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Why fuss about the refugee situation in Venezuela?



The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a federal presidential republic consisting of twenty-three (23) states in the Western Hemisphere in Latin America. The country, although surrounded by many democracies and influenced by the underpinnings of Western principles of democracy and political ideologies, has for decades aligned itself as anti-Western. Many actors such as governments, international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and even arms of the United Nations have perceived Venezuela to be a “failed state” or at least one with many aggrieved inflictions against humanity. This article discussed how the government attempts to handle its human rights issues the actions of the government. It concludes that although the government of Venezuela has made attempts to improve its outlook on human rights, it has not adequately developed sound mechanisms to preserve the human rights of its citizenry and there is now an increase in Venezuela refugees worldwide.


Socio-Political Context of Human Rights in Venezuela

Throughout history, Venezuela has been more likely to align itself and follow the approaches of other communist countries of the world such as Cuba and USSR. Furthermore, from the 19th century, Venezuela suffered political turmoil and autocracy as the country remained dominated by military dictators until Hugo Chavez assumed Venezuela's presidency in 1999 on a populist platform. Consequently, the country has witnessed decades of authoritarian leadership and rule of law that is less familiar with the upholding of human rights. In addition, the socio-political context of the country made it difficult for any administration to truly practice the tenants of human rights as prescribed and accepted by the international community. Even though Hugo Chavez pledged to practice democratic principles and human rights within the country, many critics have highlighted that three terms under his "socialist revolution" have made the country increasingly resemble an authoritarian state between 1999-2013.


Human rights are rights we have simply because we exist as human beings - they are not granted by any state. These universal rights are inherent to us all, regardless of nationality, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language, or any other status. They range from the most fundamental - the right to life - to those that make life worth living, such as the rights to food, education, work, health, and liberty.”[i] The understanding of these concepts associated with human rights are universally acceptable and Venezuela as a nation has ratified and enshrined in domestic law many of these international treaties and conventions.


Although Venezuela has a duty to submit State reports to each UN treaty body associated with the treaties Venezuela has ratified most times the country has been very bureaucratic and has provided a lack of commitment and interest in these processes. Nevertheless, Venezuela is still a signatory to these treaties there is an assumption that the country understands and would continue to function within the guided principles of human rights preservation, at least on the multilateral level. Though in practice we have not seen these commitments being upheld.


Civil Society View of the Degrading Human Rights Situation

CIVICUS, an umbrella organization of civil societies in their CIVICUS Monitor report has labelled Venezuela as a repressed state[ii]. The CIVICUS Monitor rates a country level of lack of freedom of expression and hindrance to civic space based on a scale of least favorable being closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed, or open. In taking into consideration the rating given, CIVICUS defines the civic space based on the ability or freedom of association (to organise), the freedom of expression (to speak out) and the right to peaceful assembly (to take joint action). Similarly, organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch within their state country report has also highlighted many challenges with Venezuela.


Many international organizations have noted administrative bureaucracy and restrictive laws as a main hindrance to their livelihood. For example, on March 30th, 2018 the Venezuelan Ministry of Interior and Justice published a new requirement in the Official Gazette for the registry of “natural and legal entities” under the Organic Law Against Crime and Terrorism, obligating all non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations in the country to provide sensitive information regarding their activities, contributions, and beneficiaries[iii]. Some civil society organizations also have been branded as terrorist organizations and their activities suspended by the government. Many activists, human defenders and journalists have also faced arbitrary detention, unfounded harassment, and arrests. For many civil society actors, they see the role of the current government as oppressive and possess a threat to life. Some have sought asylum and refugee status in neighboring Latin American and Caribbean countries such Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Trinidad and Tobago, while others stay on and champion the battle with the risk of being persecuted or locked up.


Using the Universal Period Review

Venezuela’s latest submission to the UPR was in 2022[iv]. Although the country continues to accept the recommendations and voluntary commitments provided in the UPR, evidence has shown that there are still weak government institutions, fragile socio-economic structures, and the lack of political will to implement many recommendations in Venezuela. That has resulted in the basic economic, social, cultural, civil and political rights being undermined by many citizens with also a special emphasis on the vulnerable groups such as migrants and indigenous people in the country. Despite efforts to reduce some of the challenges as it relates to human rights, and many violations remain unresolved since then.


