Venezuelan Ombudsman Office’s Human Rights Commitment Called into Question

Hugo Pérez Hernáiz

In recent weeks, the commitment to human rights of Venezuela’s Ombudsman’s Office has been called into question as a result of a statement by the international network responsible for linking state-level human rights agencies and the United Nations system. In May 2016, the Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) of the International Coordinating Committee—responsible for reviewing and accrediting national human rights institutions—issued a report recommending that the United Nations Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) downgrade the Defensoría del Pueblo de Venezuela (DVP, Venezuelan Office of the Ombudsman) from category A to category B status. Under the SCA’s terms, an “A” status means that the institution is in full compliance with the 1993 Paris Principles on national-level human rights bodies, “B” means it is not fully in compliance, and “C” means it is non-compliant.    

While the May document was widely circulated by local media in Venezuela, the SCA recommendation does not mean that the DVP has immediately been downgraded from A to B status. In fact, the SCA had previously recommended that the DVP be downgraded to B status in its March 2015 report, and the DVP had up to a year to challenge the recommendation. This year’s report notes that as “per Article 12 of GANHRI statute, DVP has challenged the recommendation and received the required support. The recommendation is now deferred to GANHRI Bureau meeting in October 2016.”

So while the SCA’s recommendation to downgrade DVP to B status is not new, it builds on reports in recent years which show a progressive deterioration in the evaluation of the DVP. In the May 2013 SCA report, in which the DVP was still being credited with the A status, the Sub-committee had already noted troubling signs. The report mentioned that the DVP had “not shown that it had taken a strong public position” on three main issues: the continued detention of Judge María Lourdes Afiuni; the withdrawal of Venezuela from the American Convention on Human Rights; and the Uribana prison incident. The report also mentioned concern for the lack of diversity of staff in the DVP.

In the March 2015 report, in which the SCA first recommended that the DVP be downgraded to B status, criticisms of the office became much more extensive. In addition to the concerns expressed in the previous report, the Sub-committee asked that the new head of DPV (Tareck William Saab, who was named Ombudsman in December 2014) to provide his views on issues including “the continued detention of Leopoldo Lopez and his allegations of being tortured; the detention of Mayor Ledezma; the killing of 14 year old Kluiver Roa; the TV show of the Parliamentary leader [Diosdado Cabello]; and, the actions taken by the DPV to restore a positive and cooperative relationship with civil society.”

The March 2015 report devoted considerable attention to the role of Gabriela Ramirez, Ombudswoman from 2007 to 2014. Declarations and tweets by the Ombudswoman showing her fervent support for the Bolivarian Revolution, during her tenure in office, are extensively quoted. The report acknowledges that Ramirez was replaced in December 2014,  but argues that “the DPV as an institution remains accountable for the actions and inactions of the former Defensora.”

The latest SCA report of May 2016 recognizes that “the DPV is currently operating in a highly polarized context.” And it further acknowledges that “steps have been taken to address some human rights issues in Venezuela.” However, the SCA upholds its previous recommendation to downgrade the DVP to B status, repeating verbatim the observations of the previous report and adding new cases in which, according to the Sub-Committee, the DVP has failed to speak out. Special concern is expressed about reports of rough detention conditions of opposition activist Lorent Saleh and Gabriel Valles, including reports of alleged torture, and for the deportation of Colombian citizens during the first weeks of the closure of the Colombia-Venezuela border ordered by the Venezuelan government since August 2015.

Several Venezuelan human rights organizations such as PROVEA and the Human Rights Center of the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello, which are highly critical of the role of the DVP, have been supporting a social media campaign under the hashtag #AltoYClaro (Loud and Clear) using texts extracted from the SCA report to show that the DVP has failed to speak out in the face of human rights violations by the Venezuelan government. No mention is made in the DVP web page or in government media about the latest SCA report.