On the oral updates from the OHCHR and the FFMV
On March 17, 2022, the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) laid out an oral update on the human rights situation in Venezuela, while the International Independent Fact-Finding Mission (FFMV) did the same the day after, both within the framework of the 49th session of the Human Rights Council.
Considering the proximity and complementarity of both oral updates, it is worth looking comparatively at the narrative and the demands on the Venezuelan situation coming from both international bodies, which will be proposed from three common points discussed: i) reforms to the justice system; ii) the situation of people arbitrarily detained and their health situation, and iii) the access to justice and the support for the victims, including their relatives.
First point. While the OHCHR opened its intervention affirming that “the reform of the justice system and the restructuring of the National Police are promising steps”, the FFMV asserted that “concerted efforts are needed to address the structural problems stemming from the lack of judicial independence (…)”. In line with its optimistic vision of the reforms, the OHCHR mentioned three specific changes in that direction related to the prohibition of military prosecution of civilians, the measures against overcrowding and the dissolution of the Special Action Forces (FAES), and the extension of the term for possible candidacies to the Supreme Court of Justice. Then, the High Commissioner exhausted the subject of the reforms, stating that “they must be implemented in a meaningful, genuine and effective manner” to address the violations recorded and prevent their recurrence in the future.
The FFMV expressed five (5) changes around justice, namely, the reduction of time limits for criminal proceedings, the progress in the investigation of some cases, the recent law on the guarantee of justice and reparation for victims, the modifications to the Organic Law of the Supreme Court of Justice (LOTSJ), and the regularization plan for prosecutors announced by the attorney general. But the Mission did not end up with a vague enunciation but rather took the step that the OHCHR did not want by warning about the problems faced by each of these changes and the chances for improvement.
Regarding the reduction of criminal proceedings terms, the FFMV recalled that “a legal reform, by itself, is insufficient if it is not implemented properly.” Regarding the progress in some cases, it replied that “however, there are still dozens of people who have been detained without trial for more than three years.” Faced with the law on the guarantee of justice, it questioned that “the seven members of the Commission (of guarantee for justice and reparation of human rights victims) are appointed by the National Assembly, which endangers their independence with respect to the political actors”. In relation to the new LOTSJ, it criticized that it “increases the political influence over the Judiciary”, since the Judicial Nominations Committee will be mostly made up of members of the National Assembly and not civil society, among other problems. Regarding the regularization plan for prosecutors, it stressed that it does not guarantee access to the prosecutor’s career through public competition nor does it “offer solutions to other structural problems within the Prosecutor Office,” identified in the Mission’s second report.
The first big difference that is observed does not consist in the number of changes addressed, not even in a more optimistic perspective vs a more critical one that clearly exists, but in something, unfortunately, more basic: the human rights commitment assumed by the FFMV of providing complete, up to date and real information, not biased or cut as the OHCHR has been doing. The FFMV simply provided an honest diagnosis of these changes by adding relevant information, while the OHCHR, in strident dissonance, once again opted not only to celebrate nothingness itself but to hide realities.
Second point. The OHCHR continued to “note challenges to due process, including the right to liberty and trial without undue delay, and access to a defense of one’s own choosing”. The OHCHR specified that 18 people have been released (although she should have said our of jail, since they are not free while their processes remain open), 12 remain detained despite decisions of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions, as well as another 6 despite having a release decision. The OHCHR recalled that its office “has been regularly drawing the attention of the authorities to specific urgent cases.” Then it brought up the case of Javier Tarazona, both because of his criminalization as a human rights defender and because of his delicate health situation. There was no explicit reference to other cases.
