Venezuelan officials should face the ICC for committing crimes against humanity
“There are reasonable grounds, that satisfy the standard of proof required by Article 53 of the Rome Statute, to believe that acts to which the civilian population of Venezuela was subjected to, dating back to at least February 12, 2014, constitute crimes against humanity, in accordance with Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, including the crimes of murder, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, persecution, and enforced disappearances,” concluded the Panel of Independent International Experts appointed by the OAS Secretary General.
Since the 2013 election of Chavez’s anointed successor Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela began to descend into an unprecedented economic crisis. Venezuela’s economic crisis turned political when mass protests broke out in February 2014 over the attempted rape of a college student in San Cristobal. These protests evolved into a revolt against the government and the increasingly authoritarian rule of Nicolas Maduro. The protests started a wave of human rights violations: excessive use of force by security forces, a crackdown on the freedom of expression and the arbitrary detention of those suspected of ‘plotting against the government’.
After the protests subsided, the government began to systematically chip away what was left of Venezuela’s democracy, appointing loyalists to the Supreme Court immediately after the MUD coalition of opposition politicians won the legislative elections of 2015 by a landslide. This rubber stamp Supreme Court effectively voided the opposition-controlled assembly by overturning its laws and declaring them ‘unconstitutional’.
The systematic erosion of Venezuela’s democracy and the increasing discontent among the population has led the Maduro regime to rely on the military, the secret police and irregular armed groups such as the colectivos to enforce his rule. To ensure the military’s loyalty, Maduro has appointed high ranking officers to his Cabinet, the executive board of, the state-run oil company (PDVSA in Spanish) and placing the military in charge of distributing the nation’s limited food supply.
The empowerment of the military has led to a further erosion of Venezuela’s democracy to where the OAS has begun to investigate whether Venezuela has committed crimes against humanity during Maduro’s rule. The OAS is looking to suspend Venezuela from the organization and to possibly refer to the International Criminal Court (ICC). According to Article 7 of the Rome Statute, one of the founding documents of the ICC, crimes against humanity are defined as genocide, mass rape, sexual violence, political persecution, and enforced disappearances committed systemically by a State and or actors in positions of power. There are reasons to believe that Venezuela has met these criteria over the past couple of years.
Venezuela’s regime has been progressively becoming more aggressive with how it targets it political opponents by publicly urging its supporters to take up arms and use ‘any means necessary’ if the revolution is under threat by a coup or any threatening actors. Evidence of state sponsored violence is seen when the government coordinates repression methods and attacks against dissidents with its security forces and civilian militias like the colectivos. The Ministry of Defense has also authorized its security forces to use live ammunition to put down protests. According to figures provided by the former Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz and presented in recent OAS report, “the tactics used demonstrate a clear pattern of the intent to kill, demonstrated by the location of the death blow (vital areas of the body, in particular, shots to the head and neck), the use of modified and live munitions, and the close range in which these acts were perpetrated,” leading to more than 8,292 extrajudicial executions between 2015 and 2017. This demonstrates coordinated attacks against civilians on behalf of the State.
The Venezuelan State has also detained people over their participation in these protests or for participating in online groupchats where the protests are being discussed. IAHCR concluded there were over 6,729 demonstrations after March 30; 5,341 arbitrary arrests between April 1 and August 31 2017 and 757 citizens were tried before a military tribunal between April 1 and October 31 2017.
The victims of these arrests have been detained by the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN in Spanish) and then taken to prison cells where they are tortured and denied basic necessities. Former detainees have also claimed that rape and sexual violence are committed on behalf of security officials. The Bemba Gombe case classifies rape into two categories. Firstly, as the penetration of one’s body via a sexual organ. Secondly as the use of coercion, detention, psychological pressure or abuse of power for sexual abuse. One inmate reported that agents would grope women and offer them freedom in exchange for sexual favors. There are cases where these prisoners are held incommunicado meaning that they were detained for months at a time where they kept in subpar conditions where they are denied access to their families and lawyers.
As mentioned above, the government has taken advantage of the Venezuela’s food shortage to use food for its own electoral purposes, requiring citizens wanting to receive food boxes to register their ID cards whenever they request the food boxes and sign a form that is sent to the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV in Spanish) headquarters. Allegedly, those who do not sign the PSUV form or register their ID cards, then will not receive their food boxes. According to Freddy Bernal, the Minister of Urban Agriculture himself, the food boxes are also a way to exercise “political and social control”.
These pieces of evidence suggest that the Venezuelan government has committed crimes against humanity by systemically targeting political opponents and using armed groups such as the colectivos and its security services to target and harass its citizens. The authorization of firearms by the Defense Ministry during protests led to the conclusion that the government is responsible for the murders of protesters during anti government protests. The use of food for political purposes abuses basic human rights of Venezuelans and amounts to political discrimination. The evidence about these widespread state sponsored methods of repression are enough reason to believe that the Venezuelan officials should be brought before the International Criminal Court.
Civil society in Venezuela tries to soften the polarization and calls to stop the violence. However, there is a macro situation that requires institutional responses, both inside and outside the country. People in Need supports initiatives that favor reconciliation and social action in the face of violence.