Recently, Venezuela’s Supreme Court made strides towards consolidating authority by claiming legislative power, prompting Venezuelans to protest and regional and universal stakeholders to condemn the actions of the Venezuelan government and offer their visions for response efforts. The Chief Justice later announced that the Supreme Court’s initial March 29, 2017 decision does not strip the legislature – which is seen as the last branch of government independent from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s power – of its powers, but the Supreme Court still claims authority to exercise legislative power because, it claims, the legislature is unable to effectively do so at this time. [New York Times] The recent events add to the existing social unrest due to an ongoing economic crisis in the country, which has led to insufficient supplies of food and medicine and the violent suppression of protests. [IJRC; New York Times; Huffington Post; Amnesty International] The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, criticized the Supreme Court’s recent decision, calling separation of powers “essential” to the proper functioning of a democracy. [OHCHR Press Release] The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, denounced the Venezuelan government’s attempted coup, and the OAS adopted a resolution calling for Venezuela to restore democracy. [OAS Press Release: Coup; OAS Press Release: Repression; VOA News] Additionally, addressing the fallout of recent events and the ongoing humanitarian crisis, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) encouraged States in the region to implement measures to assist Venezuelan migrants, as many attempt to flee. [IACHR Press Release] As a State party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Venezuela is obligated to uphold and protect the human rights to life, freedom of peaceful assembly, due process, and participation in public affairs, among others.
On March 29, Venezuela’s Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing the court to write laws itself, “effectively dissolv[ing] the elected legislature.” By April 1, in the face of growing criticism, the Maduro-controlled court had at least partially reversed that decision. [New York Times] The backlash after the initial decision arose from the belief that the court had eliminated the only remaining check on Maduro’s power – the legislature, which is controlled by Maduro’s opposition. [New York Times] However, even prior to the court’s March 29 decision, the legislature, according to the Supreme Court, may have been in contempt – that is, unable to successfully pass laws. [New York Times] The Supreme Court’s April 1 decision revised its earlier one, stating that as long as the legislature remains in contempt, the Supreme Court will directly exercise parliamentary powers. [OHCHR Press Release] The actual effect of the court’s decisions remains unclear. [New York Times] In response, the legislature has declared the existence of an ongoing coup d’etat in the country and has called for the removal of Supreme Court justices who they believe were illegally appointed to the Court in 2015. [Miami Herald]
Thousands of anti-government protesters took to the streets of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, on April 4, 2017 and have continued to protest over the last week. [Reuters; Foreign Policy] Demonstrations on April 4 turned violent when authorities closed subway stations, created checkpoints, and blocked off the protest area. [Reuters] Young people reportedly burned trash and threw items at police, while pro-government forces employed gunfire. [Reuters] Security forces subdued protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, and water cannons. [Reuters] This demonstration is one in a string of protests and riots since at least 2014 that have taken place across the country in response to the nation’s economic and political instability. [IJRC; VOA News; Foreign Policy] In the past, security forces have used force in response to demonstrations. [HRW]
Tensions have continued to rise domestically as well as internationally, with Venezuela’s representative to the OAS storming out of a session to address the erosion of democracy in Venezuela. [VOA News] The OAS Permanent Council meeting, held on April 3, was called by 20 countries concerned about the situation in Venezuela. [VOA News] At the meeting, Venezuela’s deputy minister of foreign affairs for North America, Samuel Moncada, rejected a resolution that would label and condemn Venezuelan actions as “act[s] of treason.” [VOA News] Moncada declared the meeting illegal, calling it a “coup d’état right here in the OAS.” [VOA News] The OAS later adopted a resolution ordering Venezuela to fully restore democratic order and the power of its legislature. [VOA News]
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged the Venezuelan Supreme Court to reconsider its decision, placing great emphasis on the importance of the doctrine of separation of powers. [OHCHR Press Release] In addition, the High Commissioner expressed concern about the government’s responses to marches and protests, stating that “[c]ontinued restrictions on the freedoms of movement, association, expression and peaceful protest are not only deeply worrying but counter-productive in an extremely polarised country suffering economic and social crises.” [OHCHR Press Release] The High Commissioner specifically called upon the OAS to take these considerations into account as it works to protect human rights in Venezuela. [OHCHR Press Release]
Organization of American States
Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the OAS, denounced the Venezuelan government’s “self-inflicted coup d’état,” calling the court’s attempt to nullify the powers of the legislature “unconstitutional.” [OAS Press Release: Coup] Almagro also condemned the use of tear gas and gunfire to disperse demonstrators during the April 4 protests in Caracas. [OAS Press Release: Repression] The demonstrations were, in Almagro’s view, protected by the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of protest. [OAS Press Release: Repression] Almagro has made a call for international action, asserting that “[t]he restoration of democracy is an obligation we all share” and that “[t]o be silent in the face of a dictatorship is the lowest indignity in politics.” [OAS Press Release: Coup]
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
The IACHR has encouraged States to enact measures to assist Venezuelan migrants. [IACHR Press Release] In particular, the IACHR has praised, and offered as an example, the actions of Peru, which recently adopted a measure establishing procedures by which Venezuelan citizens can receive temporary resident permits, allowing them to remain in Peru as well as “study, work, access health services, and pay taxes.” [IACHR Press Release] By adopting such measures, other States can “lay the foundation for guaranteeing the effective exercise of the right to migrate.” [IACHR Press Release] The IACHR’s announcement echoes an earlier statement, in which it criticized Brazil’s intended deportation of approximately 450 Venezuelan migrants without proper inquiry into the circumstances of their migration.
Venezuela has been suffering an economic crisis for years, which has resulted in shortages of basic necessities such as food, medicine, water, and electricity. [IJRC] In response to worsening conditions, Venezuelans have participated in protests, marches, and riots, which have garnered attention for the alleged unlawful uses of force on the part of security forces. [HRW] The administrations of President Maduro as well as his predecessor, Hugo Chávez, have been accused of serious human rights violations in relation to these protests. [IJRC] While many Venezuelans and political commentators believe Maduro is attempting to convert Venezuela into a dictatorship, Maduro alleges that the opposition, in conjunction with other State governments, is perpetuating violence in the nation and staging a coup to seize Maduro’s power. [IJRC; VOA News]
Venezuela’s Human Rights Obligations
As a State party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Venezuela is obligated to recognize and protect the rights to food and to be free from hunger, to peaceful assembly, to freedom of expression, to liberty and security of the person, to due process, and to participation in public affairs, among others.
Venezuela is also a State party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families; and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Regionally, Venezuela is a party to the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man, but is not subject to the American Convention on Human Rights, having denounced it in 2012. [IJRC]