No. 47/02


Inter-American Commission on Human Rights urges OAS member states to take immediate action to halt erosion of rule of law in Venezuela



Since 2000, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has expressed its position, through various means, on the erosion of the rule of law in Venezuela, which has seriously compromised the effective exercise of human rights. Today the Commission follows with great concern the escalation of the Venezuelan crisis, marked by violence, intolerance, and a general lack of faith in government institutions.


During its visit to Venezuela in May of this year, the IACHR noted manifest weaknesses in the foundations necessary for a democratic system based on the rule of law according to the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Democratic Charter:  a lack of judiciary independence, limitations on freedom of expression, political involvement by the armed forces, the extreme polarization of society, death squad activities, the poor credibility of oversight agencies in view of uncertainty as to their impartiality and the constitutionality of their appointment, and a lack of coordination among security forces.


The Commission condemned the coup d’état in April 2002 and decried the arbitrary arrests and other human rights violations perpetrated by those who seized power. It expressed concern over certain attitudes on the part of the opposition that could jeopardize the initiation of a dialogue.  It also expressed concern over editorial decisions taken in the days of the coup by certain press officials and appealed to them to reflect on their role at a time when rapid access to information was vital to the defense of democracy.

The Commission notes that, since its visit, the situation has been deteriorating. First, the Commission wishes to express its deepest concern over the significant increase in systematic attacks against human rights defenders that, directly or indirectly, obstruct or interfere with their work. The Commission reaffirms that, under the rule of law, defenders play a crucial role in defending victims of human rights violations, in publicly denouncing injustices that affect large sectors of society, and in the necessary monitoring of public officials and democratic institutions.


The Commission has also noted increasing attacks on the media and journalists, particularly those covering political events and rallies. Journalists, camera operators, photographers, and other press workers have been subjected to direct aggression and harassment. Reported incidents include the murder of a journalist; physical assaults, including woundings by firearm; threats; and the seizure, looting, and destruction of media facilities, such as those carried out on December 9 by groups supporting the Government in Caracas and major cities of the interior. The Commission notes that this situation not only intimidates reporters, who are afraid to identify themselves as journalist for fear of reprisal, but also compromises Venezuelan society’s right to information.


The Commission strongly condemns the violence employed against various sectors of society in the form of indiscriminate shooting at demonstrators. The Commission urgently appeals to the Venezuelan state for a strict, expeditious, and impartial investigation of those responsible for the acts of violence on Friday, December 6, at the Plaza Francia in Altamira, where, according to reports, three people died and 18 were injured.


          The Commission is concerned over the appearance of armed civilian groups engaging in political violence and the fact that they act with impunity. Some of these groups even appear to receive protection from certain authorities.  The violence has escalated with the continuing activities of vigilante groups–in what appear to be social cleansing operations—in several states of the interior.


The IACHR is concerned over the central Government’s “intervention” in the metropolitan police force of Caracas, which was headed by a political adversary, without appropriate reasons having been given for a decision of questionable legality.  This has heightened the sense of insecurity among the city’s inhabitants and led to increased involvement in public safety control operations by the armed forces. The intervention is of special concern in view of a history of human rights violations stemming from social control operations by the armed forces.


The Commission reaffirms that the state has a duty to respond to human rights violations by investigating and punishing those responsible.  This international obligation is absolute and binding upon the state.  Situations of impunity such as those that, in this case, have engendered widespread violence and endangered all of Venezuelan society are inconsistent with the American Convention on Human Rights.


The Commission emphasizes that, in fulfillment of its protective functions, it has employed the various mechanisms envisioned in the American Convention and in the Commission's Rules of Procedure.  Through its case system, the adoption of precautionary measures, requests to the Court for provisional measures, on-site visits to the country, and press releases, the IACHR has responded to Venezuelan citizens who have applied to the inter-American system for protection, and has alerted the international community to the declining state of human rights in Venezuela.


In particular, this year the IACHR has granted 12 precautionary measures to protect the rights to life, personal safety, and freedom of expression of human rights defenders, reporters, congresspersons, the victims of the events of April 11, witnesses, and victims of vigilante groups.  Because the state failed to comply with these measures, the Commission applied to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for provisional measures on behalf of members of the nongovernmental human rights organization COFAVIC, members of the RCTV media outlet, and victims of vigilante groups operating in the State of Falcón. The three provisional measures requested were granted by the Court on December 2, 2002.


          Intending to work with the Government and all of Venezuelan society in carrying out its task, the Commission had planned a series of follow-up visits.  However, despite an open invitation from President Chávez and Vice President Rangel and repeated requests by the IACHR, the Government of Venezuela has systematically refused to set dates for such visits. The Commission believes that the follow-up visits could have made an important contribution to strengthening the defense and protection of human rights in a context of law and democratic institutions.


Finally, considering the gravity of the situation, the Commission values the efforts of the OAS Secretary General, César Gaviria, who has enthusiastic support from all states in the Hemisphere. Additionally, in exercise of the functions established in Article 41 of the American Convention, and having observed for over four decades how tragically the weakening of the rule of law affects human rights, the Commission urges the OAS member states, within the framework of inter-American instruments, to immediately employ all available means to work with Venezuelans in seeking an urgent solution that will prevent further loss of human life and ensure Venezuelans that the rule of law will remain fully in force.


Washington, D. C., December 12, 2002