IACHR Alerts About Further Weakening of Rule of Law in Venezuela Ahead of New Presidential Mandate
Washington, D.C. - Ahead of the start of a new mandate for President Nicolás Maduro on January 10, following an election process that failed to reach the minimum standards of free and fair elections in the country, the Commission warns of the further weakening of Venezuelan institutions, of persistent structural issues affecting human rights and of the serious consequences that a Venezuelan withdrawal from the OAS would have for the Venezuelan people.
On May 20, 2018, the National Electoral Council (CNE, by its Spanish acronym) declared President Maduro as the winner. Earlier stages of that election process showed evidence of major obstacles for effective opposition participation, which in turn led to poor involvement by political forces and affected the pluralism necessary in democratic elections. National Constituent Assembly (ANC, by its Spanish acronym) interference with the CNE (which is itself neither independent nor impartial), unpredictable changes in the election calendar, the ANC’s refusal to validate political parties who had not taken part in “immediately prior elections,” disqualifications from holding public office for members of the opposition and potential candidates to elective office, unreasonably short deadlines and the requirements imposed by the CNE to formally stand for office, a rushed call to elections and problems to register new voters and Venezuelans living abroad all led to significant reductions in turnout and in people’s effective choice of a president. Only one political party achieved validation in that presidential election. The number of dissident political parties continued to fall, and there were 21 national parties compared to 67 in 2016. The OAS, the European Union and the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights denounced a lack of legitimacy in that presidential election. The Lima Group called on President Maduro to decline a new inauguration on January 10 and urged him to respect the powers of the National Assembly and to temporarily transfer executive power to the legislature until a new, democratic presidential election is held.
The presidential election process deepened Venezuela’s institutional crisis. The IACHR has warned for years of the human rights situation in the country and of a gradual weakening of Venezuela’s democratic institutions. In its report Democratic Institutions, the Rule of Law and Human Rights in Venezuela, the Commission highlighted non-compliance with the principle of the separation of powers in the country. The IACHR further noted that the executive and the judiciary had usurped legislative power, and that the popular vote had been suspended de facto, in light of the lack of judicial independence and the constant interference of the Supreme Court of Justice (TSJ, by its Spanish acronym) and the ANC in matters that fall under National Assembly jurisdiction. The arrests of legislators Requesens and Borges in 2018—whose parliamentary immunity had previously been removed—showed that this serious situation persisted. Further, the ANC that had been convened by President Maduro, whose origin and make-up had been disputed, continued to adopt during 2018 decisions that extended its reach and violated the principle of the separation of powers at the expense of the National Assembly. Such decisions included authorizing the indictments of Requesens and Borges and approving the executive’s designation of a Central Bank president. A budget freeze and a discretionary use of financial resources earmarked for National Assembly proceedings both make it even more difficult for that institution to function. The executive extended by decree—without the approval of the National Assembly that is required by the constitution—a State of Economic Emergency that granted it extraordinary powers and enabled it to take exceptional measures to ensure order and restrict guarantees.
Democratic institutions are being weakened in a structural context of repression and persecution of dissidents, in the framework of a militarization of public security that worsens the situation regarding political rights and participation in public life and is closely connected to effects on freedom of expression. Based on the information the IACHR has received, 14 people died in social protests in the first nine months of 2018. Further, following protests in April-June 2017, 757 civilians are estimated to have been prosecuted before criminal military courts.
The IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression continue to observe a deterioration of freedom of expression in Venezuela, based on the launch of criminal proceedings against reporters who investigate corruption (such as Roberto Deniz, Joseph Poliszuk, Alfredo Meza and Ewald Scharfenberg, of the website Armando.info), on arbitrary arrests of communicators who cover protests, and on arrests of citizens who criticize the government or express their dissent with its policies on social media. There were new instances where the so-called “Law Against Hatred” was believed to have been applied. There were also reports of new strategies to try to control the spread of information over the Internet, which included blocking websites and monitoring citizen communications on social media. The issue of the supply of paper by the State company that monopolizes it got worse, which led at least 35 newspapers to reduce their editions or print runs or to go out of circulation.
The IACHR has stressed that there is a direct link between the exercise of political rights and the concept of democracy as a form of State organization. The Commission has told Venezuela of the need to protect the rights to political participation and to freedom of expression of citizens and organized political groups, without fear of retaliation and allowing and promoting diverse, broad and solid debate. The IACHR would like to stress that need. The link between human rights, political rights and democracy is enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which says that “essential elements of representative democracy include, inter alia, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, the pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, and the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.”
Parallel to a growing institutional deterioration and an impact on political rights, the IACHR and its Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights continued to observe shrinking access to economic, social and cultural rights in the country. Along with several United Nations system experts, the Commission warned in October 2018 of the serious deterioration of the health system, caused by medication shortages, by the poor state of facilities, and by a lack of medical staff and supplies. The resurgence of epidemics that had been eradicated decades earlier reflects the seriousness of the situation. In 2018, cases of diphtheria and measles caused 230 deaths. In 2017-18, the health system crisis is believed to have led to an estimated 2,500 deaths of people who required dialysis for kidney deficiencies. More than 79,000 people with HIV stopped getting antiretroviral drugs since 2017, and the number of deaths of such patients increased from 1,800 in 2014 to probably more than 5,000 in recent years, according to civil society reports. Further, food shortages and the high price of the few protein-based products and nutritional supplements available in the country have caused chronic malnutrition in children and older adults and made healthy eating more difficult.
