REPORT ON THE HUMAN RIGHTS SITUATION IN VENEZUELA
1. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has been closely following the human rights situation in Venezuela, and has taken steps within its mandates to guarantee respect for human rights in that country. To this end, the Commission has used various mechanisms provided in inter-American human rights instruments, such as the case system, the adoption of precautionary measures, the request for provisional measures from the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, in situ visits to the country, and press releases.
2. In response to an invitation from the Venezuelan government, the Commission made an in situ visit from May 6 to May 10, 2002. The Commission had planned to conduct a series of follow-up visits, but has been prevented from doing so to date because the Venezuelan State has been unable to establish the corresponding dates.
3. This report, which consists of seven chapters, examines the situation in Venezuela, with a particular focus on various aspects relating to the rule of law in the country. The report was prepared on the basis of information collected before, during, and after its in situ visit to Venezuela in May 2002, and covers subsequent events up to October 2003.
4. The report was prepared during political and institutional upheaval. The political climate in Venezuela has shown a marked tendency to radicalization, which became accentuated in the early months of 2002 and culminated in a breakdown of the constitutional order on April 11, with its subsequent restoration on April 14 of that year.
5. The primary purpose of this report is to engage the Venezuelan State to analyze the human rights situation and to formulate recommendations that will assist the State in meeting its international obligations in the area of human rights.
6. In the first place, the IACHR welcomes the inclusion in the Venezuelan Constitution of a provision that gives constitutional rank to human rights treaties ratified by the State. It also notes that the new constitution has strengthened and expanded legal protection for personal safety and integrity, and for preventing practices that undermine those values.
7. The new Constitution also contains special provisions relating to human rights, as in Chapter VIII on the rights of indigenous peoples, Chapter IX on environmental rights, and Chapters VI and VII on social, economic and cultural rights; the prohibition in Article 45 with respect to the forced disappearance of persons; and the creation of new institutions for protecting human rights, such as the Ombudsman's Office (Defensoría del Pueblo) and the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice.
8. Notwithstanding these positive constitutional developments, however, the situations identified in the various chapters of this report demonstrate a clear weakness in the fundamental pillars that must support the rule of law in a democratic system, consistent with the American Convention on Human Rights and other international instruments.
9. The Commission noted that during the period between March 2002 and the first quarter of 2003 more than 40 people were killed and some 750 were injured as the result of street protests. The extreme political polarization and resulting acts of violence that have erupted periodically between different demonstrators to growing political intolerance in the country. The IACHR has noted worrisome signs of institutional weakness, including the failure to give full application to the new Constitution, the perception that the branches of government lack independence, the growing concentration of power in the national executive, the impunity in which certain armed civilian groups and para-police units operate, the government's tendency to confrontation and disparagement of the political opposition, the constant attacks on journalists and the media, the tendency to militarize the public administration through the increasingly prominent role of the armed forces, the growing radicalization of political postures in the context of popular discontent over unmet social demands, and disputes relating to the exercise of trade union rights.
10. Chapter I, on the administration of justice and human rights, focuses on aspects affecting the administration of justice in Venezuela. The Commission analyzes the autonomy and independence of the judiciary, the provisional status of most of the country's judges, and the makeup of certain institutions.
11. With respect to the provisional judges, the Commission notes that this is a problem which long predates the current government. Nevertheless, the problem has worsened since the government began the process of judicial restructuring. The Commission was informed that only 250 judges have been appointed through competition, as the Constitution requires. Of the total of 1,772 judges in Venezuela, the Supreme Court of Justice reports that only 183 have tenure, 1,331 are provisional, and 258 are temporary. This means that 84% of magistrates continue to have provisional or temporary status, and lack tenure in their positions.
12. Another aspect of concern to the Commission with respect to guaranteeing the independence and impartiality of the Venezuelan judiciary relates to the failure to enforce the mechanisms provided by the new Constitution for the election of its Supreme Court authorities. The Commission reiterates the conclusion from its in situ visit, to the effect that the failure to respect the Constitution fully creates legal insecurity that impedes the consolidation of the rule of law. For this reason, the Commission believes that it is urgent to adopt organic laws as the appropriate means of establishing the mechanisms stipulated in the Constitution for the selection of judges of the Supreme Court of Justice, as well as the Public Ombudsman, the National Attorney General, and the National Comptroller General.
