No. 5/03





The Inter-American Commission has been following the situation in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela closely since 1999 and it has acted within its mandates to safeguard observance of human rights in that country and to alert the international community to the serious deterioration in its institutions.


In the recent 117th regular session of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, held in Washington, D.C., from February 20 to March 7, 2003, the Inter-American Commission continued gathering information on the status of the rule of law in Venezuela and decided to make the following observations based on the mandate assigned to it by Article 41 of the American Convention.


The Commission received information from representatives of various nongovernmental human rights organizations, from segments of civil society, the media, and representatives of the state.  The IACHR appreciates the Venezuelan Government’s request for a hearing to discuss matters related to freedom of expression.


With a view to cooperating with the Government and with Venezuelan society and fulfilling its mandate, the Commission had planned to conduct a series of visits to Venezuela in response to an invitation from President Hugo Chávez made during its visit in May 2002.  However, the Government of Venezuela has repeatedly refused to set dates for those visits.  The IACHR considers that the Commission’s presence will contribute significantly to a strengthening of the defense and promotion of human rights in a context of democracy and lawful institutions.


With respect to the current situation of institutions in Venezuela, the Commission wishes to state the following:


          The IACHR is concerned at the extreme political polarization and consequent acts of violence periodically occurring between demonstrators representing different sectors.  The Commission has been told that between March 2002 and the first two weeks of this year, more than 40 people were killed and approximately 750 wounded in connection with street protests.  The events of January 4, 2003 were particularly serious.  On that day, demonstrators called out by the opposition were heading from different parts of the city to the national monument known as “Los Próceres,” when a violent clash occurred between the different groups taking part, in which the Military Police, the Metropolitan Police, and the National Guard intervened.  Two people were shot dead and eight wounded in the fighting.


The Commission continues to be concerned at the precarious situation of human rights defenders.  Specifically, in the case of some members of the nongovernmental organization COFAVIC, the Commission asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to adopt provisional measures because they had received death threats and been subjected to other hostile acts.  On November 27, 2002, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the provisional measures requested and set the date for a hearing to listen the positions of the Commission and the Government.  Following that hearing, which took place in San José, Costa Rica, the Court issued a resolution on February 21 advising that the State had not effectively implemented the provisional measures.


The Commission reiterates its concern over the activities of armed civilian groups engaging in political violence and the fact that they act with impunity.  The violence has escalated with the continuing activities of vigilante groups with ties to the police in several states of the interior in what appear to be social cleansing operations.  According to information received by the IACHR, in the State of Portuguesa alone, such groups have allegedly been involved in over 100 extrajudicial executions. 


The Commission notes with concern the impunity with which human rights violations are typically carried out, and the disregard for the State’s obligation to investigate and punish those responsible.  The Commission learned that only rarely do investigations of human rights offenses get beyond the initial prosecuting attorney’s inquiry.  The IACHR reiterates the unwaivable international obligation of the State to investigate, try, and punish those responsible for human rights offenses and to make reparation for the harm done to the victims.  On numerous occasions, the IACHR has pointed to the grave consequences of impunity for effective rule of law.


The Commission notes that those responsible for the acts of violence in connection with the attempted coup d’état in April 2002 have still not been identified and that inquiries into those events have made no significant headway almost one year after they happened.


Accordingly, it gives cause for concern that the Supreme Court of Justice issued a judgment on August 24, 2002, eliminating the possibility of a preliminary hearing on the merits to bring criminal charges against the senior military commanders involved in the thwarted coup of April 11 that year.  The Commission notes that the legal effect of that decision is to prevent inquiries into the responsibilities that may have been incurred by those who disrupted the democratic order in Venezuela.


The Commission observes with concern that most judges in the judiciary enjoy only provisional status.  Provisional judges have no job stability rights, which seriously impairs the autonomy and independence of the judiciary.  The IACHR has been advised that even after three years of reorganization in the judiciary; over 70 percent of the judges are still provisional appointees.  The Committee underscores the importance of abiding by domestic laws and international obligations derived from the American Convention by immediately expediting the process of correcting the current state of affairs in which a significant number of Venezuelan judges have only provisional status.


Freedom of expression in Venezuela is another area of particular concern.  The Commission has also noted an alarming and widespread increase in attacks on the media and journalists, particularly those covering political events and rallies.  The IACHR has been told that no thorough and exhaustive investigation into these acts has been carried out. Hostile remarks about the press by senior government officials and the impunity of those investigated for attacking journalists have contributed to an atmosphere of intimidation curbing the full exercise of freedom of expression in Venezuela.  The Commission also requested– and the Inter-American Court granted–provisional measures in the case of attacks and threats against journalists.  In its resolution of February 21, 2003, the Inter-American Court stated that the State had not implemented those measures.  The Commission expresses its concern over the failure to implement the provisional measures ordered by the Court and the precautionary measures of the Commission.  Compliance with the decisions of the Commission and the Court is essential to guarantee protection of the human rights of the inhabitants of Venezuela.


