the “core group” of governments from across the political spectrum —Brazil, Canada, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala and Paraguay— that led efforts to extend the mandate of the International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela. In 2019, Colombia was part of the “core group” that led to its creation. Chile, another Latin American country that changed leadership and now has a left-leaning government, remained part of the core group.

We are equally concerned about your government’s statements that it is considering withdrawing Colombia’s 2018 referral of the situation in Venezuela to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.[12] While such a decision would have no legal impact on the prosecutor ‘s investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in the country, to backtrack on this referral while accountability avenues remain blocked in Venezuela would reflect poorly on your government’s commitment to ensure that victims in Venezuela have access to justice when it comes to serious international crimes.

  1. Ensuring meaningful negotiations to restore the Rule of Law

Given our findings on systematic abuses committed in Venezuela, we believe that the best way to protect human rights in the country is through a meaningful negotiation. To do so, any negotiation needs to include tangible commitments to restore the rule of law and the exercise of fundamental rights in Venezuela, as well as rigorous follow-up and international monitoring of the agreements’ implementation. It is in Colombia’s best interest to ensure that they do so.

Prior negotiation attempts, most recently in Barbados in 2019, have failed. Current negotiations, mediated by Norway and hosted by Mexico, are formally on hold since the extradition to the United States of Colombo-Venezuelan businessman Alex Saab, a close ally to the Maduro government. Ongoing conversations to negotiate that more humanitarian aid reach the Venezuelan people are critically important to improve the lives of many Venezuelans. Yet negotiations should have a human rights agenda that goes beyond improving the humanitarian situation in the country—they should also include concrete steps to ensure respect for human rights and to hold free and fair elections.

With the ongoing discussions prompted by reopening borders and reestablishing diplomatic relations, the Colombian government has a unique standing to promote a meaningful negotiation between the Maduro government and opposition leaders, and can play a positive and proactive role in ensuring it includes clear commitments to restore the rule of law and the exercise of fundamental rights in Venezuela, including ending censorship and repression, freeing political prisoners, and allowing apolitical humanitarian aid into the country.[13]

Since in the past Venezuelan authorities have not made concessions voluntarily, to effectively protect the rights of victims, it is essential for your government to support continued international scrutiny of abuses and contribute to meaningful negotiations aimed at restoring the rule of law in the country.

  1. Addressing violence and abuses at the border

Since 2018, Human Rights Watch has documented multiple abuses committed by armed groups at the Colombian-Venezuelan border, including in Colombia’s Catatumbo region and Arauca state, as well as in Venezuela’s Apure state.[14]

Armed groups, including the ELN guerrillas and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) dissident groups, have engaged in killings of social leaders and other civilians, child recruitment, sexual violence, forced displacement and other violations. Most recently, fighting between the ELN and a coalition of FARC dissident groups that calls itself the Joint Eastern Command has caused a dramatic increase in violence in Arauca and Apure.[15]

Our research shows that members of Venezuelan security forces, especially of the Venezuelan Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, FANB) and the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana, GNB), have conducted joint operations with ELN fighters and have been complicit in their abuses.[16] Similarly, the United Nations Fact-Finding Mission recently found evidence that “there exists collaboration between the Venezuelan government and the ELN” and that authorities “allowed” the guerrilla to “enter and take control of mines” in the Arco Minero region.[17]

We are following closely the implementation of your government’s “total peace” policy and, as noted in a previous letter, we believe that this strategy could help promote human rights if properly designed and implemented.[18] Addressing violence at the border also requires expanding access to state institutions and establishing a solid security policy that prioritizes the protection of the civilian population and the comprehensive dismantling of armed groups by addressing their illegal economies and networks, as well as money laundering.

However, any security policy will face tremendous challenges if armed groups in Colombia are able to use Venezuela as a base and operate with collaboration or acquiescence by Venezuela’s security forces.

The Colombian government should condition any military cooperation with Venezuela on an immediate end to complicity with armed groups, as well as a commitment to address the country’s lack of judicial independence so that eventually responsible officers can be thoroughly and credibly investigated and held to account. Colombia should also take steps to monitor whether such complicity continues, including by receiving information from human rights groups that documents the situation in Venezuela and at the border.

  1. Addressing human trafficking

Since 2019, Human Rights Watch has documented cases of human trafficking of Venezuelan victims, particularly at the border.[19] Many of these individuals, mostly women and girls, are victims of sexual exploitation, including, though not only, in so-called “webcam houses.”[20] Official information available, while limited, suggests an increase in these cases in recent years.[21]

Colombian authorities have taken some steps to address these crimes, including by establishing municipal and state committees to support victims and creating a specific strategy for the Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute human trafficking.[22] However, these efforts have been woefully insufficient.