13. The Commission has also received information pointing to a significant increase in impunity with respect to acts of violence. According to that information, 90% of investigations related to human rights violations never advance beyond the preliminary stage. The Commission was told specifically that in the first quarter of 2003 the Judicial Police had referred 3,892 cases to the Courts, but the Courts had resolved only 772, or 19% of these cases. These figures are on a par with those for the year 2002, when only 667 of 9,529 homicide cases resulted in definitive judgments. The Commission finds these figures particularly alarming, because impunity constitutes a grave violation of the obligations of states, and implies a kind of vicious circle that tends to repeat and perpetuate itself, thereby increasing the crime rate, particularly for violent offenses.
14. Chapter II, on civil society, examines the situation of human rights defenders in Venezuela.
15. The IACHR has received a considerable number of complaints about various kinds of attacks and acts of intimidation against persons devoted to protecting and promoting respect for the fundamental rights of Venezuela's inhabitants. Acts of harassment against human rights defenders and human rights organizations at times go as far as attacks on the life and physical integrity of those defenders. A series of cases have been verified in which defenders were the targets of various mechanisms of intimidation. In at least one case, the IACHR had to request provisional measures from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in order to protect members of a human rights organization.
16. Chapter III, on State security, examines the role of the armed forces and security police.
17. The Commission notes that the Constitution extends the scope of the concept of security not only to the military sphere but also to the cultural, social, economic and political spheres, among others. The IACHR wishes to stress that in a democratic society this broad and progressive concept of national security must be suitably interpreted in ways that do not presuppose increased powers for the armed forces in fields beyond their competence.
18. The IACHR was greatly concerned at the many reports received of an excessively deliberative role for the armed forces, and the undue influence they exert on the country's political life. The Commission believes it is essential for the Venezuelan State to take urgent measures to ensure that the armed forces do not adopt a deliberative role, and that they do not involve themselves in the country's political life.
19. The Commission also observed problems in the conduct of the various police forces, as evident in a series of events, in particular: the proliferation in several states of death squads linked to the police, a situation that undermines the rule of law and poses a particular threat to the right to life; the lack of coordination among the various security bodies, and in particular between the National Guard and the Metropolitan Police, the Metropolitan Police strike that began in October 2002, the police strikes in several states of the country; the disproportionate use of force in certain circumstances, assassinations attributed to the Metropolitan Police at the time of the constitutional breakdown, and the political struggle for control of that institution between the national executive and the office of the mayor of Caracas.
20. In Chapter IV, on the right to life, the Commission finds that the situation has worsened considerably, due to the increase in impunity and violence. This problem is particularly severe in certain states, notably in Portuguesa, Anzoategui, Falcon, Yaracuy, Caracas, Bolivar, Aragua and Miranda. More than 30 cases have come to light in seven different states where persons were summarily executed by para-police groups. The escalating violence has resulted in 55 assassinations in the course of street violence, and more than 500 people have died in presumed confrontations that have not been sufficiently clarified.
21. The Commission believes that a system that does not guarantee immediate and effective investigation, prosecution and punishment is incapable of enforcing respect and protection for the rights of the victims nor of the alleged perpetrators. In examining this issue, the Commission must reiterate what it has maintained on several occasions, to the effect that a State is not only responsible for human rights violations committed by its agents or through the conduct of para-police groups operating with its acquiescence or consent, but it also incurs international responsibility when it fails to take adequate measures to prevent, investigate and punish criminal acts by individuals or particular groups. As noted throughout this report, priority must be given to fulfilling the State's commitment to strengthen the administration of justice and to stamp out impunity.
22. In Chapter V, on the right to humane treatment and personal integrity, the Commission notes that the sharpening institutional conflict in Venezuela has made itself felt in acts of violence that have involved attempts against people's lives, and numerous attacks on personal integrity. The Commission has received many complaints from nongovernmental agencies and from individuals, claiming that torture continues to be practiced by the police, even in the course of judicial investigations, as a means of intimidating prisoners and extracting confessions from them. As well, the Commission finds that the competent State bodies have failed to fulfill their duty to investigate complaints in these cases and to punish those responsible, who generally enjoy impunity, a situation that encourages the repetition of such conduct. It also notes a lack of effective surveillance over the physical integrity of prisoners in civilian and military detention centers alike. According to the information received, it is the police who are primarily responsible for cases of torture, since these take place primarily in police stations. Torture is commonly applied to persons under detention or investigation.
