49th Session of the Human Rights Council
28 February – 1 April 2022
High Commissioner updates the Human Rights Council and report of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela
33rd and 34th meetings
18 March 2022
By Natalia Venegas / GICJ
At the 34th meeting of the 49th session of the Human Rights Council, held on the 18th of March, Ms Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, discussed the human rights situation in Venezuela. She remarked that since her last update on the human rights situation in Venezuela, some reform initiatives had opened new opportunities for the implementation of critical human rights recommendations. Nevertheless, the Office of the High Commissioner continues to observe challenges in Venezuela, including the right to liberty, trial without undue delay, and access to counsel of one's own choice. Ms Bachelet also emphasised cases of arbitrary detention and restrictions on journalistic freedom of expression.
She presented to the Council the Report of the independent international fact-finding mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (A/HRC/48/69). The Report discussed a wide range of issues, including cases involving extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearance, arbitrary detention, torture, and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence. The report highlighted issues concerning judicial independence or the lack thereof, and its role in perpetuating impunity for those who commit human rights abuses.
The UN Human Rights Office issued two public reports in 2017 and another in 2018. These reports were based on the High Commissioner's mandate created by General Assembly resolution 48/141. There have also been additional reports published in 2019 and 2020, based on Human Rights Council resolutions 39/1 (2018), 42/4 (2019), and 42/25 (2019). In addition, the High Commissioner has presented oral updates on the human rights situation in Venezuela to the Human Rights Council since September 2019, following Human Rights Council resolutions A/HRC/45/L.43 (2020) and A/HRC/45/L.55 (2020).
During the 48th session of the Human Rights Council, the High Commissioner presented a report on the Human Rights situation in Venezuela (A/HRC/48/19). The High Commissioner focused on economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights during the COVID-19 pandemic which exacerbated pre-existing structural problems that unilateral measures had already exacerbated. Ms Bachelet recommended that Venezuela remain committed to effectively implementing the joint work plan with the OHCHR and deepen its commitment to international human rights mechanisms. She also encouraged the United Nations member states to suspend or lift the unilateral sectoral coercive measures imposed on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, which impede the Government's efforts to address the combined impact on the population of the current humanitarian situation and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Report A/HRC/48/59/Add.2 was also presented to the Council by the Special Rapporteur, Ms Alena Dougan, on the negative impact unilateral coercive measures had on the enjoyment of human rights in Venezuela. The sectoral sanctions on oil, gold and mining industries and the economic blockade were discussed during the meeting. Concern was also raised over the freezing of assets and targeted sanctions imposed on Venezuelan and third-country nationals and companies. She concluded that it exacerbated the pre-existing economic and social crisis and has had a devastating effect on the entire population, especially those living in poverty. Women, children, the elderly and people with disabilities or life-threatening or chronic illnesses were also highlighted as vulnerable groups. Accordingly, the report recommended lifting sanctions, imposed mainly in the name of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, since they undermine these very principles, values and norms.
In January of 2022, the Human Rights Council held the Interactive Dialogue on the Universal Periodic Review of Venezuela. During this session, numerous countries showed particular concern over the population's security, the migration crisis, health, education and gender equality. The core issue, however, was judicial independence and upcoming elections. Various countries emphasised the need to eliminate unilateral sanctions imposed on Venezuela for violating the human rights of the Venezuelan people.
The High Commissioner’s oral update
The High Commissioner pointed out that since her last update, some reforms made by Venezuela created new opportunities for implementing human rights recommendations. For example, the reform of the justice system and restructuring of the National Police force were highlighted as promising steps. The High Commissioner underscored that the government must implement security and justice reforms in a meaningful, genuine and effective manner to address past human rights violations and prevent their recurrence. She pointed out that the office remains available to provide technical support following the mandate and international human rights standards. And that the office is ready to support national efforts to promote accountability for human rights violations following the Attorney General granting the High Commissioner’s team access to files regarding human rights violations.
Nevertheless, the High Commissioner stated that there continue to be challenges relating to due process, including the right to liberty and trial without delay and access to a counsel of one’s own choice. There was also great concern regarding press freedom, for example, since September 2021, at least six individuals remain in detention facilities despite release orders, and at least 22 have requested their release, arguing the expiration of statutory limits. Since September 2021, there have been 93 incidents related to restrictions on Venezuela’s civic and democratic space including criminalisation, threats to and stigmatisation of civil society activists, independent media, and trade unionists. The High Commissioner’s office also documented the closure of eight radio stations and radio programmes over the past year, allegedly by order of the National Telecommunications Commission.
