Feb 25

Yesterday the OAS Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has frequently been critical of the Colombian government, issued a very strong report finding fault with the human rights and democracy situation in Venezuela.

In response, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called the report “pure garbage” and announced that Venezuela will pull out of the Commission.

The report itself is 300 pages long; here is a quick summary prepared by CIP Intern Cristina Salas.

Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela

The last visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to Venezuela occurred in May 2002, following the attempted coup that occurred in April and at President Chávez’s request.

To follow up on recommendations made in the Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela, which was published as a result of that visit, the Commission has tried unsuccessfully to get the State’s consent to visit the country. The Commission does not consider that these denials prevent it from analyzing the situation of human rights in Venezuela. The report Democracy and Human Rights in Venezuela reveals that human rights protected in the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights are being constrained in the following matters:

Political Rights and Participation in Public Life

Among the factors that hinder enjoyment of political rights in Venezuela is the Comptroller General of the Republic’s administrative resolutions preventing opposition candidates’ access to power. These disqualifications contravene the Inter-American Convention, since they were not the result of criminal convictions and were ordered lacking prior proceedings. The State also restricts some powers of democratically elected opposition authorities.

The Commission notes excessive use of state force and the actions of violent groups to punish, attack or intimidate people who express dissent or demonstrate against official policies. Over the past five years, criminal charges have been brought against more than 2,200 people in connection with their involvement in public demonstrations.

Independence and Separation of State Powers

The independence and impartiality of the judiciary system is one of the weakest points in Venezuelan democracy. The vagueness of the Organic Law of the Supreme Court of Justice allows judicial officials to be appointed discretionarily and without being subject to competition. Also, since most of them have provisionary status, they can be removed if they make decisions contrary to government’s interests.

Freedom of Thought and Expression

Freedom of thought and expression is hampered by violent acts of intimidation committed by private groups against journalists and media outlets, by discrediting declarations made by high-ranking public officials against the media and journalists, and by opening administrative proceedings with high levels of discretion.

Serious violations of the rights to life and humane treatment in Venezuela as a result of the victims’ exercise of free expression include the deaths of two reporters. The report points out cases of prior censorship, the proceedings to cancel television and radio stations’ broadcasting concessions, and the order to cease 32 stations’ transmissions. The Law on Social Responsibility in Radio and Television, which governs freedom of expression, is vague and metes out harsh punishments decided by a body of the executive. Moreover, the offenses of desacato (disrespect) and vilipendio (contempt) introduced in the Penal Code in 2005 impose criminal liability for the exercise of freedom of expression.

President Chavez relies on the legal framework to broadcast his speeches simultaneously across the media, with no time constraints. The duration and frequency of these presidential blanket broadcasts could be considered abusive as the content might not always be serving the public interest.

The recent Organic Education Law, meanwhile, gives the state broad margin to implement the principles and values that should guide education. The Inter-American Commission is also concerned about the possibility that authorities could close down private educational institutions.

The Defense of Human Rights and the Freedom of Association

Human rights defenders in Venezuela suffer attacks, threats, harassment, and even killings. Authorities have opened unfounded judicial investigations or criminal proceedings against those who have criticized the government. Witnesses and victim’s relatives are also intimidated if they denounce to state authorities. The Commission has knowledge of six cases of violations of the right to life of human rights defenders between 1997 and 2007. Furthermore, high-ranking public officials undermine defenders’ and human rights NGOs’ authority and deny them access to public information.

The Right to Life, To Humane Treatment, and to Personal Liberty and Security

Public insecurity is an issue of gravest concern for the Commission. In many cases, the state’s response to public insecurity has been inadequate or incompatible with respect for human rights. The Commission considers that citizens who receive military training should not be involved in domestic defense, as is done in Venezuela through the Bolivarian National Militia.

In 2008, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman of Venezuela documented these staggering figures in relation to excessive use of state force: 134 complaints involving arbitrary killings, allegedly by state security agencies; 2,197 complaints of violations of humane treatment by state security officials; 87 allegations of torture; 33 cases of alleged forced disappearances reported during 2008, and 34 during 2007.