23. In Chapter VI, on the right to freedom of expression and thought, the IACHR has identified two areas of particular concern relating to freedom of expression: the first involves threats, attacks and acts of harassment against social communicators, particularly those working in the streets, and the failure to investigate those threats and attacks; the second refers to judicial decisions and draft legislation that, if enforced, would severely constrain the full exercise of freedom of expression for the inhabitants of Venezuela. The third has to do with the initiation of administrative proceedings by CONATEL and the Ministry of Infrastructure against the communications media, relating to the content of their programming, and applying legislation that may be inconsistent with the inter-American system.
24. The IACHR with has noted many instances of verbal or physical assaults in recent years. There have been threats and attacks against social communicators, especially those covering public events, political rallies and activities relating to the security forces. Before, during and after the in situ visit, the IACHR was informed that social communicators working in the streets were being targeted for attack and harassment. The overall situation in Venezuela has generated a climate of aggressiveness and continuous threats against the freedom of expression, and in particular against the personal integrity of journalists, cameramen, photographers and other social communication workers.
25. Given the vulnerability in which communication workers find themselves, the IACHR asked the Venezuelan State to adopt precautionary measures on eight occasions during 2002, and in many cases these were extended in order to protect the life, personal integrity and freedom of expression of journalists, cameramen and photographers. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights was also asked to order provisional measures. In a decision of March 21, 2003, the Court declared that the State had failed to comply with those measures. The Commission expressed its concern over the failure to comply with the provisional measures granted by the Court, and with the Commission's own precautionary measures. In July 2003 the IACHR decided to request further provisional measures from the Court in order to protect two journalists.
26. The IACHR received expressions of concern over the possibility that the communications media in Venezuela may not always act responsibly or ethically. As the IACHR reported upon completion of its in situ visit, it took note of media activities obstructing access to information that was vital for Venezuelan society during the tragic events of April 2002, which saw the coup d'état and the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. The IACHR notes that, while there may be many reasons to explain this lack of information, to the extent that the suppression of information has resulted from politically motivated editorial decisions, there is room for a good deal of soul-searching on the part of the Venezuelan media about their role at that time.
27. In Chapter VII the IACHR examines the situation of trade union freedoms in light of the current political and institutional setting.
28. With respect to the situation of trade union freedoms in Venezuela, the IACHR notes that the political crisis and the atmosphere of intolerance that marks the current political setting has sparked an increase in labor conflicts over this issue. The IACHR is particularly concerned over the mass dismissal of workers at Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). Information provided shows that a total of 12,383 workers were dismissed from this State enterprise on grounds of having abandoned their workplace in the context of the so-called national civic strike that lasted from December 2002 until February 2003.
29. The Commission confirmed a situation of forceful intervention by the State in union affairs, despite repeated recommendations from the ILO (International Labour Organisation) that it should refrain from such behavior. As well, the Commission believes it is urgent to resolve the problem of recognizing the leadership of the CTV, the main Venezuelan labor confederation, out of regard for the needs and rights of its members.
30. The IACHR notes that there has a significant step forward in the area of trade union freedom. On July 23, 2002, the Electoral Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ruled that action by the Supreme Electoral Council was of a subsidiary nature, and that therefore that body could only intervene when there was a dispute that the labor organization itself could not resolve.
31. Finally, the IACHR wishes to highlight the important progress that has been made toward settling the institutional crisis by peaceful and electoral means, in clear demonstration of the solid democratic commitment of the Venezuelan people. The IACHR again notes the pact signed by representatives of the government and the opposition on May 29, 2003, in context of the Roundtable for Negotiation and Accord. This is a fundamental document that marks a turning point in the current situation, whereby the parties have agreed that the application of constitutional mechanisms is the institutional route to be followed in resolving the crisis. The Commission hails this achievement and calls on all parties to continue on the road of tolerance and democratic dialogue, and to work together to implement that pact in all situations that so require.
32. The Commission hopes that the Government of Venezuela, and the other political players in the country, including the members of the legislature and the judiciary, will continue to demonstrate the political will to seek solutions to the serious human rights problems that affect the country's inhabitants. The Inter-American Commission offers the Venezuelan State and society as a whole its full cooperation in the efforts at promotion, protection and consultation that are needed to move towards a solution of the country's human rights problems.