New Ombudsman Meets with Venezuelan Human Rights Groups

Hugo Perez Hernaiz and David Smilde

Last week Venezuela’s new ombudsman (Defensor del Pueblo) Tarek William Saab called human rights NGOs to a meeting at his office to listen to them and receive their proposals. The organizations grouped under the umbrella organization Foro por la Vida, including the Venezuelan Program for Education and Action in Human Rights (PROVEA), Penal Forum, Committee for the Families of Victims (COFAVIC), and the Human Rights Center of the Catholic University (UCAB), attended the meeting, as did the pro-government “Committee of Victims of the Guarimba and the Continuous Coup.”

Foro por la Vida handed the Ombudsman a letter detailing the petitions of the NGOs. The main points of the letter are the same ones they put forward in United Nations and Organization of American States hearings last fall, including the creation of a national human rights plan and a human rights educational program as recommended by the United Nations and by MERCOSUR; and an active role of the Ombudsman in the push for Venezuela’s full reincorporation into the Inter American Human Rights System.

In the letter the organizations also express concern for the fact that the Ombudsman was not named “according to what is stablished in the Constitution and the laws of the Republic,” and that this would “weaken his independence.” In December, after a polemical process, the National Assembly selected the new Ombudsman for the next 7 years, as well as the other authorities of the Citizen’s Power, by a simple majority instead of a two third majority vote as required by the Constitution. Legal experts and Foro por la Vida criticized the process leading up to the selection.

The new Ombudsman Tarek William Saab was legislator from 1999 to 2004, and was governor of the state of Anzoátegui from 2004 to 2012. He was close to Chávez and has always been a member of the governing party but has renounced his militancy in the Socialist Party (PSUV) upon being appointed as ombudsman. He was a member of the constitutive assembly that wrote the 1999 Bolivarian Constitution and had a prominent role in the writing of the articles dealing with human rights.

The 1999 Bolivarian Constitution states that the goals of the ombudsman are the “promotion, defense, and vigilance of the rights and guarantees established by the Constitution and international treaties on human rights.” The figure of the ombudsman is usually understood to be a defender and promoter of human rights, the correct functioning of public services, and other abuses by public officials.

The previous Ombudswoman, Gabriela Ramirez, was strongly criticized by human rights organizations for failing to uphold the attributions of her office. In August 2013 several human rights organizations–including PROVEA and UCAB’s Human Rights Center–published a report detailing serious shortcomings of Ramirez’s tenure as Ombudswomen.

The report argued Ramirez had consistently acted upon cases of abuses related to public services, but had failed to act on other human rights violations. The report also emphasized that Ramirez had openly identified herself and the office with the “so called ‘Bolivarian project’ of president Chávez…which has turned the office of the ombudsman into a party agency that, even if it does not receive direct and formal instruction from parties or state agencies, acts in agreement and follows the lines of the executive power and its coalition.”

As a consequence, explains the report, Ramirez only established communication with human rights organizations that represented what she called “the peoples power” and failed to establish any form of dialogue with independent organizations.

Especially controversial during Ramirez’s tenure was her role during the opposition protests in the first months of 2014. The ombudswoman was criticized for failing to act in the face of heavy handed government repression of the protests. Instead, Ramirez declared that the “violent acts since February 12 have been promoted by the extreme right and threaten the human rights of the people as a whole.” She also said that “when the rule of law breaks down, and the access to food and medicine is blocked [by protestors], the state has to act, because not doing so would be irresponsible.”

The new ombudsman William, has struck more moderate and conciliatory tone than his predecessor in his first declarations and interviews. He has stressed the need for an impartial office that serves all citizens despite their political leanings and has said that he wants his office to serve as a dialogue broker. There is, of course, suspicion that his past political loyalties will be an obstacle for the independent role the office is supposed to play as defender of human rights.

In sharp contrast to Ramirez, one of the first issues declared by William as a priority for his office is the revision of the arrests made during the 2014 protests and the rules of engagement of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB). William has also declared that he hopes the National Guardswoman that was videotaped hitting opposition protestor Marvina Jiménez with her helmet, will be arrested. William personally met with the latter in his office. “I hope that the officer [involved], who has been served and arrest warrant, will be presented and processed,” declared William Saab.

However, asked if his office had anything planed regarding the first anniversary of the February 2014 protests, William Saab spoke only about meeting the “victims of the guarimbas.” He has also declared that in the international arena, his office will work to “defend the country and its institutions against the media campaign of discredit, attack and aggression from foreign powers we are suffering,” thus following the official government line that the country is the victim of an international media campaign.

The meeting last week with human rights organizations was a good start for the new ombudsman, showing a willingness to establish dialogue independent organizations. According to representatives from the human rights NGOs, the meeting was cordial and they were given a chance to express their concerns.