Lastly, the High Commissioner highlighted the increased violence due to armed non-state actors and criminal groups, especially along the border with Colombia. Clashes in the state of Apure have led to the forced displacement of hundreds of Venezuelans, many of them being indigenous persons. She called on the government to investigate all allegations of human rights violations and abuses, with particular attention to the rights of indigenous peoples. At the end of the meeting, the High Commissioner encouraged the lifting of sectoral sanctions to contribute to safeguarding the needs of the most vulnerable groups of the Venezuelan population.
Statement by the Venezuelan delegation
The Venezuelan delegate, Mr Héctor Constant, stated that Venezuela disagrees with the way the Council makes its decisions, especially in circumstances where the Council opposes the sovereignty of each state. He averred that the countries of the North maintain control and influence over the international community, and always condemn countries of the South for violating human rights. Mr Constant stated that the work of the Council should be geared towards ensuring objectivity and universality of human rights. However, the delegate welcomed the Commissioner's comments on progress and noted her concerns. In the last conversation held between the High Commissioner and the Constitutional President Nicolas Maduro, the delegate stated that transparency must be prioritised to ensure mutual respect. Nevertheless, Venezuela listened to accusations of alleged violations of the lack of due process and other lines of discourse that raise doubts about the state's actions. Mr Constant also highlighted that Venezuela intended to cooperate with the High Commissioner's office under the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference. Venezuela also welcomed the High Commissioner's call to end sanctions imposed on Venezuela by other states since it was impossible to talk about the human rights situation in Venezuela without taking this into account.
The delegate concluded his statement by stating that Venezuela continues its path of democratic strengthening in a context in which human rights are fully respected under the constitution and the law, as seen in the third cycle of Venezuela's Universal Periodic Review, which occurred in January of 2022. He affirmed that Venezuela would remain committed to promoting and protecting human rights and the protection of this Council, its mechanisms, and the Office of the High Commissioner.
The European Union and the United States expressed deep concern about the impunity and extrajudicial executions in Venezuela and the enforced disappearances that are occurring in the country. The EU called upon the authorities to strengthen their cooperation with the UNHCR and stated that accountability is critical to preventing future human rights violations. The president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Julissa Mantilla, reinforced the importance of the balance of power and the need for checks and balances within a democracy. States including Cuba, Russia, China and Nicaragua attributed the human rights situation in Venezuela to unilateral coercive measures imposed against the country, and showed deep concern over the violation of the right to sovereignty and non-inference in the state's internal affairs.
The systematic violation of human rights has caused a massive refugee crisis in the country, given the prevailing economic, social and cultural context. Other countries shared their deep concern for irregularities, including the erosion of human rights guarantees, shrinking press freedom, and harassment of political opponents. It was emphasised that proper conditions should be put in place to ensure free, fair, and independent elections and freedom of assembly and association. Delegations such as France, Ecuador and Paraguay stated that Venezuela should further cooperate with the human rights mechanisms of the United Nations. Colombia stated that the systematic violation of human rights had caused a massive refugee crisis in the country, given the prevailing economic, social and cultural context. Colombia revealed that it is implementing a new statute to protect Venezuelan migrants and that proper conditions should be put in place to ensure free, fair and independent elections, along with freedom of assembly and association. The majority of the countries tackled issues related to freedom of expression, supporting a safe communication environment, and addressing structural issues to restore the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.
On the 27 of September 2019, the Human Rights Council established the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela (resolution 42/25) for one year to evaluate the human rights violations committed in the country since 2014. The mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission was extended by the Council in October 2020 for two years ending in September of 2022 (resolution 45/20). On the 10th of March of 2021, during the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Marta Valiñas, Chairperson of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission, presented an oral update on their work. She stated that some of the violations were committed on a large scale and amounted to crimes against humanity. It was emphasised that the Fact-Finding Mission continues to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged abuses and human rights violations in Venezuela. She then stated that President Maduro addressed this Council and set out a vision for Venezuela with human rights as a central pillar. As he did this, he and his Government continued to misrepresent the seriousness of the situation and negate any wrongdoing.
The second update was provided in the 48th session of the Human Rights Council. The report focused on the Venezuelan justice system. It includes issues related to independence, its role in investigating and prosecuting perceived and real opponents of the Government and its role in perpetuating impunity for human rights violations and crimes committed against them. The Mission continues to keep abreast cases involving extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture and cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence.
