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OHCHR: UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk concludes official mission to Venezuela

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights | Venezuela | January 28, 2023

Hello and thank you for coming.

Firstly, I would like to thank the Government for their invitation. During my visit, over the last couple of days I met with President Nicolás Maduro, Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez, the Minister of Internal Affairs, Justice and Peace, and the Minister of Defence. I also met the President of the National Assembly and Head of the Government Delegation to the Mexico Dialogue – the talks aimed at addressing the country’s political and economic crises.

I also held meetings with the President of the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and the Ombudsman. In addition, I met with members of the Delegation of the Unitary Platform to the Mexico Dialogue. These meetings gave me a wide and varied perspective about the challenges Venezuela faces.

During my missions to countries more generally, it is fundamentally important for me to be able to speak to as wide an array of people as possible. Here in Caracas, I met with more than 125 members of civil society, human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations and representatives of victims’ organizations from across the country. I thank them for the open and frank meetings I had.  I also deeply appreciate the insights I gained from meeting representatives of the Roman Catholic Church.  

Let me share with you some impressions I take from my visit:

  • The fragmented, divided state of Venezuelan society and the fracture of trust, between and among constituencies.
  • The overriding need and eagerness, expressed by many that I met, to build bridges to try to heal these divides.
  • The human rights challenges that the country faces in the civil, political, economic, and social spheres.
  • The need for national and international actors and the UN to help Venezuela to overcome its crises. And also, importantly, the chance to begin to overcome the deep divisions and rebuild the social contract among Venezuelans.  

In all my interactions, I highlighted the importance of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this year. This is not a mere date in the diary or a miraculous text, but a real chance to tackle and advance on many long-standing issues, promote dialogue, and foster healing after decades of rupture.

During frank conversations with the authorities, I raised issues relating to civic space, conditions of detention and judicial delays, among others, encouraging them to take meaningful steps towards reforming the justice and security sectors, and to take the lead in building trust with victims and civil society organisations, to listen to them, to include them meaningfully in dialogue and respond to their plight, in particular, of the victims.

Following my meeting with President Maduro, he publicly expressed his readiness to work towards improving the justice system. This is a key area for reform and I offer the support and expertise of my Office to pursue this.

Based on my discussions, I perceive that there is a general recognition across the political and social spectrum of the need for reform.

I heard accounts of people being arbitrarily detained and tortured, and of family members being killed in security operations and demonstrations. One woman was overcome with emotion as she recounted how two years ago her sister had been detained, raped, and tortured. In my meetings with the President and ministers, I called for all people who have been arbitrarily detained to be released. This also forms part of my global call to governments to amnesty, pardon or simply release all those arbitrarily detained for exercising their fundamental human rights.

Among the other issues I raised was the extensive and lengthy use of pre-trial detention and the need for reforms that are related to people deprived of their liberty.

I was given commitments that torture complaints would be addressed decisively, fully investigated and those responsible brought to justice. I encouraged the authorities to take decisive steps to end torture once and for all, and to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture which seeks both to prevent torture and improve conditions in detention. This would also be in line with Venezuela’s voluntary commitment during the Universal Periodic Review process that is based in Geneva, that goes towards a comprehensive review of the existing legal framework on torture prevention and to strengthen the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture.

I also urged them to ratify the Convention on Enforced Disappearances and the Latin American and Caribbean regional Escazú agreement on the environment.

Civil society actors have shared information about the often dire situation in prisons and the lack of adequate food, medicines and access to adequate and timely healthcare.  My team here conducts regular visits to detention centres but, as I flagged to the authorities, this needs to include all detention centres, including ones run by the military. From my conversations with the authorities, I trust that we will soon have unfettered access to all detention centres in the country

On other specific issues, I was pleased to hear that the authorities are committed to eliminating article 565 of the Organic Code of Military Justice which criminalises same sex relations, and which they describe as obsolete. Such a step would be in line with one of the key demands I heard, from a representative of the LGBTIQ+ community.