Within the broader context of civic space and freedoms, there has been a call to repeal all legal provisions that contravene international norms on freedom of expression and generate undue pressure for self-censorship and retract unfounded public statements against rights advocates and organizations that have been labelled as criminals or terrorist organizations unjustly. On a humanitarian cause, the recommendations for basic medicines, food supplies should be made available and accessible to all without discrimination was emphasized. While recognizing these recommendations, the government of Venezuela still holds fast to how it supports and promotes human rights with the associated mechanisms in the country.


International Community Response to Venezuela Treatment of Human Rights

For many international organizations, international governments, and civil society organizations, they have seen the government of Venezuela losing its legitimacy since it has not performed its functions properly to protect the basic rights and interest of its citizens. Some critics have even gone to the extent of describing Venezuela’s current condition as that of a failed state[v]. Fund for Peace defines the characteristics of failed state based on its loss of control of its territory or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, inability to provide public services and its inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community[vi]. It must be admitted that it would be difficult to label Venezuela as a failed stated by solely focusing on its human rights violations. However, for many, the main argument is that the past two decades with successive there has been brutal setback in all dimensions of life for the Venezuelan people. Despite all the natural oil, gas and natural resources of the country, due to mismanagement and lack of political will, many human beings are suffering at the detriment of the state’s actions.


With the international community’s non-satisfaction with Venezuela’s compliance and attempts to rectify its human rights violations and the continuous erosion of human rights principles within the country, three main issues of international fall out are highlighted. Firstly, with Venezuela’s withdrawal from the American Convention on Human Rights in 2013, Venezuela’s government exit left citizens and residents unable to request intervention by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights when local remedies for abuses are ineffective or unavailable. This has raised questionable concerns for Venezuela in terms of the country’s position and motives as it relates to really being ready and willing to protect human rights.


Secondly, in February 2018, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced that it would open preliminary probes into alleged crimes against humanity performed by Venezuelan authorities. This is the first time such a serious decision was made concerning the situation in Venezuela and it is hoped that such steps will produce serious channels through which human rights violations in the country can be critically addressed. This is especially since the country’s domestic judicial system has been criticized for not sufficiently addressing these claims due to political will and interference of the judiciary by the ruling executive of the country.


Thirdly, many countries have made unilateral decisions on how to address Venezuela since its human rights violations have escalated with no immediate recourse for action and the migration strategies for refugees continue to balloon. Northern countries such as United States, Canada, the European Union, and Switzerland have imposed international sanctions. The extent to which these sanctions are beneficial and provides some measure of action is debatable since Venezuela continues to be in political turmoil even today, which has still led to a growing number of refugees being dispersed across Latin America and the Caribbean.


The human rights situation in Venezuela continues to escalate daily and has led to a growing refugee crisis with many lives being at risk. Although the administration has defended its country’s position on human rights and the provision it has made for its citizens, the international community inclusive of international governments and civil society actors have expressed major concerns with how the government continues to ameliorate the issue and they are not satisfied with the steps being taken by the Venezuelan government to ensure that the country rebuilds. It is also less assuring that many of its citizens are keen to return home. Despite all these efforts, the extent to which the government’s approach is beneficial criticized. There are still concerns remaining on how Venezuela has significantly addressed its human rights violations which has led a spiral of refugee crisis over the last few years.


Reference [i] See “What are human Rights” by UNHRC https://www.ohchr.org/en/issues/pages/whatarehumanrights.aspx [ii] See CIVICUS Monitor Country Report Venezuela https://monitor.civicus.org/country/venezuela/ [iii]See https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/04/19/venezuela-must-cease-repression-civil-society#:~:text=In%20October%202020%2C%20the%20Maduro,Venezuela%2C%E2%80%9D%20and%20their%20intentions. [iv] https://www.ohchr.org/en/hr-bodies/upr/ve-index [v]See main article by Gerver Torres, “In 14 charts: How Venezuela became a failed state” [vi] https://fragilestatesindex.org/

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