Hugo Pérez Hernáiz and David Smilde
On June 29 and 30 Venezuela came up again for its fourth periodic meeting with the the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, Switzerland. The last time Venezuela was evaluated in this Committee, its third periodic exam, was in April 2001. The Venezuelan government submitted its report in December 2012.
As has become routine for these types of events, non-governmental organizations’s (NGOs) presented reports on human rights violations by the Venezuelan government, and representatives of the government dismissed these reports as fabricated lies, and accused the NGOs of being a part of a plot to destabilize the country.
This time around a total of fourteen leading human rights organizations presented detailed reports (find links to all reports here). The Programa Venezolano de Educacion-Acción en Derechos Humanos (PROVEA) provided the following summary: “[The reports] evidence that, despite some reforms and legislative progress, the State has not honored its international juridical obligation of protecting civil and political rights and there are still serious violations of human rights being committed.”
Among these are cases of extrajudicial killings, excessive use of force torture, and attacks against the press. They put special emphasis on attacks and harassment of human rights activists: “we are especially worried about the climate of harassment, and intimidation, driven by the highest state authorities against human right activists.”
Wife of jailed political leader Leopoldo López was able to address the Committee in name of NGO United Nations Watch. She wore a t-shirt with the names of people “tortured, pursued, and assasinated.” She suggested that López was imprisoned “for denouncing the violation of human rights in our country. The right to life is violated every twenty minutes. Homicides last year exceed 25,000. Inflation, scarcities of food and medicines is above 72%.” She argued that López was only one case of many unjustly imprisoned.
Having received the NGOs report, the committee of experts, chaired by Victor Manuel Rodríguez-Rescia, listened to the presentation by the Venezuelan State delegation representative, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Díaz. In it she claimed that in Venezuela “human rights are sacred” and stressed that the government has made significant progress in ensuring “peaceful coexistence and the elimination of violence.” Torture is now clearly punished by law, those deprived of liberty “enjoy all human rights,” and the right to peaceful demonstrations is enshrined in the Constitution. She argued that Leopoldo López’s rights had been protected at every moment.
She also argued that the current government represents a significant improvement in its human rights record when compared to the period between 1959 and 1998, of which she said that “Venezuela is moving from a previously authoritarian regime to a democratic one.”
Ortega Díaz and the rest of the members of the Venezuelan state delegation then faced tough questions by Committee Experts. They wanted concrete details regarding the state of detainees and reports of torture and rape during detention, especially during and after the February 2014 opposition protests.
One Committee Expert specifically asked for the case of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni, allegedly raped and tortured during her detention. Committee Experts also expressed concern about the independence of the judiciary and of the Ombudsman’s office. Finally, they questioned inconsistencies in the numbers provided by the Venezuelan delegation.
Ortega Díaz started her answers by suggesting the Committee was failing to act according to the purpose of the meeting, which is intended as a forum for discussing and debating human rights. Instead she felt the Committee Experts were acting as prosecution lawyers.
Regarding Afiuni’s detention, Ortega Díaz denied the allegations. “The accusations [of rape and torture] are simply not true, similar to many accusations made during this meeting,” she said.
The Committee Experts clarified that they did not act as judges of the delegation, but “only tried to gather more information, in a constructive manner.” They asked follow up questions on issues of arbitrary detention, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances.
Ortega Díaz provided some additional figures, such as an official murder rate –which has not been published by the government for several years, – contrary to what the NGOs are claiming, said Ortega Díaz, the real murder rate in Venezuela was 62 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2014. In its report presented to the Committee, the NGO Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia put that rate at 82 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants for 2014.
In more follow up questions the experts again insisted on asking for details on the Afiuni case, but also added several other concerns: freedom of press, cases of harassment and even murder of human rights defenders, and problems related to the demarcation of ancestral lands for indigenous populations.
Ortega Díaz again voiced her protests for the “non-objective views” expressed by the Committee experts. She again denied that Judge Afiuni had been the victim of torture or rape, but this time she added that she had rather only suffered “ill-treatment” during her detention.
Other members of the delegation responded that claims of press censorship were “based on lies and misinterpretations of the Venezuelan reality,” and that censorship was forbidden under Venezuelan law.
In her closing remarks Ortega Díaz assured that the NGOs present in the meeting, and that had presented reports to the Committee, would not suffer intimidation or harassment in Venezuela.
Venezuela’s state media highlighted Ortega Díaz’s presentation detailing the “advances of the country on issues of civil and political rights,” but made no mention of the debate during the meeting or of the reports presented by the NGOs.
Two events in Venezuela coincided with the meetings and cast doubt on some of the government’s assertions.
On the same day of the meeting in Geneva, June 30, Judge Afiuni, now serving house arrest, gave declarations in her trial in Caracas. She said she had previously refused to do so because she considered the trial “a farce,” but that Ortega Díaz’s declarations had changed her mind. She described in detail how she had been raped and tortured by security guards, and how she had been put in a cell with a prisoner she had previously condemned as a judge, who had beaten and raped her repeatedly.
On July 1, after Ortega Díaz had assured the Committee that the NGOs participating in the meeting would not suffer harassment in Venezuela, the President of the National Assembly Diosdado Cabello again used his state television program Con el Mazo Dando to make a series of accusations against NGO activists, including some at the UN meeting. He said they were conspiring against the government and serving “obscure interests” behind the facade of human rights.
Marino Alvarado of PROVEA reacted to the new accusations made by Cabello:
A democratic government regards the participation of civil society as a positive thing, it even stimulates it. Unfortunately the government of President Nicolás Maduro thinks the participation of civil society is part of an international conspiracy against Venezuela. Human rights activists are disqualified and in some instances are persecuted when they try to contribute to the debate over the situation of human rights in the country.