Human Rights NGOs Denounce Venezuelan Government in International Hearings

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

Over the past few weeks, Venezuelan human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have participated in hearings of the UN Committee against Torture in Geneva, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) in Washington.

Their denunciations focused on mistreatment of protesters and detainees during the opposition protests that began in February, the cases of jailed opposition leaders, as well as economic and social rights. Both bodies asked Venezuelan government delegations to allow their representatives to visit and evaluate Venezuela’s human rights situation.

On November 6-7, the UN Committee against Torture heard from Foro por la Vida, a coalition of NGOs that includes Espacio Público, PROVEA, and UCAB’s Center for Human Rights. Foro por la Vida presented a detailed report of human rights violations emphasizing the “increasing militarization of citizen’s security policies.” According to the group, these policies have a negative impact on human rights and the actions of para-police groups, which the group claims acted with impunity during opposition protests.

Although the Minister of Penitentiary Services, Iris Varela, had originally been scheduled to head the Venezuelan delegation, José Vicente Rangel Ávalos, the Vice-Minister of Interior and Citizen Security, represented the country before the committee. In his opening statement, Rangel assured the committee that “the Bolivarian Revolution provides an absolute guarantee of human rights for all.”

During questioning, the Danish Rapporteur Janes Modvig pointed out that the committee had heard reports that during the opposition protests “detainees were threatened with rape, did not have access to lawyers and medics, and were not allowed to contact their families.” He also asked the delegation to clarify Venezuela’s position with respect to “armed groups acting outside the law, but which may have possibly acted in coordination with law and order agents.”

Other members of the committee asked the delegation for information on the state of the Venezuelan prison system as well as information on the case of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni. US Rapporteur Felice Gaer inquired into the cases of jailed opposition leaders Leopoldo López, Daniel Ceballos, Enzo Scarano, and Salvatore Luccehese. Most rapporteurs insisted on the need for direct visits in order to examine its human rights situation.

The Venezuelan government delegation denied the cases of torture and argued that the National Bolivarian Police “is trained in the respect of human rights.” On the state of the prison system, the delegation stated that the government has solved the overcrowding problem and has an 87% occupancy rate, contrary to Foro por la Vida’s figure of 213% overcrowding. The delegation also said that cases of prison violence were limited to 13% of its facilities.

With regard to Judge Afiuni, the delegation stated that the judge had already been freed, and that the allegations that she had been raped and mistreated during detention were false.

The rapporteurs complained that most of the Venezuela delegation’s answers were vague. In response, the delegation offered to send the committee specific reports by November 11.

The UN hearings closely followed hearings the IACHR held in its 153rd session. On October 28, it examined the case of Venezuela in three sessions focused on human rights, the independence of the judiciary power, and freedom of the press and access to information in the country.

The commission heard from several local human rights groups, including COFAVIC, PROVEA, UCAB’s Human Rights Center, and press workers’ union SNTP, and a Venezuelan government delegation.

Liliana Ortega, COFAVIC’s director, told the commission that her group has documented 892 instances of presumed human rights violations during 2014, and has documented testimonies of 110 cases of “torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment” by state security forces from February to May. She also reported that security forces indiscriminately used rubber bullets, tear gas, and water cannons during the protests.

PROVEA focused on social and economic rights, including poverty reduction, in its presentation. Marino Alvarado, PROVEA’s coordinator, told the IACHR that according to the National Statistics Institute (NIE) poverty increased by 6% in 2013. Alvardo also argued that high inflation, food shortages, and the inadequate state of the public health care system, are disproportionately affecting the country’s poorest.

Germán Saltrón, the Venezuelan government’s representative, responded by accusing Venezuelan human rights NGOs of receiving US funding and taking part in an international campaign to discredit the government. He rejected the claims that poverty has increased in Venezuela and argued that “the capitalist system is a factory of poverty, and therefore you cannot ask a country like Venezuela [to eliminate poverty] when it has only had 15 years of revolutionary government.”

Luis Damiani, a lawyer and sociologist summoned by the government’s delegation as an expert, dismissed the NGOs’ reports. He claimed that they suffered from serious methodological flaws and recommended that they hire social scientists to write them. He also told the group that these NGOs had failed to document “human rights violations” committed by the opposition during the protests.

The IACHR again asked the Venezuelan government to allow them to visit the country in order to directly assess the human rights situation, which has been denied since 2002. Saltrón again rejected this petition arguing that the IACHR supported the April 2002 coup against Chávez. In response, Felipe González of the IACHR stated that none of its current members belonged to the group in 2002.

Government media in Venezuela paid almost no attention to the UN or IACHR hearings. The few press notes published official media, covered only the government delegation’s claims and made no mention of the NGO presentations. Independent media and private local newspapers covered the events in great detail, even providing live stream links to both hearings.

In 2015, the UN will evaluate Venezuela on the fulfillment of its human rights obligations, including economic, social, civil, and political rights.