The Commission was also informed of a bill on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, widely known as the Contents Law, which contains provisions that are clearly incompatible with the freedom of expression proclaimed in the American Convention.  The IACHR has also stated its concern at the start of administrative proceedings by the Ministry of Infrastructure that could lead to an order to revoke the administrative license or television franchise of various enterprises in Venezuela.  The regulations invoked to conduct these proceedings contradict international obligations entered into by Venezuela.


At a hearing held in Washington on February 25 at the request of the Government of Venezuela, the Commission asked for detailed information on the status of proceedings against General Carlos Alfonso Martínez, who was arrested on December 30, 2002, in connection with the demonstrations that lasted several weeks in the square known as Plaza Francia de Altamira, in Caracas.  The State has still not responded to the request for information made on that occasion.  In October 2002, the IACHR condemned statements by military personnel calling upon their comrades-in-arms to revolt against the civilian authorities.  Nevertheless, the detention of General Alfonso in military facilities for over two months without having brought specific criminal charges against him is a grave violation of the right to personal liberty and to due process of the law.  It is paradoxical that the preliminary hearing prior to the bringing of any criminal charges, a privilege that the Bolivarian Constitution grants to senior military officers, has in this case been used against General Alfonso in order to keep him in a situation of prolonged arbitrary detention.


The IACHR has similar objections to the arrest warrant issued against the leader of the opposition, Mr. Carlos Fernández, and several other leaders.  In this case, it appears to us to be difficult to justify the decision to apply criminal law standards to what, in principle, represents exercise of freedom of expression and association.  At the very least, the Venezuelan authorities should prove that illicit deeds, not just words, justify actions that deprive citizens of their freedom.


The IACHR expresses its extreme concern over the murder of three dissident soldiers, Army private Darwin Arguello, Able Seaman Angel Sales (Navy), Junior Technician Félix Pinto (Air Force) and Gabriela Peroza (adolescent).  The bodies were found on a vacant lot of the Parque Caiza district on the road to Guarenas (on the outskirts of Caracas).  The Commission reminds the State once again of its international obligation to conduct a serious investigation and to punish those responsible for these murders.


The dangerous escalation of political violence is reflected in the attacks, using explosives, in recent weeks against diplomatic missions of Colombia and Spain in Caracas and against oil installations in the State of Zulia.  The Commission would like to urge the Government to investigate these attacks as a matter of urgency in order to avoid recurrences that could have increasingly grave consequences.


Since 1999, the IACHR has issued statements through various mechanisms regarding the ongoing deterioration of the rule of law in Venezuela and, pursuant to its mandate to raise awareness among the peoples of the Americas, it has warned the international community of the increasingly dire human rights situation.  As the crisis went from bad to worse, the Commission resorted to the various different mechanisms contemplated in the American Convention to protect human rights.  The information conveyed to the IACHR on the exacerbation of the crisis has pointed above all to the extreme degree of polarization in Venezuelan society, the political violence, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, disproportionate use of force, restrictions on freedom of expression, the activities of death squads, and impunity.  In its last press release, in December 2002, the Committee underscored key aspects of the institutional crisis, such as the lack of independence of the judiciary, the restrictions on freedom of expression, the fact that the Armed Forces were taking on a deliberative role, the extreme polarization of society, the activities of death squads, the lack of credibility of oversight bodies, and the absence of coordination among the different security forces.


In the Commission’s opinion, all these situations point to the frailty of the very foundations required for the rule of law in a democratic system according to the American Convention on Human Rights and other international instruments.  The Commission notes with extreme concern that in the time that has elapsed since the last press release in December 2002, Venezuela’s institutions have continued to deteriorate.


The IACHR reiterates these observations as a contribution to the work of the international community and, in particular, that of the Secretary General of the OAS, Dr. César Gaviria, and the Group of Friends, in the hopes that they will lend support to their efforts.  In that connection, the IACHR welcomes the signing of the first agreement reached at the negotiating table between the Opposition and the Government on preventing acts of violence and trusts that the agreement will foster greater observance of human rights and help to consolidate the rule of law.  The IACHR urges the Government and the opposition to make every effort to comply with this agreement.


Washington, D.C., March 10, 2003