According to our interviews and information provided by government authorities, one substantial flaw is that there appears to be limited understanding by many local and national authorities of the extent and seriousness of these crimes. There appears to be a significant underreporting of cases and many local authorities do not clearly understand the legal definition of human trafficking.[23]

As of March 2022, 120 municipalities in the country have created multi-disciplinary committees to assist victims of human trafficking. However, some of these committees have never met or do not have a budget to operate.[24] According to information available to the Ministry of Interior, roughly half of the victims of human trafficking identified by authorities since 2020 appear to have received some sort of immediate assistance, including medical, psychological, or legal support, and less than a third appear to have received longer term assistance.[25] In many cases, victims receive support from non-governmental organizations, such as Aid for Aids and Funvecuc.[26]

Criminal investigations into these cases have also been limited. While the Attorney General’s Office said it had identified 14 people allegedly responsible for cases of human trafficking occurring between 2020 and 2022, as of May, nobody has been charged, let alone convicted, for these abuses.[27]

As your government explores avenues for cooperation with the Maduro government, we respectfully urge you to consider coordinating rights-respecting strategies to prevent human trafficking, assist victims, and hold those responsible to account. Among other measures, this would require training key authorities, so they better understand these crimes, ensuring that potential victims are aware of the avenues for redress, and working with other authorities, including the Attorney General’s Office, to bolster the response of judicial authorities and municipal and state committees to curb human trafficking.

President Petro, we hope you take these recommendations into consideration as you pursue the reestablishment of diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

We remain at your disposal to discuss our findings and recommendations.

Juanita Goebertus Estrada
Americas Director
Human Rights Watch

Tamara Taraciuk Broner
Americas Deputy Director
Human Rights Watch

CC:

Alvaro Leyva Durán, Minister of Foreign Affairs
Iván Velásquez Gómez, Minister of Defense
Alfonso Prada Gil, Minister of the Interior

[1] See, e.g., “Venezuela: EU Elections Report Flags Rights Barriers,” Human Rights Watch news release, February 24, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/02/24/venezuela-eu-elections-report-flags-rights-barriers

[2] Tweet by Foro Penal, October 10, 2022, https://twitter.com/ForoPenal/status/1580335173727817729 (accessed October 12, 2022).

[3] “Venezuela: Extrajudicial Killings in Poor Areas,” Human Rights Watch news release, September 18, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/09/18/venezuela-extrajudicial-killings-poor-areas

[4] UNHCHR, Situation of human rights in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, UN Doc. A/HRC/50/59, June 23, 2022, para. 18.

[5] United Nations International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, Report on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, UN Doc. A/HRC/45/33, September 25, 2020, para. 161.

[6] United Nations International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, Detailed findings on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela: Crimes against humanity committed through the State's intelligence services: structures and individuals involved in the implementation of the plan to repress opposition to the Government, UN Doc. A/HRC/51/CRP.3, September 20, 2022, paras. 424-441.

[7] Human Rights Watch, Venezuela’s Humanitarian Emergency, April 4, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/04/04/venezuelas-humanitarian-emergency/large-scale-un-response-needed-address-health

[8] HumVenezuela, “Infographic sheet of impacts of the Complex Humanitarian Emergency in Venezuela: Comparative data from March 2020, June 2021 and March 2022” (Hoja infográfica de impactos de la Emergencia Humanitaria Compleja en Venezuela: Datos comparados de marzo 2020, junio 2021 y marzo 2022), April 2022, https://humvenezuela.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/08/Salud-Hoja-infografica-Marzo-2022.pdf (accessed October 20, 2022).

[9] “Petro officially asks Maduro to return to the Inter-American System” (Petro le pide oficialmente a Maduro que regrese al sistema interamericano de justicia), El País, September 24, 2022, https://elpais.com/america-colombia/2022-09-25/petro-le-pide-oficialmente-a-maduro-que-regrese-al-sistema-interamericano-de-justicia.html (accessed October 20, 2022).

[10] See, e.g., Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Venezuela Humanitarian Response Plan 2022,” August 2022, https://hum-insight.info/plan/1097 (accessed October 20, 2022).

[11] “Colombia/Venezuela: Border Area Abuses by Armed Groups,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 28, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/28/colombia/venezuela-border-area-abuses-armed-groups

[12] “Benedetti, the new Colombian ambassador in Caracas, reveals his plan for Venezuela” (Benedetti, el nuevo embajador de Colombia en Caracas, revela su plan para Venezuela), Bloomberg Línea, August 31, 2022, https://www.bloomberglinea.com/2022/08/31/el-plan-de-benedetti-el-nuevo-embajador-de-colombia-en-su-primer-paso-por-venezuela/ (accessed October 20, 2022).

