My visit to Venezuela in January provided an opportunity for open and frank exchange – which I appreciate – on the human rights, political and economic challenges facing the country.
I met with senior authorities, including the President and Vice President [along with the Minister of Internal Affairs, Justice and Peace, the Minister of Defence, the President of the National Assembly, the President of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and the Ombudsperson].
I also met with members of the Delegation of the Unitary Platform to the Mexico Dialogue, members of the Roman Catholic Church, and over 125 members of civil society, including human rights defenders and victims.
Since establishing its presence in 2019, my team in Venezuela has conducted 23 field visits across the country; visited 60 detention centres; and provided comments on ten legislative initiatives; as well as increasingly accessing judicial files and observing judicial hearings. Every month, my team meets with over 100 members of civil society and victims, providing support. At least 312 individuals have been released from detention following sustained advocacy, including by my team.
We continue to strengthen specific support to the authorities, to listen to victims and to support them in their quest for justice, and to promote human rights as central to all governance processes.
The recent renewal of the Letter of Understanding allowing my Office to continue its work in Venezuela for the next two years is very much welcome.
Venezuela continues to face serious human rights challenges in the civil, political, economic and social spheres.
I met people who told me about their daily struggle to survive. They told me of regular power cuts, of the lack of running water, of the unavailability of medicines and food, of how they were falling deeper into debt. And they spoke of the direct mental health impacts of all these challenges, with many suffering from anxiety and depression. According to UN statistics, there are more than seven million people in need of humanitarian assistance in the country.
I received a range of commitments during my visit, which is an important indicator, and which requires consistent follow-up.
The readiness expressed by the authorities to engage in judicial and security reforms is a positive step. I welcome the access that has been granted to my team to judicial hearings and look forward to continuing to strengthen cooperation on this.
I also hope to move towards greater access to all detention centres.
I remain deeply concerned about people who are detained arbitrarily. My team continues to document cases, including people who remain in detention after release orders have been issued; individuals kept in pre-trial detention beyond the legally established limits; and situations determined by the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to fit the definition of arbitrary detention under international human rights law.
I reiterate my calls made in January for the immediate release of those detained arbitrarily.
Since our last report of July 2022, my team has documented five deaths in the context of security operations, with more allegations received. I took note of the commitments made during my visit swiftly to investigate cases of deaths, as well as those of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. I look forward to seeing the results of these inquiries. While I am aware that investigations into allegations regarding security operations have been opened, years later many remain unresolved and judicial hearings are consistently postponed. I echo the pleas for justice that I heard from victims. They and their families must be afforded their right to reparation and guarantees of non-repetition.
The prompt adoption and full implementation of the two national guides on the use of force that were drafted based on the Minnesota and Istanbul protocols, with the technical assistance of my team, would be another important step.
On gender issues, the authorities committed to eliminating the provision in article 565 of the Organic Code of Military Justice, which criminalized same sex relations in the military. The nullification of this provision last week by the Supreme Court of Justice is a significant step forward for the acceptance and safety of LGBTIQ+ individuals in Venezuela.
Authorities also resolved to start working, with the support of my Office, on two protocols to investigate numerous alleged cases of femicides and discrimination against LGBTIQ+ people.
The upcoming review before the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women will be an opportunity for Venezuela to align its restrictive laws on abortion to recommendations made by human rights mechanisms and my Office.
In my interactions in January, I had various exchanges on civic space. I encouraged the authorities to engage meaningfully in dialogue with victims and civil society organizations.
A free and vibrant space for people to express their opinions is vital.
Yet, human rights defenders and journalists continue to face attacks, intimidation, and criminalisation. For instance, six union and labour leaders have now been detained for over nine months on charges of conspiracy and criminal association.
I am also concerned about media restrictions, with websites being blocked and radio stations and programmes closed down.
And the recent tabling of a bill to further regulate NGOs has sparked serious concerns, which I share. I provided detailed observations on this issue to the authorities and I repeat my call for any legislation to be in line with international human rights standards.
Peaceful protests for better working and living conditions, including higher wages and pensions, have increased throughout the country. The continuation of the Social Dialogue Forum, organized by the Government with the support of the International Labour Organisation, will be an opportunity to address some of the country’s social and economic challenges.
Peasants, farmers, and other people working in rural areas have also been protesting in defence of their right to land. My team has received reports of them being harassed and killed by unidentified individuals. I note some investigations have been initiated, and stress the need for accountability.
The future of Indigenous peoples also requires immediate attention. Their lands and territories must be urgently demarcated in line with the Constitution and international human rights standards. Any measure that may affect their lives or livelihoods, especially relating to extractive activities on their lands, must be preceded by their free, prior and informed consent.
Signs of economic recovery bring some hope, but policies to support the country’s economic growth must have human rights at their centre. Free, transparent and equal access to data and information of public interest will be key to achieving this.
I call – again – for the lifting of sectoral sanctions that have exacerbated pre-existing challenges and deepened people’s daily struggle. In January, I heard more and more voices of concern – from humanitarian actors, civil society, public servants, the UN in the country and authorities – about the impact sectoral sanctions have had.
As I said at the end of my visit, all sides need to think about the future they want for Venezuela.
Dialogue and collaboration between the authorities and the opposition will be fundamental, including the resumption of political talks in Mexico.
I urge the international community to offer its full support to this process.
For reform, and for the restoration of trust, the people of Venezuela require concrete – and collective – actions. My Office is ready to be a bridge-builder between the State institutions and the people, and to continue to offer our expertise to accompany efforts to advance human rights in the country.
This speech was partly delivered in Spanish