The IACHR said in Resolution 2/18 that mass human rights violations and the serious food and health crisis the country is immersed in as a consequence of the food and medication shortage have led hundreds or thousands of Venezuelans to migrate to other countries in the region in recent years. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the number of Venezuelan migrants and refugees by December 2018 was as high as 3,314,195 —including 460,000 children—with no prospects for their return to Venezuela in the short or medium term. Projections suggest that a further two million Venezuelans may leave their country by the end of 2019.
During 2018, the IACHR granted six precautionary measures asking the Venezuelan State to protect the following people: children who are patients at the Nephrology Ward at José Manuel de
los Ríos Hospital, who lacked appropriate medical care due to supply shortages; Juan Carlos Caguaripano, Luis Humberto de la Sotta Quiroga and Pedro Patricio Jaimes Criollo, who were being deprived of their liberty without access to adequate medical care; Juan Carlos Requesens Martínez, also incarcerated, who was at risk of suffering acts of violence; C.L. and 42 other people at risk for lack of access to antiretroviral drugs to adequately treat the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Further, during 2018, the Inter-American Court issued two merit reports regarding Venezuela. In its decision of March 8, 2018 regarding the case San Miguel Sosa and Others, the Inter-American Court ruled that Venezuela was internationally responsible for violating the rights to political participation and freedom of thought and expression regarding the principle of non-discrimination; the right to justice and to effective recourse to protect victims’ rights; and the right to work. The case is linked to the arbitrary termination of the employment contracts of three National Border Council officials as a result of an abuse of power based on the will to retaliate against them for signing a recall referendum petition against then-President Hugo Chávez Frías in December 2003, in a context of allegations of retaliation and political persecution.
On September 26, 2018, in the case López Soto and Relatives, the Court declared Venezuela internationally responsible for violating the right to recognition of juridical personality, the right to life, the right to humane treatment, the ban on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the ban on slavery, the right to personal liberty, the right to a fair trial, the right to dignity, autonomy and privacy, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to equal protection and the right to judicial protection based on the country’s obligations to protect and enforce rights, to refrain from discrimination and to adopt domestic judicial measures, and for its failure to comply with obligations based on Article 7 of the Convention of Belém do Pará and of Articles 1, 6 and 8 of the Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture. Linda Loaiza López Soto was subjected to extreme physical, psychological and sexual violence by an individual and she was totally defenseless due to the State’s clear failure to protect her from the risk she faced.
The Inter-American Court further reported the Venezuelan State’s evident lack of compliance with decisions that were made in earlier years. The Court therefore decided to continue to apply Article 65 of the American Convention and to include such non-compliance in its Annual Report to the General Assembly of the OAS, without prejudice to further direct supervision of such decisions.
As in earlier opportunities, the IACHR urges the Venezuelan government to respect the separation of powers, the principle of popular representation and the scope that the constitution confers on each body, an indispensable guarantee of any democratic system and of the rule of law. In particular, the Commission urges the State to fulfill its international human rights obligations and respect and uphold the independent functioning of public powers and the participation of all sectors in the country’s political life. The IACHR further asks the State to make every possible effort to urgently eradicate the root causes of food and medication shortages, which have extremely serious consequences for the protection of the rights of the Venezuelan people.
The Commission has noted the Venezuelan State’s denunciation of the OAS Charter, which is set to go into force in April. The IACHR has already addressed the serious rollback and weakening of international protection involved in Venezuela’s move to denounce the American Convention on Human Rights, filed on September 10, 2013. The IACHR has also stressed that, as a Member State of the OAS, Venezuela continues to be subjected to the Commission’s jurisdiction and to the obligations imposed on its members by the OAS Charter and the American Declaration, which Venezuela signed in 1948. Denouncing the OAS Charter, a decision without precedent in the inter-American system which the IACHR has deplored, causes profound concern for its impact on Venezuelans’ access to inter-American mechanisms for the protection of human rights, in the worrying context that the Commission has persistently reported. The effectiveness and validity of that denunciation are the subject of various discussions. The Commission further notes that Venezuela has not denounced several inter-American human rights instruments that grant mandates to the IACHR. The Commission will therefore assess in great detail all aspects of that denunciation and take a stand on its consequences concerning the IACHR’s continued mandate for the promotion and protection of human rights in Venezuela. The IACHR stresses its call on the State to revoke its decision to withdraw from the OAS and asks Venezuela to comply once again with its commitments under the American Convention and the contentious jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court.
The IACHR further stresses its willingness to cooperate with the Venezuelan State within the bounds of its mandate and functions, respecting the constitutional and democratic order in the country. In that sense, the IACHR insists in the request it has repeatedly made to the Venezuelan State since 2004 to be allowed to carry out an observation visit to the country.
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.