GENEVA (15 July 2020) – People working in the Arco Minero del Orinoco region in Venezuela are caught up in a context of labour exploitation and high levels of violence by criminal groups that control the mines in the area, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The High Commissioner’s report, which is being presented to the 47 member states of the Human Rights Council, describes how the criminal groups – known locally as “sindicatos” – exercise control over a large number of mining operations in Arco Minero del Orinoco.
“They determine who enters and leaves the area, impose rules, inflict harsh punishment on those who break them, and gain economic benefit from all activity within the mining area, including through extortion in exchange for protection,” the report says. It details how the groups maintain their presence and illegal activities in the mines via a system of corruption and bribery that includes paying off military commanders.
Due to the economic crisis and lack of labour opportunities in Venezuela, internal migration to the mining area has increased dramatically in the last few years, with workers engaging in informal labour in order to make ends meet for themselves and their families.
Miners work 12-hour shifts, descending deep pits without any protection. They are required to pay about 10-20 per cent of what they earn to the criminal groups who control the mines, and an additional 15-30 percent to the owner of the mill where rocks are crushed to extract gold and other minerals.
Women are also performing both mining and other related jobs. A number of people interviewed for the report suggest that since 2016 there has been a sharp increase in prostitution, sexual exploitation and trafficking in mining areas, including of teenagers. The UN Human Rights Office also received reports that children as young as nine are working in the mines.
Interviewees reported that harsh punishments are inflicted upon those not complying with the rules imposed by the criminal groups: in addition to severe beatings, such punishments include being shot in the hands, or having a hand cut off, as well as killings. Witness accounts describe how bodies of miners are often thrown into old mining pits. Violence also stems from disputes over control of the mines. Based on open-source analysis, the UN Human Rights Office identified 16 such disputes in the last four years, which reportedly resulted in some 149 deaths. Allegedly, security forces were involved in some of these incidents.
“Despite the considerable presence of security and military forces in the region, and the efforts undertaken to address criminal activity, the authorities have failed to investigate and prosecute human rights violations, and abuses and crimes linked to mining,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.
“Authorities should take immediate steps to end labour and sexual exploitation, child labour and human trafficking, and should dismantle criminal groups controlling mining activities. They must also investigate, prosecute and punish those responsible for human rights violations, abuses and crimes,” she added.
Living conditions in the mining areas are appalling, with no running water, electricity or sanitation. Pools of stagnant and polluted water resulting from mining are breeding grounds for mosquitoes, leading to a rise of malaria cases in the region, affecting not only migrant workers but also indigenous communities.
Both these groups are also badly affected by mercury poisoning. Mercury is widely used in the region to separate gold from other minerals, and toxic fumes created during the process are breathed in by workers and people living in the area. It is also poured onto the ground and seeps into the rivers.
Illegal mining also affects the enjoyment of the individual and collective rights of indigenous people, due to the destruction of their habitat and the lack of control over their traditional territories and natural resources.
The report also examines broader justice issues in Venezuela and describes how the independence of the justice system has been considerably undermined by the insecurity of tenure of judges and prosecutors; the lack of transparency in the process of designation; precarious working conditions; and political interference. Decisions of the Supreme Court related to the opposition-controlled National Assembly have consistently given rise to concerns about political considerations prevailing over legal determinations.
This situation has gravely affected the judiciary’s capacity to act independently to protect human rights, and is contributing to impunity. Despite recent efforts made by the Office of the Attorney General to investigate human rights violations committed by security forces, the lack of accountability is especially significant in cases of killings in the context of protests and during security operations, as well as allegations of torture and ill-treatment and gender-based violence.
Victims of human rights violations and abuses continue to face persistent legal, political and socio-economic barriers in accessing justice, with women experiencing gender-specific challenges.
“I call on the Venezuelan Government to undertake and complete the announced reforms to the justice system to guarantee its independence and impartiality, to halt the use of the military justice to try civilians, and to carry out their obligation to investigate any allegation of torture and ill-treatment,” Bachelet said.
“I also urge an immediate halt to all acts of intimidation, threats and reprisals by members of the security forces against relatives of victims of human rights violations who seek justice,” she added. “Victims and their families have the right to know the truth and to obtain justice and reparations, and not to be harassed and re-victimized by those whose job should be to protect them.”
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