The Venezuelan Paradox

by Juan Carlos Portilla

At 3:00 a.m. on May 8, 2014, Venezuelan government troops abruptly arrived at camps in Caracas to evict students who were peacefully assembled to protest against the oppressive policies of the Venezuelan regime. Security forces arbitrarily arrested hundreds of undergraduates and detained them on military bases. Actions such as this are evidence of the Venezuelan government’s large-scale plan to detain students and silence political opposition. Not only has the governmentsystematically violated the human rights of opposition leaders, but breaches also include abuses against detainees and the decision to withdraw from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which left Venezuelans without its protection. Although the government continues to repress its citizens, the country is currently seeking a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Abuses such as the May 8 arrests underscore Venezuela’s lack of compliance with international law and constitute behavior that should bar Venezuela from a UN Security Council seat.

Even while the Venezuelan government seeks a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council, it actually criminalizes the right of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of expression. These rights are protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Venezuela ratified in 1978. Yet, the government consistently silences and violates the rights of opposition leaders. Notably, Leopoldo Lopez, the National Coordinator of Popular Will, which is one of the Venezuelan opposition political parties, is on trial for inciting violence by encouraging street protesters against President Maduro in 2014. Lopez was targeted by the government after he demanded a complete investigation of the government’s role in more than forty-five human rights violations cases that occurred during February 2014 demonstrations, which brought thousands of Venezuelans to protest against the government’s failure to manage rising crime and a scarcity of essential goods and services. Similarly, on March 19, the government arrested Daniel Ceballos, who is the Mayor of San Cristóbal, a city located in a state bordering on Colombia. Authorities announced on TV that Mayor Ceballos was detained “on charges of ‘civil rebellion’ and ‘conspiracy.’” There is also the case of Sairam Rivas, a twenty-one-year-old student of the Central University of Venezuela, who also marched to protest against the government and called upon students to join her and “her protest.” On May 8, Rivas became the youngest political prisoner of the regime and a “trophy of the dictatorship.” These cases show unequivocally that dissent is being criminalized in Venezuela.

In addition to arresting opposition leaders, human rights abuses in detention facilities are rampant. El Helicoide, which is a detention facility and the headquarters of the Venezuelan Intelligence Services, has housed more than forty-six political detainees over the past decade and is one site where the most violations are perpetrated. Violations include the sunlight deprivation policy, which can cause serious diseases such as osteoporosis. Iván Simonovis, a political prisoner arrested in 2004 under President Chavez and victim of the sunlight deprivation policy, was held at El Helicoide for nine years. He developed “severe osteoporosis, particularly on his spine and femur, with a significant risk of fracture.” Sairam Rivas is another victim of the sunlight deprivation policy at El Helicoide, in addition to suffering many threats against her personal integrity. The facility has become the main theater for Venezuelan security forces to perpetrate abuses against political detainees.

The case of Raúl José Díaz Peña, a college student detained at El Helicoide under the Chavez era who was subjected to constant torture by Venezuelan security forces, highlights not only the Venezuelan governments policy of abuse, but also the importance of international courts as an outlet for victims. The case of Díaz Peña was brought to the attention of the Inter-American System of Human Rights, leading to a hearing with The Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In 2012, the Court found Venezuela responsible for violating the rights of Díaz Peña protected by the American Convention on Human Rights, which Venezuela had ratified in 1977. The Court ordered Venezuela to adopt measures to improve the conditions at El Helicoide, which have been abusive and dangerous toward detainees for years. Nevertheless, the government did not respect the judgment of the Court, and, instead, withdrew from it. Withdrawing from the Court left Venezuelans without legal protections or a forum within the Inter-American System of Human Rights to which they can bring human rights cases when the domestic remedies prove futile.

The UN must take Venezuela’s withdrawal from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights into account when considering Venezuela for a non-permanent seat on the Security Council. The above-mentioned human rights abuses committed by the Venezuelan government against students and members of the political opposition contravene the spirit and the letter of the UN Charter. What is more, Venezuela has violated parts of the UN human rights system to which it is a signatory, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and its Optional Protocol. If Venezuela secures the two-thirds majority of votes at the UN General Assembly in October to win a Security Council seat, the UN human rights system as whole will be weakened. As Venezuela spends millions of its petrodollars to secure votes amongst UN members, its government continues repressing domestic political opposition. This is the Venezuelan paradox that the UN General Assembly can avert in the upcoming days.

About the Author

Juan Carlos Portilla is a Visiting Scholar at Boston College Law School. He is representing before the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations two students of the Venezuelan political opposition, who are victims of unlawful detention in Caracas. He previously worked for the government of Colombia. He is a lawyer from the Sabana University School of Law, Colombia, and holds a LL.M. in International Law from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.

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