[13] See., e.g., “Venezuela: Human Rights Agenda for Political Negotiation,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 30, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/08/30/venezuela-human-rights-agenda-political-negotiation

[14] See Human Rights Watch, The War in Catatumbo: Abuses by Armed Groups Against Civilians Including Venezuelan Exiles in Northeastern Colombia, August 8, 2019, https://www.hrw.org/report/2019/08/08/war-catatumbo/abuses-armed-groups-against-civilians-including-venezuelan-exiles; “The Guerrillas Are the Police”: Social Control and Abuses by Armed Groups in Colombia’s Arauca Province and Venezuela’s Apure State, January 22, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/01/22/guerrillas-are-police/social-control-and-abuses-armed-groups-colombias-arauca; Left Undefended: Killings of Rights Defenders in Colombia’s Remote Communities, February 10, 2021, https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2021/02/colombia0221_web_0.pdf; “Colombia/Venezuela: Border Area Abuses by Armed Groups,” Human Rights Watch news release, March 28, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/28/colombia/venezuela-border-area-abuses-armed-groups

[15] “Colombia/Venezuela: Border Area Abuses by Armed Groups”, Human Rights Watch news release, March 28, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/28/colombia/venezuela-border-area-abuses-armed-groups

[16] Ibid.

[17] United Nations International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, The human rights situation in the Arco Minero del Orinoco region and other areas of the Bolívar state, UN Doc. A/HRC/51/CRP.2, September 20, 2022, para. 204.

[18] Human Rights Watch, Letter to President Gustavo Petro about "total peace" (Carta al Presidente Gustavo Petro sobre la "paz total”), August 19, 2022, https://www.hrw.org/es/news/2022/08/19/carta-al-presidente-gustavo-petro-sobre-la-paz-total

[19] Human Rights Watch, “The Guerrillas Are the Police”: Social Control and Abuses by Armed Groups in Colombia’s Arauca Province and Venezuela’s Apure State, January 22, 2020, https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/01/22/guerrillas-are-police/social-control-and-abuses-armed-groups-colombias-arauca

[20] Human Rights Watch interviews with victims, government officials and humanitarian actors, Cúcuta, North Santander, November 2021. See also Norte de Santander Local Coordination Team, “North Santander Departmental Briefing” (Briefing Departamental Norte de Santander), July to December 2021, https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/sites/www.humanitarianresponse.info/files/documents/files/briefing_humanitario_hat_diciembre_2021_norte_de_santander_version_final.pdf (accessed October 15, 2022).

[21] The Ministry of the Interior reported 56 cases in 2021, compared to 28 in 2020. Likewise, the Prosecutor's Office heard complaints about 23 cases in 2021 and 2 in 2020; and the Police have records of 12 cases in 2021 and 5 in 2020. Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Ministry of Interior, April 28, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch); Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, May 12, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch); Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Attorney General’s Office, May 10, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

[22] Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Ministry of Interior, April 28, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch); Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Attorney General’s Office, May 10, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

[23] Human Rights Watch interviews with victims, government officials and humanitarian actors, Cúcuta, North Santander, November 2021; Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, May 12, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch); Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Attorney General’s Office, May 10, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

[24] Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Ministry of Interior, April 28, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch); Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by Governor’s Office of La Guajira, May 13, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch); Human Rights Watch interview with municipal and state officials in Cúcuta, North Santander, November 12, 2022.

[25] The Ministry of Interior confirmed that 49 out of 92 victims received some sort of immediate assistance and in over 30 cases indicated having “no information.” The ministry also reported that 30 of the 92 received some sort of longer-term assistance and in over 40 cases said it had “no information.” Human Rights Watch via email by the Ministry of Interior, April 28, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

[26] See “Aid for Aids provides much-needed support to Venezuelan migrants in Latin America” (Aid for Aids brinda apoyo muy necesario a los migrantes venezolanos en América Latina), Aid for Aids, https://aidforaids.org/aid-for-aids-brinda-apoyo-muy-necesario-a-los-migrantes-venezolanos-en-america-latina/?lang=es (accessed October 21, 2022); “A significant number of the young Venezuelan refugees that enter through Cúcuta have survival sex”(Un número importante de la población joven refugiada venezolana que ingresa por Cúcuta ejerce el sexo por supervivencia), Aid for Aids, May 28, 2021, https://aidforaids.org/a-significant-number-of-the-young-venezuelan-refugee-population-that-enters-colombia-through-cucuta-exercises-sex-for-survival/?lang=es (accessed October 21, 2022).

[27] Information provided to Human Rights Watch via email by the Attorney General’s Office, May 10, 2022 (copy on file with Human Rights Watch).

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