I was able to share our observations – and concerns – from a human rights perspective regarding the proposed law that regulates NGOs. I reiterated the importance of guaranteeing civic space, I strongly urge the authorities to take our comments on board.

I also urged the authorities to revise the very restrictive legal provisions that criminalise abortion, that lead to deaths of women who are forced resort to risky clandestine procedures.

My team here has had some access to some judicial files and hearings to be able to make recommendations on the conduct of investigations and proceedings from a human rights perspective. This is important and I encouraged the authorities to make this standard practice. 

The economic and social challenges Venezuela faces, including with respect to the minimum wage and pensions, and the impact this has on people’s daily lives by curtailing their rights to food, water, healthcare, education, and other economic and social rights, were powerfully conveyed to me in my meetings with civil society, trade unionists and pensioners, among others.  

They described regular power cuts, lack of running water, teachers quitting their jobs, unable to survive on their monthly pay. Church representatives told me they don’t need to see reports to know what is happening; they see the suffering when they go out on the street to help some of the most vulnerable communities. According to UN statistics, there are more than seven million people in need of humanitarian assistance in the country.

I heard from across the spectrum of people I spoke to, including humanitarian actors and UN agencies, about the impact of sectorial sanctions on the most vulnerable segments of the population and the hurdles sanctions create for the country’s recovery and development, not least in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. People I met described their struggle to get basic and essential products to sustain their livelihoods, the impossibility of finding medicines their loved ones so badly need, and the mental impact, anxiety, and depression of falling ever further into debt to survive.

While the roots of Venezuela’s economic crisis predate the imposition of economic sanctions, as I highlighted in my interactions, it is clear that the sectorial sanctions imposed since August 2017 have exacerbated the economic crisis and hindered human rights.

My Office has repeatedly recommended that Member States suspend or lift measures that have a detrimental effect on human rights and that are aggravating the humanitarian situation, a call we make with regard to unilateral coercive measures imposed on other countries too.

Indigenous peoples also voiced their legitimate grievances and fears for their communities, amid the threats to their livelihoods, culture and even existence from mining operations,  drug trafficking organisations and illegal armed groups. It is vital that any decisions affecting them are based on their prior and informed consent.

I was able to hear from both the Government and the Unitary Platform delegations to the Mexico Dialogue. I reiterated our support for the ongoing discussions and stressed the need to listen to victims in the political process. While I no way underestimate the challenges ahead, I urged them to listen to one another and embark on meaningful dialogue to find a common vision for the future. There will be obstacles in the way but as a river keeps flowing despite stones in its path, engagement and constructive dialogue can forge a way around obstacles.

All sides need to think about the future they want for Venezuela and my Office is ready to be a bridge-builder between the State institutions and the people, ready to offer our human rights perspective and expertise, and also in relation to the electoral process, and ready to  help ensure that the discourse around human rights is not manipulated for political purposes.  

One of the most telling accounts I heard was from a man visited by members of my team while he was in detention and who worked to ensure his release. This, he said, reassured him that he had not been forgotten. Indeed, everyone I talked to appreciated the presence of our small office here in Venezuela.

With regard to Venezuelans outside the country, I encouraged the Venezuelan authorities to continue and strengthen their cooperation with UN agencies to ensure a voluntary, safe and dignified return for all those who seek it.

In all my interactions, I heard a strong appreciation for the work of my Office throughout  the country, which began operating following the visit by my predecessor, Michelle Bachelet. I am encouraged by the Government’s decision to extend the team’s presence in Venezuela for a further two years, so they can continue and even strengthen their work helping to advance the human rights agenda in the country.

I am committed to remain engaged on Venezuela, not only because I am mandated to do so by the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council, but out of my own firm conviction that this is essential for a better future. I offer my own and my team’s support to all stakeholders.

Thank you very much.