Now is not the time to reduce global surveillance

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I recently attempted a virtual reality experiment by Venezuelan activists who recreated a cell in the Helicoid, the notorious detention center in Caracas run by local intelligence services. You walk into a tiny, dark cell, listen to the flies, and hear the stories of the abuse people have suffered there, in their own voices. It was a stark reminder of the many testimonies I have collected over the years from victims of arbitrary arrests and torture by Venezuelan security agents.

Unfortunately, their experiments were far from virtual – and make no mistake, they continue today.

Several Latin American politicians, especially some from the ideological left, have recently claimed that the human rights situation in Venezuela is improving. But in reality, the Nicolás Maduro government’s crackdown on dissent continues, with no justice for the victims. Now is not the time for the international community to reduce surveillance of the Maduro government. In fact, several upcoming events, including a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council, make external pressure more important than ever.

The Venezuelan organization Foro Penal has 245 political prisoners today, many in detention centers like the Helicoid. The detainees suffered horrific torture, including electric shocks, waterboarding and sexual violence.

In a recent report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, described killings by law enforcement during security operations. At Human Rights Watch, we found that government data itself reveals that security forces killed at least 19,000 people between 2016 and 2019. Many were recorded as resulting from “resisting authority,” but we found that many were extrajudicial executions. Bachelet’s team, present in Venezuela, recently lost access to the Helicoid.

Meanwhile, Venezuelan authorities continue to harass and prosecute independent journalists, human rights defenders and civil society organizations working to address humanitarian and human rights emergencies. In one example, after Javier Tarazona, a human rights defender with the nongovernmental organization Fundaredes, revealed links between Venezuelan security forces and armed groups, authorities arbitrarily arrested him in July 2021. He is still in jail.

Venezuelan authorities have repeatedly failed to protect indigenous populations from violence, forced labor and sexual exploitation in large-scale illegal mining operations. Human Rights Watch has documented horrific abuses – amputations, shootings and murders – committed by groups controlling illegal gold mines in southern Venezuela. In the jungles of the Orinoco and the Amazon, such mining has led to deforestation and water pollution. Several indigenous people have been killed in recent months, human rights organizations report, including Virgilio Trujillo, an indigenous leader who has opposed illegal mining.

Impunity is the norm, despite compelling evidence of widespread abuses. Recent changes to the Venezuelan judicial system could further weaken it. The process of selecting new judges for the Supreme Court – which plays a vital role in the appointment and removal of lower court judges – was not independent, and judges who had not acted as checks on the power executive were re-elected.

International control

Given the lack of judicial independence, international accountability remains more important than ever. A major development was the decision of International Criminal Court (ICC) prosecutor Karim Khan last November to open an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity in Venezuela. For the first time, victims were able to see progress toward holding their abusers accountable for their crimes. Unsurprisingly, Venezuelan authorities asked him to defer his investigation, citing a “genuine desire” to investigate the abuses themselves. But the prosecutor wants to reject the request and continue his investigation.

The prosecutor’s decision follows strong reports from the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela (FFM), appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council in September 2019. In two damning reports, they concluded that there were sufficient grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed and that the justice system had served as a mechanism of repression, rather than a guarantor of rights. The mission involved high-level authorities, including Nicolás Maduro himself.

The mission’s experts will present their third report during the 51st session of the Human Rights Council, which begins on September 12. This will be their final report, unless the board extends the term by majority.

The Venezuelan authorities have undertaken a strategy of apparent, but not genuine, engagement with the proceedings of the Human Rights Council, as they did during the renewal of the previous mandate, trying to show that the mission is not is not necessary. They shouldn’t get away with it.

Venezuelan and international human rights groups are advocating for this extension. For its creation and first renewal, a group of Latin American countries, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Paraguay and Peru, as well as Canada , took the lead.

They should repeat their leadership because the Venezuelan authorities will only give ground if international scrutiny persists. The renewal of the mission’s mandate will allow the experts to continue crucial work, complementing the work of the ICC and other international mechanisms.

UN High Commissioner Bachelet has a team that monitors and reports human rights abuses and provides technical assistance to Venezuelan authorities, but does not collect or preserve evidence for accountability processes, such as the do the mission.

The evidence collected by the mission could also help the ICC, which can establish individual criminal responsibility for serious crimes, but usually only in a small number of cases due to resource constraints. But the mission’s focus is also broader than that of the ICC, focusing on structural issues. And while the ICC’s investigation could take years, the mission reports on rights violations every year.

Venezuelan presidential elections are scheduled for 2024, legislative and regional elections for 2025, and if the past is any indicator, the crackdown could increase as the campaign season progresses. The mission can play an essential early warning role and prevent further restrictions on civic space, freedom of expression or association and the repression of dissent.

The resistance of some Latin American governments to lead efforts for mission renewal appears to be based on a false premise that it would undermine attempts at dialogue with Venezuelan authorities. Yet historically these authorities have not made voluntary concessions to protect the rights of Venezuelans. There’s no reason to think that’s going to change. No negotiated solution to return to democracy is possible without incentives – and international pressure and responsibility are essential to create them.

Latin American leaders who are committed to restoring democracy and human rights in Venezuela, regardless of their position on the ideological spectrum, should unite in supporting a resolution to renew the mission’s mandate. They should lead by example and then urge all member states of the Human Rights Council to support it.

Taraciuk Broner is associate director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch.

Key words: Human Rights, Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela

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The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Quarterly Americas or its publishers.

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