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Arria formula meeting on the situation in Venezuela

Statement by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mr. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein

13 November 2017

Distinguished co-chairs,
Members of the Council,

I am grateful for your invitation and welcome the opportunity to inform the members of the Council about the grave human rights situation in Venezuela. In doing so, I of course believe Venezuela deserves the attention of the Council proper. I also have no doubt that Venezuela and others will accuse me of selectivity, a claim which rings hollow, given how often I address publicly the human rights records of virtually all States, including all Members of the Council, and even the chairs of this meeting themselves. 

In late August, I issued a report documenting human rights violations and abuses in the context of mass protests that occurred from 1 April to 31 July 2017. The report documents extensive and serious violations of human rights by national authorities aimed at curbing anti-government protests. It concludes by pointing to the existence of a policy to systematically repress political dissent, and instil fear in the population. While my Office was not in a position to confirm whether crimes against humanity had been committed, the conclusions of the report do not discard that such a determination could be made in the future by a properly constituted court of law. I also urged the Human Rights Council at the time of the report’s release to establish an international investigation into the human rights violations in Venezuela. I wish to reiterate that call.  The fact that most of these violations have so far remained unaddressed, even unacknowledged may have an adverse effect on the stability of the country and the region.

Since then, while it remains critical, the human rights situation has further evolved. Protests have decreased dramatically, and so has the number of related deaths and arbitrary detentions. However, my Office has continued to receive reports of harassment, arbitrary detentions, torture or ill-treatment of people opposing the Government.

The use of excessive force by Venezuelan security forces as documented in our report marked the continuation of a pattern that existed  since at least 2014. An investigation by the Attorney-General’s Office indicates that security forces were responsible for 357 extrajudicial killings between July 2015 and March 2017.

In compiling the report, my Office found that national security forces had systematically resorted to the arbitrary detention of protesters. The numbers were simply unprecedented in the recent history of the country. There were 5,051 protest-related arbitrary detentions recorded, of which 600 civilians were presented before military courts. Furthermore, patterns of ill-treatment, sometimes amounting to torture, and serious violations of due process rights were also documented. The report found that some detentions may have constituted enforced disappearances.

While arbitrary detentions have dropped since the end of the demonstrations, around 400 new cases were recorded between 1 August and 31 October. The detentions appear to have become even more selective, targeting people identified as protest leaders, as well as political opponents, including mayors and parliamentarians.

The lack of respect for due process rights continues to prevail. The great majority of people who were released – around 5,000 – still face criminal prosecution and live in fear of being re-arrested. Some have opted to leave the country. While some of the cases brought before military tribunals were transferred to ordinary courts, according to Foro Penal Venezolano, 198 civilian cases remain within military jurisdiction.

My office has received further information alleging that the ill-treatment and torture of detainees has continued. I am dismayed at the absolute lack of information on any progress in respect of investigating acts of torture and other ill-treatment of detainees. Many victims have reportedly refused to file complaints for fear of reprisals and because they have lost all confidence in the justice system.

As reported by my Office, attacks against media outlets, journalists and other media workers escalated with the protests. Attacks and restrictions on the media have continued to be recorded following the establishment of the Constituent Assembly.

On 8 November, the Constituent Assembly adopted a “constitutional law against hatred, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance” which will further affect the freedoms of thought, expression and information. Anyone who encourages, promotes or incites to hatred, discrimination or violence could be subjected to 10 to 20 years of imprisonment. The law also gives the Government power to ban political parties, organizations and social movements that promote hatred, intolerance and war, and contains specific obligations and related sanctions for the media, including social media. The law is vague, allowing for its discretionary interpretation and application to prosecute anyone expressing dissenting opinions.

I am alarmed about the continued deterioration of rule of law, particularly the judiciary.

By the end of July, the office of the former Attorney General had launched investigations into at least 124 protest-related deaths and about 2,000 injuries.

My Office has received allegations that the new Attorney-General may have modified the lines of investigation established by his predecessor for most cases of protest-related killings. The lack of public information has prevented my Office from assessing whether there has been any genuine progress in investigations.

I am also concerned about actions of the National Constituent Assembly. According to a decree issued on 8 August, all branches of the State are now subordinate to the Constituent Assembly and its decisions. Even the provisions of the Venezuelan Constitution remain valid only if they do not contradict legislative acts passed by the Constituent Assembly, in violation of the fundamental principle of legality. It would be difficult for Venezuela to persuade the international community that its democracy has not been severely compromised.

The Commission of Truth, Justice, Peace and Public Tranquillity, created by the Constituent Assembly, does not meet relevant international standards. The fear is that the Commission will be instrumentalized to persecute political opponents and other dissidents.

In this political context, millions of Venezuelans live in hardship, as the government refuses to recognise or address the existence of a humanitarian crisis. A 2017 Food and Agricultural Organization report found that undernourishment had increased by 1.3 million people over the last three years. Inflation is so high that today, a family needs 16 times the minimum wage to access the basic food basket. My Office has also received worrisome reports pointing to discrimination based on political opinions in the distribution of food through the governmental programme known as “CLAP bags”, and to the manipulation of access to this programme for electoral ends.

The health situation has also continued to deteriorate given the continuing shortage of medicine and lack of access to medical care. Mosquito-borne diseases, as well as infant and maternal mortality rates are on the rise.

The starkest reflection of the deterioration of the human rights and humanitarian situation is the ever-growing number of Venezuelans fleeing their country. According to UNHCR, between 2014 and September 2017, over 100,000 Venezuelans sought asylum abroad, half of them in 2017 alone. UNHCR estimates that at least 600,000 Venezuelans have recently migrated to neighbouring countries without lodging asylums claims. The main reasons invoked are: specific threats by armed groups; fear of being targeted for one’s political opinions; threats and extortion; high levels of crime; domestic violence; food insecurity; and lack of access to adequate health care, medicines and basic services.

I welcome the oral invitation of the Government for my Office to provide technical support for the implementation of Universal Periodic Review recommendations it has accepted. Yet, I must underscore that to achieve meaningful results, my Office should be able to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the human rights situation in Venezuela. If the Government of Venezuela is confident that human rights are being respected, it should have no problem granting access to my Office.

I firmly believe that if we are serious about preventing a further deterioration of the multi-faceted crisis in Venezuela, we must put the protection of human rights of all and accountability for serious human rights violations at the centre of our agendas.

This serious human rights situation is taking place within a wider severe economic and social crisis in the country and an increasingly unstable and polarized national political situation. As the country prepares for municipal and presidential elections in the coming months, for these to succeed the human rights situation, lack of confidence in the electoral system and the violence experienced over the last months need to be addressed. If no steps are taken to confront the serious human rights violations in Venezuela, I am very much concerned about the negative destabilizing effect it could have on the region as a whole. President Santos of Colombia has expressed concerns about the situation in Venezuela recently amid fears that “an implosion in the neighbouring country could affect the peace process involving the Colombian Government and former guerrilla groups.”

It is therefore appropriate that the members of the UN Security Council are briefed on the situation in Venezuela, given the threat to international peace and security.

I thank you for your attention.