Human Rights under Threat
Obtained from http://www.amnesty.org
Between 27 February and 4 March 2004 political violence erupted once again in Venezuela. Street protests and demonstrations by supporters of the opposition movement led to repeated violent confrontations with police and security forces in different parts of the country. There were also demonstrations by government supporters. According to information received by Amnesty International, in the context of the disturbances, as many as 14 people were killed in circumstances that have yet to be clarified and over 200 people were injured, with credible reports of excessive use of force by the security forces. There were also more than 500 detentions and a number of reports of ill-treatment and torture. Several police and security force officials were also reportedly injured in the frequently violent demonstrations. Both the government and opposition sought to gain political advantage from the disturbances: the opposition focussed on allegations of abuses by the security forces, while the administration stressed the violence used by protestors and justified the response of the security forces as proportionate and within the law.
Amnesty International believes that the Venezuela government had a clear duty to guarantee public order in the face of frequently violent protests – which included the use of firearms by some protestors. However, there is strong evidence that the use of rubber bullets, tear gas and batons was frequently indiscriminate and disproportionate and significantly contributed to a week of spiralling violence rather than preventing it.
Furthermore, the cases included in this report indicate that several of those detained were not only not involved in criminal acts prior to detention, but then faced ill-treatment and torture while in the custody of the security forces. Reports received also indicate that subsequent investigations undertaken by the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas (CICPC)1, Technical Police, Fiscalía General de la Nación , Attorney General’s Office, and Defensoría del Pueblo, Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, to establish the facts around these alleged abuses and prosecute those responsible have been slow and inadequate. In comparison, these same authorities have acted with energy against opposition activists who allegedly participated in or incited violence. Over recent years, these institutions have failed to fulfil their constitutional role to act with equal impartiality against government supporters and opponents accused of committing crimes related to the ongoing political crisis. This lack of impartiality, combined with long standing structural weaknesses of these key institutions, threatens to strengthen the culture of impunity that has accompanied human rights abuses over many years in Venezuela.
While President Chávez’s administration introduced several important improvements in the 1999 constitution to protect civil and political as well as economic, social and cultural rights, many of these have remained unimplemented. The political crisis that has dominated Venezuela since 2001 has exacerbated long standing institutional weaknesses and further undermined the impartiality, independence and effectiveness of key institutions such as the Judiciary, Fiscalía General de la Nación, the Defensoría del Pueblo, the Cuerpo de Investigaciones Científicas, Penales y Criminalísticas (CICPC), state and municipal police and the Military, all of whom to a greater or lesser extent have become political actors in the crisis.
On 18 March 2004 the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) published a major country report on Venezuela (Report on the Situation of Human Rights in Venezuela, OEA/Ser.L/V/II.118) highlighting many of these serious longstanding institutional weaknesses related to the rule of law and the respect for civil and political rights. The IACHR recommendations provide a clear blueprint for the government to tackle these issues and strengthen the effectiveness and impartiality of key branches of the State, particularly the justice sector.
Hugo Chávez was democratically elected president in 1998 and, after the approval of a new constitution in 1999, was re-elected for a further six-year term in 2000. Chávez, an ex-army officer who led a failed coup d’etat in 1992, established the Fifth Republic Movement (Movimiento Quinta República – MVR), as an independent electoral force distinct from the traditional political parties. His administration committed itself to ending the corruption associated with the ruling political class and addressing longstanding social injustices, which have made Venezuela one of most unequal societies in the region. In 2001, as a result of President Chávez’s pushing through legislation on a number of controversial economic and social policies, several former allies withdrew their support for the president’s political movement and joined forces with those opposed to the administration. In the same year, these opposition sectors – led by traditional political parties, the private media and business interests and the largest trade union – began concerted efforts to force President Chávez from office. President Chávez has maintained considerable support, particularly amongst Venezuela’s poor and excluded, where social projects have been targeted.
The confrontation between the government and the opposition has been characterised by violent discourse, with the private media explicitly supporting the opposition and the state media backing the administration. In the process both sides have sought to de-legitimise and demonise the other and have encouraged a polarized and violently intolerant climate in many parts of the country. The administration has been accused of inciting supporters to threaten and attack media workers who are identified with the opposition and many of these cases have never been adequately investigated by the authorities. There have been regular mass pro- and anti-government demonstrations that on a number of occasions have resulted in violent clashes between the different groups of demonstrators and the police and security forces, with several allegations of excessive use of force by security forces.
In April 2002 the confrontation between the opposition and the government led to wide-scale political violence and a short lived coup d’etat forcing the president from office for 48 hours, leaving at least 50 people dead and many more wounded. The human rights violations committed in this context have not been clarified and virtually all those allegedly responsible have avoided prosecution.