The FFMV did not offer numbers of arbitrary arrests or conditions of detention but instead focused on reporting cases showing the persistence of restrictive patterns. In this regard, it expressed the deaths in custody of “political opponents to the Government or perceived as such,” due to the lack of medical care, referring to the case of General Raúl Isaías Baduel. It then drew attention to the situation of detainees who have not received adequate medical care, such as Emirlendris Benítez, whose health “has deteriorated significantly, leaving her prostrate in a wheelchair,” or the case of General Baduel’s son, Josnars Adolfo Baduel, without receiving medical attention from the Helicoide, at the Bolivarian Intelligence Service headquarters (Sebin).
Likewise, the Mission stated that despite the progress made in transferring people outside the Sebin and the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) headquarters, “it is worrying that some opponents of the Government or people perceived as such have not been transferred,” adding that “equally worrying are the reports that the DGCIM continues to transfer new detainees to Boleíta (DGCIM headquarter).” In this context, it framed the cases of Javier Tarazona, Roland Carreño, Juan Carlos Ruffo and María Auxiliadora Delgado. Lastly, the FFMV questioned the continued use of the justice system as a tool to persecute dissidents, as happened in the cases of Orlando Moreno and Juan Carlos Guillén.
The second big difference that is observed, not only in the level of information available, now refers to the narrative used. A serious human rights perspective must be critical, which forces us to go beyond numbers and make visible restrictive patterns with relevant cases, as the FFMV did. The OHCHR, by limiting itself to numbers -empty- and reiterating vague statements, shows the facts as isolated situations and with more limited scope and impact than they really have. We must be aware of this uncritical and shortened narrative, among other reasons, because of the fanciful messages that it is sending to the international community -and inside the country.
Third point. The OHCHR affirmed that “state agents have been condemned in at least three emblematic cases, among them, for the murder and torture of Lieutenant Commander Rafael Acosta Arévalo”, and that “these are steps in the right direction, but there is still more to be done”. In contrast, the FFMV, in addition to presenting a critical analysis of such cases, included the voices of their relatives. Although it recognized the material convictions achieved in the cases of Councilman Fernando Albán and Captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo, the Mission pointed out that “national investigations, when carried out, have a limited scope and are directed against low-level material authors. The cases of Mr. Albán and Mr. Acosta Arévalo are examples of this”. Moreover, “victims of human rights violations and crimes and/or their families have the right to participate in judicial proceedings, as guaranteed by domestic law. According to the relatives of Mr. Albán and Mr. Acosta Arévalo, this right has not been respected.”
The third big difference that is observed, not one of censorship of information or lack of critical perspective, lays out in the recognition of victims as the ultimate target of human rights work. The FFMV, in its oral reports and updates, grounds its actions on the victims, echoing the complaints of their relatives. Due to the centrality that the victims occupy in its reports, a source in turn of the rigor and credibility of its work methodology, the Mission has no qualms about questioning the State, while the OHCHR is still weighing whether fully accompanying and defending certain victims is politically convenient.
The omission of information, the undermining of criticism, and the failure to accompany the victims result in an dangerous weakness for the defense of human rights and produce serious consequences in the internal and international political spheres in terms of how to respond to the Venezuelan situation. The OHCHR, being on-site and with more resources of all kinds, sacrifices the protection and structural reforms that are needed to maintain certain promotional efforts in the country; the FFMV, despite not operating on the ground and with fewer resources than the OHCHR, firmly upholds its human rights demands, without utilitarian calculations, bringing independent work that benefits the country.
These marked differences are not in vain reflected in the closure of the interventions. The OHCHR concluded its speech with the statement that “(…) I also welcome the commitment of the authorities to my Office and trust that we will continue to deepen our cooperation to promote human rights in the country”. Instead, the FFMV closed by expressing the following: “We urge the members of the Human Rights Council to continue paying close attention to the events in Venezuela and observe whether credible progress is made in advancing justice, accountability and respect for human rights”.
This comparative exercise serves many purposes. The most important conclusion is that it once again highlights the need to establish a robust and independent OHCHR country office, ensuring that complementary mechanisms such as the FFMV and the United Nations special procedures mandate-holders continue their reporting and monitoring work.