The day before Venezuela’s Independence Day, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a damning report at the request of the UN Human Rights Council (Resolution 39/1). The report is a detailed, comprehensive and deeply critical assessment of Nicolas Maduro’s regime, regarding the human rights situation in the country since 2018. Although it establishes the starting point in 2018, it makes references to critical events in 2014 and 2017. The events considered by the report establish the identification of patterns of human rights violations within the civil, political, economic, social and cultural grounds. The Commissioner’s Office sent a team ahead for an in situ visit in March of this year to gather information and conduct interviews. There were also nine meetings with Venezuelan refugees and migrants throughout eight countries.
These first steps allowed former president Michele Bachelet, UN Human Rights chief, to have a background for her visit in June. Regardless of the expectations on both sides of the political arena, the Commissioner not only managed to broker the release of twenty-two political prisoners, prior to her visit but also had the Maduro regime agree on ten visits of Special Procedures for the next two years. Nevertheless, the prospects of a report of this level of criticism were very little, and even more for the Maduro government that seemed to be caught off guard, given the weak rebuttal to the report.
The fact that the Commissioner was seen as an ally of the regime by many on both camps, makes the content and approach of the report more critical, showing an exhaustive and technically-based effort in the data-gathering and processing of the cases that were under investigation by the Commissioner’s office. There were 558 interviews conducted by her team with victims and witnesses, and 159 meetings in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Switzerland, and Venezuela. The report acknowledges that the OHCHR analyzed sufficiently compelling information, leading to the assessment that there is a pattern of human rights violations in the country.
The report recognizes the economic contraction (2018-2019) in the country, as a contributing factor to the worsening of the social crisis, with hyperinflation and the drop of oil revenue, leading to the violation of economic and social rights. The constant increase of minimum wage is considered as well as a reason for the deterioration of people’s living. This economic assessment adds to the report’s consideration of corruption and mismanagement of public resources, as causes for the collapse of public services.
The report addresses the violations of the right to food, highlighting how economic and social policies contributed to undermining food production and distributions systems in the country, mentioning that FAO (yes, the same FAO that recognized Venezuela for ‘halving malnutrition’ in 2015) was reporting 3.7 million people being malnourished. The right to health is another setback identified by the report, with an alarming count of 1557 people died due to lack of medical supplies in hospitals. The document provides a description of the health crisis and the failure of government in providing reliable data, much needed for the implementation of an efficient response.
The report also shows an exhaustive approach to the economic and social problems, making a significant effort in identifying not only the critical issues but also the background of the crisis. The use of the Local Committees for Supply and Food Distribution (CLAP) and the Carnet de la Patria (government-issued non-official ID card) as tools for social control is fully established throughout the document, with a special reference to women as targets of paramilitaries (‘colectivos’) in this matter.
In what could probably be deemed the most disappointing statement for the Maduro regime, the report considers that the economy was in crisis before the sanctions took place, and also, that most of those sanctions have been targeted. The report also acknowledges that the sanctions currently in place are worsening the situation for the population, but the recognition of the crisis anteceding the sanctions is a disavowal to the Maduro narrative of an economic war being led by his enemies.
The report addresses problems related to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as targeted repression and persecution, as clear indicators of the erosion of the rule of law, and the dismantlement of democratic institutions, ‘reducing the already limited democratic space’. The use of excessive force is documented since 2014, with political persecution, criminalization of the opposition, use of military jurisdiction for civilians and arbitrary detentions as deterrents for political dissent, as well as the deployment of ‘colectivos’ to intimidate dissenters of government. A special mention must be made regarding the harsh assessment of the Attorney-General and Ombudsman’s performance, considered by the report as inefficient. The report lists arbitrary detentions, torture, and enforced disappearances as mechanisms employed by government forces as deterrents, adding sexual gender-based violence as a tool.
In one of the most alarming pieces of information, the report shows that under the ‘resistance to the authority’ criteria, as many as 5.287 killings were listed, and according to the analysis by the OHCHR office, fitting the pattern of extrajudicial executions. The statement is a condemnation, in and of itself, a raw assessment of the role of security forces as social control instruments, and a brutal evaluation of the lack of independence and corruption of the judiciary, along with the failure of the Attorney-General’s office, and the silence of the Ombudsman.
In a painful recount of events, the report addresses the violence and harassment against Indigenous people, their land and right to self-determination. The abuses committed against Wayuu and Pemons tribes, not only due to political reasons but also as a consequence of the mining activities, marginalizing their communities and affecting their environment.
The report recognizes 4 million migrants as of June 6th of 2019, providing a recount of the struggles Venezuelans fleeing the country are facing, starting with the lack of identity documents.
This report is recognition to the many NGO’s that have spent most of the past two decades keeping a register and advocating for victims of human rights violations. The assessment by the OHCHR considers the use of social programs in a discriminatory manner, as an instrument of social control. The document makes reference to the democratic spaces subdued by restricting laws and weakened institutions, influencing the independence of the judiciary. The militarization of state institutions is also considered as a flaw. The exercise of targeted repression could be considered political persecution, and so further assessment is needed, as well as with regard to the extrajudicial executions perpetrated by FAES, among other forces. The report finally addresses the imperative for a solution in order to avoid an increase in migration influx, and thus, worsening conditions for the remaining population in the country.
The unease the report leaves behind is only heightened by the tone of the recommendations; unfortunately, diplomacy has its own timing and the mechanics and protocols, in this case, demand thorough evaluation and monitoring efforts. After years of claims of human rights violations, the time for vindication has come. The Maduro regime has lost much (if not all) of the democratic allure chavismo had carried like a torch for years, thanks to the many electoral victories it could showcase. The consequences of a brutal exercise of power, lack of institutional constraints and failed economic policies make for the foundation of an honest approach to the crisis in Venezuela that is above all, a humanitarian one.
If there is any hope left for Venezuela, this report represents a huge step as it recognizes the crisis and those responsible for it. The following stage is to hold the Maduro regime accountable, and that is the reason for the tone of the recommendations. The road map to recovery is outlined and Maduro will be faced with assessments and monitoring for the next two years. This process will run in parallel with negotiations for new presidential elections, and the information provided by the OHCHR will be a crucial aspect in those negotiations. In the diplomatic world, measures respond to incremental growth, for those who are victims, it is always too slow, but in terms of the politics of the crisis, this could be the much-needed breakthrough.
Finally, a special recognition to the victims and the numerous advocates and human rights groups who have tirelessly kept the focus, making of their effort, an opportunity for the rescue of the whole country.