At the end of 2002 the opposition once again tried to force President Chávez from office with an indefinite national strike, particularly affecting Venezuela’s crucial oil industry. The strike, which lasted until February 2003, failed in its objective, but had a crippling impact on the economy. In its aftermath negotiations mediated by the Carter Centre2and the Organization of American States (OAS) led in May 2003 to an agreement between the government and the opposition umbrella organization, the Coordinadora Democrática, committing both sides to seek a “constitutional, peaceful, democratic and electoral solution” to the crisis. This has focussed on the opposition petition for a recall referendum against President Chávez3. Under the constitution such a referendum may take place after half the president’s term of office and if 20% of the electorate sign a recall petition. After many months of wrangling, a National Electoral Council (CNE) was formed to oversee the process. In December 2003, amidst government claims of widespread fraud, signatures were collected under the auspices of the CNE and international monitors. The CNE then took two further months in the initial process to check the authenticity of the signatures.
During 2003 there were frequent rumours of impending coup d’etats and continuing polarization – the government accused the opposition of conspiring by non-constitutional means to bring down the democratically elected government, such as occurred in April 2002. The opposition accused the government of trying to cling to power through its monopoly control of all key branches of the state. Despite this, the political negotiations between the sides contributed to a reduction in reports of political violence.
Nevertheless, at the end of February 2004 it became clear that the CNE, which the opposition accuse of government bias, would not accept as valid sufficient signatures to trigger the referendum. The opposition required 2.4 million signatures to trigger the referendum, and claim they collected 3.2 million, but the electoral authority’s preliminary decision recognised only 1.8 million as valid, requiring more than 800,000 to be re-authenticated and the remaining signatures were ruled invalid. The OAS and the Carter Center said that they had “some discrepancies with the CNE over the verification criteria”4, but called on the opposition to remain within the process for establishing the re-authentication procedures.
On 27 February a summit of G15 leaders from the developing world was held in central Caracas. The opposition called a demonstration rejecting the decision of the CNE. Government authorities granted permission for a small delegation of opposition leaders to present a statement to G15 participants, while refusing the main body of opposition demonstrators access to the location of the summit. However, pro-government supporters were allowed to demonstrate in the locality, reflecting what the opposition allege is unequal treatment of opposition and pro-government demonstrations.
While the opposition and the government blame each other for the rapid manner in which the demonstrations led to violent confrontation, over the following days there were street protests in many different parts of Venezuela. The majority of demonstrations were by opposition supporters protesting at the CNE decision (which was finally made public on 2 March), though there were a number of pro-government protests supporting the decision.
Many demonstrations rapidly became violent confrontations between the Guardia Nacional (GN), National Guard5 and groups of opposition supporters using barricades, stones, Molotov cocktails and firework rockets. There were also several reports of protesters using firearms. In this context, there were clearly legitimate public security concerns, which the authorities had a duty to respond to. However, as has happened repeatedly in Venezuela’s history, Amnesty International believes security forces responding to serious breaches in public order on a number of occasions employed excessive use of force to disperse or detain demonstrators, and subsequently subjected several detainees to ill-treatment or torture.
These types of human rights violations committed by police and security forces have occurred in Venezuela over many years, particularly in situations of mass public demonstrations or civil disturbances. In 1989, in what is known as the “Caracazo”, over 250 people were killed in the context of security forces’ response to massive street protests and civil disorder. In 1992 the security forces intervention in the Catia detention centre led to the deaths of over 60 inmates. Neither of these incidents have ever been effectively investigated to establish criminal responsibility of violations of the right to life and physical integrity. Abuses of this nature have taken place due to poor training of officials, inadequate command and control structures and the absence of effective measures to ensure accountability. Most of all, the impunity that accompanies these abuses sends a clear message to the police and security officials that such conduct will remain unpunished and can continue to be a feature of policing and security operations.
In recent years Amnesty International and national human rights organizations have also documented extra legal killings, torture and other serious human rights violations committed by police and security forces in the context of social cleansing or combating common crime in different parts of the country. These cases, often affecting poor and marginalized communities, gain little public attention and receive an equally inadequate official response; exposing the victims and their families to threats and intimidation and leaving members of the police and security forces responsible free to commit further human rights violations.
As part of its ruling on the Caracazo case, The Inter American Court on Human Rights recently called on the Venezuelan government to review its training, procedures and operational plans for the security forces to respond to serious civil disturbances in order that international standards on the minimum use of force and firearms6 are followed to prevent events similar to those of 1989. Amnesty International is not aware of any steps officially taken by the Venezuela government to comply with this ruling.
In the civil disturbances of 27 February to 4 March 2004 Amnesty International recognises that wide scale indiscriminate or extrajudicial killings were avoided in the face of frequently violent demonstrations. However, rather than acknowledge the use of excessive force and torture in a significant number of cases and ensure full, thorough and impartial investigations, the authorities made numerous public statements offering unqualified support for the conduct of the security forces and sought to dismiss or downplay allegations of human rights violations as merely part of the opposition strategy to discredit the government. The government only reluctantly agreed the need to investigate alleged abuses in the face of numerous complaints and strong national and international pressure.