The quest for justice in Venezuela | Opinion

Members of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) during street protests in Venezuela, June 2017.Miguel Gutierrez

When 20-year-old Venezuelan basketball player and student Juan Pablo Pernalete left home to join a march on April 26, 2017, his parents José Pernalete and Elvira Llovera never thought it would be the last day they would speak to their son. Hours later, he was killed when a member of the Bolivarian National Guard fired a tear gas canister directly into his chest. When we caught up with the Pernaletes last month in Caracas, they had tears in their eyes as they described their son as bright and kind – like a compassionate animal lover.

Juan Pablo was one of thousands of young people who took to the streets after the Venezuelan government stripped the democratically elected National Assembly of its legislative powers, plunging the country further into authoritarianism. At least 123 other people were killed amid the unrest and repression during protests that year.

Over the next five years, the Pernalete family faced countless obstacles in their quest for justice. The Venezuelan government has waged a smear campaign against Juan Pablo and all the young people who died in the 2017 wave of protests, calling them criminals and their families opportunists. Senior officials in Nicolás Maduro’s government have fabricated alternative accounts of Juan Pablo’s death, claiming he was killed by hooded men with a bolt-action pistol.

The perpetrators of this crime and others that have occurred in the context of repression and violence in recent years have largely benefited from impunity inside Venezuela. This includes systematic extrajudicial executions mainly poor young men committed by the police and security forces in working-class neighborhoods, operations that amount to a criminalization of poverty. Thousands of people have been killed in recent years by security forces in operations devoid of control and accountability, leaving behind families without access to remedy.

Calls for justice in all these cases have intensified within the international community since 2019. In that year, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Venezuela (FFM), a three-person group that conducted investigations. and documenting the human rights reality in the country. For the Pernaletes – along with countless other Venezuelan families and victims – the FFM has provided a means to show the truth about their cases to the world.

The experts have gone ahead despite the fact that the Venezuelan government has so far denied them entry into the country. The FFM conducted groundbreaking research, interviewed witnesses, collected primary evidence, and spoke to current and former members of the security forces as well as other Venezuelan actors with first-hand knowledge of the crimes.

What the experts found was appalling. In their first report in 2020, the FFM concluded that there were grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed in Venezuela, including “murders; imprisonment and other severe deprivation of physical liberty; torture; rape and other forms of sexual violence; enforced disappearance of people […] and other inhumane acts of a similar character”. These widespread and systematic crimes were perpetrated under two state policies: one of targeted repression of perceived opponents, and the other aimed at eliminating individuals perceived as criminals through extrajudicial executions.

The FMM also found that “high-level authorities had knowledge of these crimes” and that those responsible likely knew of these crimes – and took no steps to prevent them – throughout the chain of command, members of the security and intelligence base. forces at the highest levels of government.

Without justice for those responsible for the grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity documented by the fact-finding mission, there can be no meaningful solution to the Venezuelan crisis.

In a second gear made public in 2021, the FFM documented how the Venezuelan judiciary was co-opted by the executive branch, and how this has created an environment in which prosecutors, judges and police are complicit in persecution and repression generalized. The report documents how the Venezuelan justice system routinely covers up unlawful arrests and other breaches of due process, and turns a blind eye to human rights abuses.

These reports have provided an important record for the victims, and they can potentially contribute directly to the search for justice in their cases. In November 2021, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened a formal investigation on possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela committed by government officials and pro-government individuals, including arbitrary imprisonment, sexual violence, torture, and politically motivated persecution. This is a historic announcement, making Venezuela the first country in the Americas to be officially investigated by the ICC. But it will be a long and slow process. The FFM, meanwhile, continues to gather evidence that contributes to the ICC’s investigation and publicizes its findings in hopes of deterring further crimes.

This work of the FFM is vital, but its mandate is in jeopardy. In its current session, the UN Human Rights Council will face a vote on whether to extend the mission’s mandate or let it expire. In recent months, the Maduro government has attempted to present breakthroughs in some cases to argue against the need for both the FFM and the ICC investigation, but these are actually limited and insufficient breakthroughs.

In the Pernalete case, for example, prosecutors initially named 13 National Guard members responsible in 2021, but only brought formal manslaughter charges against two of them — not counting, lawyers say. des Pernaletes, the official who probably pulled the trigger. The Maduro government seems to be betting on the international community’s disinterest in cases like these and generally paying less attention to human rights abuses in Venezuela. Meanwhile, human rights defenders in the country regularly point to the FFM, alongside the ICC investigation, as essential to preventing even deeper repression and persecution. For this reason, it is essential that the mandate of the FFM be renewed and that the United States and other members of the UN Human Rights Council ensure that the experts can continue their vital work.

In recent months, the United States and other international stakeholders have focused efforts on advancing negotiations between the Maduro government and the political opposition in Venezuela in hopes of restoring democracy to the country. These efforts are important and must continue in order to integrate justice. Without justice for those found responsible for the grave human rights violations and crimes against humanity documented by the fact-finding mission, there can be no meaningful solution to the Venezuelan crisis.

Brandon D. James