Homicides, kidnappings, contract killings, and rural violence are the most frequently security problems that Venezuela’s citizens face. In 2008, there were a total of 13,780 homicides in the country, an average of 1,148 murders a month and 38 every day. [That murder rate, 49 per 100,000, is higher than Colombia's - 34 per 100,000 - and one of the highest in the world.]

The Commission’s report also notes with extreme concern that in Venezuela, violent groups with police and military-like training such as the Movimiento Tupamaro, Colectivo La Piedrita, Colectivo Alexis Vive, Unidad Popular Venezolana, and Grupo Carapaica are perpetrating acts of violence with the involvement or acquiescence of state agents.

The report claims the main problems in Venezuela’s violent prisons include delays at trial, overcrowding, lack of basic services, failure to separate convicts from remanded prisoners, and presence of weapons. More than 65% of Venezuela’s inmates have not yet been convicted and remain in preventive custody. Impunity reigns in most cases of serious human rights violations.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

On a positive note, the report highlights Venezuela’s achievements in ensuring the literacy of the majority of the population; reducing poverty, unemployment and infant mortality rate; expanding health coverage among the most vulnerable sectors; increasing people’s access to basic public services; and great progress toward attaining the Millennium Development Goals.

However, one issue relating to economic, social, and cultural rights is the constant intervention and political control of the State in the functioning of trade unions, hampering the right of free association.

Jul 18

The OAS mission (MAPP-OEA) verifying paramilitary groups’ demobilization and reintegration issued its ninth quarterly report last Friday. (The report is available here as a Microsoft Word [.doc] file; it is also available, along with all previous MAPP-OEA reports, on the mission’s website.) It’s not clear why they call it a “quarterly” report when it’s only the second one published in the past 10 1/2 months. But never mind that.

The report is definitely worth a close read. It documents a complex picture of new armed groups forming throughout the country, most of them hybrids of former paramilitaries and current drug traffickers.

Some of these groups are led by commanders of the United Self-Defense Forces [AUC] who did not heed the government’s call to participate in the process, while others reflect an alliance between former paramilitaries and drug traffickers. Moreover, it has been noted that mid-level AUC commanders are heading new illegal armed units.

The report documents this phenomenon in many regions of the country; the problem of so-called “emerging groups” is scattered throughout Colombia’s geography. Here, using Google Maps, is a synthesis of all the regions of emerging-group activity mentioned in the report. Moving your mouse over each marker will call up relevant excerpts from the report.

The best sources on the “emerging groups” phenomenon are this and previous MAPP-OEA reports, along with recent documentation from the Colombian think-tank INDEPAZ and the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. See also the Colombian Defense Ministry’s reaction to this week’s press coverage of the OAS report.

Meanwhile, the OAS report also expresses urgent concerns about the Colombian government’s programs to re-integrate ex-combatants, which are still struggling badly despite a greater effort to unify planning under a “high commissioner for reintegration.”

[T]he status of the reintegration process is a source of serious concern on the part of OAS/MAPP. Delays in strengthening the institutions in charge of this process together with the limited operational capacity and coverage of the program at present are some of the factors that are hindering the socio-economic reintegration of demobilized combatants. A weak reintegration process in turn poses serious threats to the peace process as a whole, since it does nothing to prevent the recruitment of the demobilized fighters by new illegal units, which are being seen in different regions of the country. …

The still limited operational and coverage capacity of the Program is compounded by the difficulty in establishing clear statistics. In general, there is a problem that has to do with the discrepancy between the number of demobilized combatants reported by the Government and the number located by the Police. The information provided by some local officials is far removed from reality. There is no clarity regarding the number of beneficiaries, or their location or mobility.

The two most worrisome issues are the productive or work projects and humanitarian aid, which are key benefits for the demobilized combatants. In the first case, OAS/MAPP has verified that, as a rule, people in the communities continue to have the impression that the program does not provide for the socio-economic reintegration of the beneficiaries, and this in turn could be the reason why they tend to go back to illegal activities.