Venezuelan Security Forces Avoid Accountability

On Friday, the United Nations human rights office released a report calling on the government of Venezuela to seek justice for the victims of a recent wave of extrajudicial killings. During these events, security forces have swept through poor neighborhoods in Venezuelan cities in what have been officially called “crime fighting operations”.

Between July 2015 and March 2017, officers for the Operation for the Liberation of the People, carrying out an apparent crime reduction initiative, have moved through streets and entered homes, killing over 500 people. Most of the targets of these killings have been young men. In many cases, according to the UN report, evidence has been staged to make it look as though the killings took place after an exchange of fire.

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The officers involved in the killings have been granted immunity and none have faced charges.

The UN has called for an investigation into these killings and representatives have proposed the involvement of the International Criminal Court, but so far, UN investigators have been denied access to Venezuela and have based their findings on interviews with victims and witnesses.

Some of the evidence has been provided by exiled former Attorney General Luisa Ortega.

Increasingly authoritarian president Nicolas Maduro has led the country into a spiral of recession and hyperinflation, and as Venezuela’s currency loses value, hunger and discontent have sparked unrest and uncertainty. Maduro has responded to the UN report by calling the accusations of unaccountability “lies” and blaming the country’s economic strife on recently imposed US oil sanctions.

The UN report has been released just the United States has announced plans to leave the UN

Human Rights Council, of which Venezuela is still a member.

Last year alone, about 125 Venezuelan people died in anti-government protests. Inquiries into these deaths and those caused by the 2015-2017 sweeps both fall to the Bureau for scientific, criminal and forensic investigations, but the bureau is also allegedly responsible for these killings.

The lack of accountability for those involved, and the economically unstable and increasingly authoritarian climate of Venezuela, mark a path toward humanitarian crisis, a path that has been accelerated by Maduro’s questionable electoral victory earlier this spring. It remains to be seen how the member nations of the Human Rights Council will respond, but the US has limited its influence over this response by withdrawing its participation.

The combination of authoritarian governments and economic instability often place nations on a path toward systemic human rights violations. And as this progression takes place, we often see familiar signs: pushback and defensive posturing on the part of a challenged or illegitimate leader, immunity for officials who carry out crimes against civilians, and the state’s refusal to cooperate with international bodies, including investigators.

We anticipate another well-known hallmark will result from this ongoing spiral: a refugee crisis. Emigration will likely accelerate from Venezuela to surrounding states, and those who leave will likely reach US borders before the crisis is resolved. Our level of preparation will determine whether this influx can be absorbed and our response can earn the respect of the global community, or if our current chaotic and inhumane approach at the southern border will still be prevalent at that time.