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The Venezuela that Volker Türk visited

Comparisons are hateful, but sometimes unavoidable. Unlike the visit of the previous High Commissioner Bachelet, Turk’s visit was marked by secrecy and brevity; not only in the duration, but in the space dedicated to the non-governmental sector, which was more protocol than substantive.

It is striking that in the first paragraph of his statement to the media on Saturday, January 28, High Commissioner Turk stated that “the talks were aimed at addressing the country’s political and economic crises,” without reference to human rights, to add later that among the impressions of his visit are the fragmentation of society and the need to heal divisions, and only in third place, the challenges – not flagrant abuses – in human rights.

It is somewhat disconcerting that the world head of human rights places the issue directly linked to his mandate in third place in his impressions. It is not a question of ignoring the political angle of the Venezuelan crisis, but rather of not displacing his own mandate to address issues that correspond to the Secretary General and the political instances of the UN. The opposite would be to continue following the dangerous and useless path of his predecessor, in which human rights were part of a political negotiation, but never its basis or purpose.

At the press conference, the High Commissioner brought up some novel topics that would have been incorporated into the agenda of issues dealt with the government and that should be welcomed, such as the call to sign the Escazú agreement, the repeal of article 565 of the Organic Code of Military Justice that criminalizes relations between people of the same sex and the revision of the provisions that penalize abortion.

His reference to recurring situations of human rights violations was also important, such as extrajudicial executions in the context of protests and security operations, arbitrary arrests, torture, the “dire” situation of prisons and, above all, the need for victims to be heard.

There are, however, troubling tones and omissions. Among the omissions there was the reference to the affectation of the rights of indigenous peoples without any mention of the Orinoco Mining Arc, on which there is already a valuable input developed by the Fact-Finding Mission, to which, like Bachelet, he didn’t make any mention, neither in terms of the work carried out, nor in terms of requesting the government to allow its access to the country.

On the other hand, the High Commissioner reported that he asked the government to take his comments on the anti-NGO bill into account, without sharing information about the substantive part of his comments, or if they had to do with amendments to a text for which there is no possible solution, or if he advocated for the suspension of the process, as it should be and as requested by the organizations that met with him.

On the humanitarian issue, the government seems to have achieved its objective of repeating a lie a thousand times until it becomes the truth, since the High Commissioner assured that “according to UN statistics, there are more than seven million people who need humanitarian aid in the country”, when the truth is that this figure corresponds to a number imposed by the government since 2019, when it vetoed a study by the World Food Program that stated that 9.3 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance.

In another vein, the High Commissioner stated that “everyone I spoke to appreciate the presence of our small office here in Venezuela,” which indicates that he did not acknowledge receipt of the questions and concerns expressed by the organizations in an open letter made public during his visit, some of whose approaches were also shared at the meeting with the NGOs on Thursday, January 26. In addition, the High Commissioner announced that he had signed an agreement with the government that allows the extension of the mandate of his Office in the field for two more years, but the secret nature of the letter of understanding is maintained and, therefore, the lack of transparency that prevents social monitoring of the agreed issues.

Finally, it should be noted that, among the requests that Turk made to the government, as reported in the press conference at the end of his visit, there were issues such as the need to advance in judicial reform with the technical assistance of his office, the release of people detained arbitrarily, the questioning of the “broad and prolonged” use of pretrial detention, unrestricted access to all detention centers and taking decisive measures to end torture, including the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture.

These are certainly valid demands. However, the High Commissioner should question the effectiveness of the strategy developed by his Office up to now in relation to Venezuela, when it is observed that all these demands were part of what -according to what has been reported- would be contained in the letter of understanding signed with Venezuela in June 2019. If all of the above was promised by Venezuela to High Commissioner Bachelet almost four years ago, what else is there to wait for the Office of the High Commissioner to assume a more energetic and determined tone in the face of the breach of promises by of the government?

The Venezuela that High Commissioner Turk visited is worse off than the one that his predecessor Bachelet visited, not only because the deterioration of human rights continues and, in some cases, has worsened, but also because the promises made by the government almost four years ago have been breached. There is no greater evidence of the lack of ground for the supposed cooperation proclaimed by the government than having to repeat, four years later, the same requests from the first visit to Venezuela. It is time to start speaking loud and clear about the alarming situation of human rights in the country, and to end the time in which the government could be given the benefit of the doubt.

Despite his omissions and tone – and again, the comparisons are hateful, but sometimes unavoidable – the High Commissioner has time to put his own stamp on his strategy in Venezuela and show that he will not follow the steps of Bachelet.