Fact-Finding Mission oral update
Marta Valinas, President of the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, presented an oral update on its work, focused on the justice system's response to the human rights violations and crimes documented by the Mission. She concluded that actors in this system played an essential role in the State's repression of real and perceived Government opponents, both by action and omission. The Venezuelan Government had signed a memorandum of understanding with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. It pledged to take all necessary measures to ensure the effective administration of justice in the country following international standards. This process represented an opportunity for victims to obtain justice. However, the lack of disaggregated data and critical information on the crimes charged or the rank or level of responsibility of perpetrators continued to be an obstacle to assessing the state's genuine efforts to investigate and prosecute these violations. Ms Valinas reiterated concerns raised over domestic investigations which were limited in scope and targeted low-level perpetrators. It was stated that concerted efforts were required to address the structural problems stemming from the lack of judicial independence and the interference of political actors in the justice system. However, as of August 2021, the National Assembly announced that it would carry out a package of reforms related to the justice system.
The Mission considered that a legal reform, in and of itself, was insufficient without proper implementation. The Mission noted some positive developments in the cases investigated; however, there were still dozens of people detained for more than three years without trial, well beyond the limits imposed by the previous reformed law. Lastly, Ms Valinas stated that the Venezuelan people had endured a decade of worsening economic, humanitarian and human rights crises and witnessed the breaking down of state institutions, all of which were exacerbated, most recently, by COVID-19. The most evident showing of this was the more than six million people who had to flee the country.
The delegate of Venezuela opened the interactive dialogue by accusing the Council and its reports of being prepared in media labs, trying to justify what was unjustifiable. He stated that the conclusions in the report were reached to pacify the international media’s agenda. It was stated that the Fact-Finding Mission would be remembered as a successful example of a waste of money during a crisis. It was a hostile body created by the Council through an increasingly smaller number of countries supporting it, and Venezuela did not recognise it. He stated that the report was drafted against the backdrop of an attempt to politicise the situation in Venezuela and that the information presented was utterly unfounded.
The Venezuelan delegate highlighted that the report was a fabrication, labelling it fake news. The delegate stated that the work had been carried out at a distance, with no legitimate facts presented, and was selective. He stated that if the Fact-Finding Mission wanted to help human rights in Venezuela, it should donate its funding to the country so that it could import goods and services the country lacked access to due to the unilateral economic coercive measures. The delegate stated that the Council should support cooperation between the High Commissioner's team and the Government and that universal coercive measures only harmed human rights in Venezuela. He underscored that the Fact-Finding Mission was trying to undermine the sovereignty and self-determination of Venezuelans. He averred that Venezuelans enjoyed all human rights, and democratic freedoms which were exercised every day under the Constitution.
Russia, Chile, Nicaragua, and Cuba acknowledge Venezuela's cooperation with the Council. They denounce the politicisation and double standards of the report that stemmed from a politically motivated resolution. They reiterated their support for the Venezuelan Government and its effort toward peace and security. They further congratulated the Government for its protection of human rights despite the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the unilateral coercive measures imposed on the country. The group stated that the imposition of mandates that were complicit in the aggression of countries of the global South would fail. Speakers further called for the respect of national sovereignty and expressed their unwavering solidarity with the Government and people of Venezuela.
They rejected the approach of economic sanctions, stating that it has consistently proven to have failed to improve the protection of human rights. The group criticised the methodology of the Fact-Finding Mission stating it was continuously flawed, as it lacked evidence and failed to monitor the impact of unilateral coercive measures, among other issues. Speakers praised Venezuela's participation in the Universal Periodic Review, stating this mechanism represented the ideal model of an objective dialogue with the country. The countries underscored that human rights have to be based on national needs, and the mechanism represented the ideal model of an objective dialogue with the country.
Many countries, including members of the European Union, Colombia and Ecuador, expressed concern over the conditions in detention centres and the dysfunctional justice system. Additional concerns were raised over the rule of law since security forces continue to harass and attack anyone who opposes the government. One spokesman in particular, urged Venezuela to implement measures against sexual and gender-based violence. The Council made further calls for Venezuela to facilitate the work of the Fact-Finding Mission. The President of the Inter-American Commission noted that the report presented the same conclusions as the Commission. This was especially true regarding the torturing of political prisoners including the Government's opposition and the lack of judicial independence. Other states concluded the meeting by requesting the United Nations remove Maduro's Government from the Human Rights Council.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) calls on all states to reconsider unilateral measures imposed on Venezuela regardless of their political views since they affect the Venezuelan people. GICJ also considers impartiality and freedom of expression vital to fulfilling human rights. GICJ encourages the international community to offer more protection to journalists, human rights defenders, political opposition members, and those who speak out against human rights abuses. GICJ also encourages the Venezuelan government to cooperate with local NGOs, the High Commissioner's Office, and the Fact-Finding Mission, to achieve respect and the enforcement of Human Rights for the Venezuelan people.
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