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A slight turn of the Helm

Photo: Samuel Sánchez

When in July 2023 the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Volker Turk appeared before the Human Rights Council to comply with the resolution that requested a comprehensive report with a detailed assessment of the application of the recommendations made to the government of Venezuela, from AlertaVenezuela we did not hesitate to describe his report as “generic, weak and insufficient.” One year later and five months after the expulsion of the team from the OHCHR in Venezuela, a more determined tone is observed in the new report presented.

It is worth remembering that the expulsion of the OHCHR team occurred, as admitted by prosecutor Saab, due to the message published by the Office on the X social network about human rights defender Rocio San Miguel, saying that lack of information on her whereabout lead to “potentially qualifying her detention as an enforced disappearance.” Despite there being no express mention of San Miguel’s disappearance, the government considered the message offensive enough to expel the OHCHR officials.

Changes in tone

Today we observe with satisfaction that Turk’s new report not only reiterates that San Miguel was subjected to an enforced disappearance, but also makes a pedagogical exercise in which it remembers that “there is no time limit for a forced disappearance to occur” citing the doctrine of the Working Group on Involuntary or Forced Disappearances (WGIFD), which Saab ignored in his statements against the OHCHR.

The report refers to members of opposition parties and trade unionists and adds “11 of these arrests could amount to forced disappearances”; mentions the transfer of people deprived of liberty without notification to their families “which could amount to forced disappearances”; refers to the arbitrary detention of 28 people (including 5 women) “who were subjected to forced disappearances for periods that ranged between two and 41 days”; and the disappearance of people in border and mining areas.

In this way, the OHCHR is raising the alarm regarding what cannot be classified as isolated events and about which the WGIFD had already warned. Consequently, Turk makes a conclusive call by asking “to end and investigate all reports of forced disappearances.”

There is also a more defined volume regarding the situation of defender Javier Tarazona, in which case he “reiterates his call for his release without conditions.” The truth is that there had never been a call for Tarazona’s unconditional freedom, so talk of reiteration is unfounded, but it’s an advancement. Bachelet had limited herself to requesting “urgent access to a lawyer,” while Turk had expressed concern about his health. Along these same lines, the report also makes a new recommendation with more direct language that calls for “the full and unconditional release of all people detained illegally or arbitrarily, including human rights defenders, journalists and trade unionists.”

The report makes a better comparison between the recommendations made to Venezuela and their effective compliance, evidencing significant gaps in several issues, such as the conditions of detention of women and LGBTIQ+ people, the continuation of the application of the Organic Law against Organized Crime and the Financing of Terrorism added to the absence of due process and the right to legal assistance, the lack of progress in investigations into deaths in protests, the absence of determination of responsibilities of the chains of command in deaths in protests and in security operations, lack of progress in investigations into murders of indigenous people and disappearances that occurred between 2017 and 2019, as well as delays in investigations into complaints of torture.

The silences and omissions

Regarding his own expulsion, the report limits itself to saying that “the OHCHR regrets this fact,” without any call for reconsideration, nor any information about the efforts that its office is taking (or not) to reverse the government decision. The parsimony of the phrase gives rise to any speculation, but it is something that is beyond the scope of this analysis.

Although the report “welcomes” the government’s commitments on several conventions of the International Labor Organization, including No. 87, on freedom of association and Protection of the Right to Organize, it seems that such satisfaction does not correspond to the facts, since the same report describes a series of attacks against union members and union leaders during the period, including the arrest of five union leaders or trade unionists (all men) accused, among others, of incitement to hatred, conspiracy and association to commit a crime; the dismissal of union leaders from their workplace for participating in protests; and the incursion of agents of the Bolivarian National Police without a court order, during a union meeting.

Although the report dedicates considerable space to the situation of the civic and democratic space, the absence of information on the massive denial of access to the electoral registry that affects some 5 million Venezuelans abroad who will not be able to vote in the presidential election, as well as another series of irregularities that have been accumulating in the preparation of the election is striking. The continued silence in this area suggests that the OHCHR maintains its position of evading the electoral topic, still assuming it as a “political” issue, and not a human rights concern.

It is also worrying that in the section on the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment, no mention is made of the impact of the Arco Minero del Orinoco initiative, although there is a reference to this predatory project when referring to disappearances and contemporary forms of slavery in mining areas.

In the section on the rule of law and accountability, it is striking and worrying that the OHCHR dedicates a paragraph – otherwise necessary – to the investigation carried out by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on Venezuela, but does not make any reference to the equally important and valuable investigations of the HRC’s Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, which denotes that the wall imposed since Bachelet’s time on a mechanism of great importance to document the serious human rights violations committed in Venezuela remains.

Perspectives

It is essential that this first turn of the helm be reinforced with messages that reflect the preventive and protective purpose that the OHCHR must maintain towards Venezuela, regardless of where its officers are located. In this same week, Venezuelan civil society organizations called on Turk to “exhaust all actions within his mandate to accompany the Venezuelan population in their right to resolve their conflicts in a peaceful and participatory manner.”

AlertaVenezuela has warned about the exponential growth of repression in the first months of 2024, and it is observed how, as the election date approaches, all types of expressions of punishment for those who support the opposition candidacy grow. In this context, the monitoring and firm voice of the OHCHR are more necessary and the international community must join this call to protect the Venezuelan population.