Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s Controversial Election Prompts Violence, International Reactions

Venezuelan protesters demonstrating in May 2017
Credit: Jamez via Wikimedia Commons

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, condemned last week the recent violence and arrests that occurred in response to demonstrations around Venezuela’s election for a National Constituent Assembly – a powerful entity intended to replace the current legislature and rewrite the Venezuelan constitution. The election was reportedly tampered with by the Venezuelan government, prompting calls for an independent investigation into the legitimacy of the election, and the legislature now refuses to recognize the new assembly, which voted to remove Venezuela’s public prosecutor over the weekend. [New York Times: Tampering; Washington Post: EU; OHCHR Press Release; Washington Post: Lawmakers] The election, which featured allies of President Nicolás Maduro as the only candidates, was held amid growing concerns that the nation is moving dangerously toward a dictatorship. [New York Times: Tampering; Washington Post: EU] The vote spurred public demonstrations, protests, and violence, resulting in at least 10 deaths; the total deaths due to unrest in the country since April now totals at least 125. [CNN: Clash] Zeid also expressed concern over the two opposition leaders who were recently detained after advocating for Venezuelans to protest in response to the election. [OHCHR Press Release; Guardian]

The international human rights community has expressed concern over the situation in the State. In addition to Zeid’s comments, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently denounced Venezuela’s prohibition of public gatherings and suppression of journalism, calling on the State to adhere to its international human rights obligations. [IACHR Press Release: Election; IACHR Press Release: Expression] The European Commission for Democracy through Law (Venice Commission) weighed in on the legality of the election through the publication of a preliminary opinion, finding the election threatened principles of democracy. 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 protect the rights to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, due process, and participation in public affairs, among others.

Current Situation

Last week, the company that set up the voting software for the recent elections announced that the Venezuelan government tampered with the July 30 election for a National Constituent Assembly by falsely increasing the estimated turnout by at least one million voters. [New York Times: Tampering] Julio Borges, the President of Venezuela’s National Assembly, is now calling for an investigation into the government’s claim that more than eight million Venezuelans voted. [Washington Post: EU] The purpose of the controversial election was for Venezuelans to select – from a list of allies of President Maduro – an assembly with the ability to rewrite the constitution and to override other branches of government. [Washington Post: EU; New York Times: Tampering] The election was the latest move by Maduro to consolidate power and strengthen Venezuela’s new governing body, called the constituent assembly. [New York Times: Tampering] Voters did not have the option to reject Maduro’s plan. [New York Times: Tampering] However, voters overwhelmingly expressed their opposition to a constitutional revision during a non-binding referendum held on July 16. [CNN: Referendum]

The nation, which has seen incredible levels of violence and unrest in the wake of its ongoing economic and political turmoil, experienced its deadliest day of disorder in three months on the day of the election. [New York Times: Violence] At least 10 people died as clashes broke out between police and protesters and an explosion rocked the nation’s capital of Caracas. [New York Times: Violence] The night before the election, 39-year-old candidate José Félix Pineda was killed in his home. [New York Times: Violence] Leopoldo López and Antonio Ledezma, two of Maduro’s political opponents who had been on house arrest for earlier convictions, were taken into custody on August 1 for fear that they would flee after the election. [CNN: Detention]

In advance of the election, the IACHR granted a precautionary measure for three deputies of Venezuela’s National Assembly, whom it believed to be in a situation so dire as to put their lives and integrity “at risk of irreparable harm” based on reports of harassment and in light of the July fifth armed attack of the National Assembly building. [IACHR Press Release: Measure] Pursuant to the IACHR’s precautionary measure, Venezuela has been asked to protect the three deputies by whatever means necessary. [IACHR Press Release: Measure]


UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

Zeid’s comments last week expressed deep concern about the situation in Venezuela, denouncing the detention of López and Ledezma as arbitrary and calling for a prompt investigation into the recent deaths that have occurred. [OHCHR Press Release] He also urges authorities “not to make an already extremely volatile situation even worse through the use of excessive force.” [OHCHR Press Release]

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

In addition to the forcible takings of López and Ledezma, the IACHR condemned the recent deaths and other forms of violence in Venezuela. [IACHR Press Release: Imprisonment; IACHR Press Release: Election] In the days leading up to the election, voters were threatened, armed civilian groups committed acts of violence, and demonstrations were suppressed by authorities’ use of force. [IACHR Press Release: Election] In the aftermath of the election, an estimated 100 people were arrested, and State agents reportedly conducted illegal raids. [IACHR Press Release: Election] The IACHR strongly condemned all of these “regrettable” acts and urged the immediate, effective, and independent investigation and prosecution of all responsible individuals. [IACHR Press Release: Election]

The IACHR Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression also condemned measures implemented by Venezuela in anticipation of the election as human rights violations. [IACHR Press Release: Expression] Several journalists seeking entry into the nation were denied the requisite accreditation, detained, questioned for hours, and deported. The Special Rapporteur expressed concern over the affect accreditation and registration requirements have on journalists, reiterating that the right to freedom of expression protects “the right of every person to seek, receive, and impart information . . . without borders.” [IACHR Press Release: Expression] On July 27, Venezuela also announced a five-day ban on public demonstrations and meetings that might disturb the election, which prompted the Special Rapporteur to state that States must assume demonstrations do not pose a threat and only impose restrictions that are based in law, are necessary to achieve a legitimate purpose, and are proportional to that purpose. [IACHR Press Release: Expression]

Venice Commission

On July 21, at the request of the Organization of American States, the Venice Commission issued a preliminary opinion on the legal implications of Venezuela’s call for a National Constituent Assembly election, ultimately concluding that the then-anticipated election would violate principles of democracy. See European Commission for Democracy through Law, Preliminary Opinion on the Legal Issues Raised by Decree No. 2878 of 23 May 2017 of the President of the Republic on Calling Elections to a National Constituent Assembly (Venezuela), Opinion No. 894/2017, CDL-PI(2017)004, Preliminary Opinion of 21 July 2017, at paras. 70–80. Whether or not Maduro had the power to call the election remains an unsettled question. See id. at para. 32. However, the rules of the election should have been determined by the National Assembly and not the president. See id. at para. 44. Additionally, according to the Venice Commission, the proposed structure of the constituent assembly – including its electoral rules and large membership – would violate principles of democracy and threaten the government’s ability to function. See id. at paras. 52, 66, 69.

The Venice Commission is an advisory body of the Council of Europe that offers legal advice to States regarding the compliance of their institutional structures with standards of democracy, human rights, and the law. See Venice Commission, The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe. The Venice Commission issues opinions on legislation proposed or in force to provide States with legal advice. Opinions can be requested by Venice Commission Member States, international organizations, and certain bodies and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe. See Venice Commission, The Commission’s Activities.


For years, Venezuela has been in the midst of an economic crisis that has caused shortages of basic necessities such as food, medicine, water, and electricity. [IJRC] Worsening conditions have compelled Venezuelans to engage in protests, marches, demonstrations, and riots, which have frequently been met with excessive and unlawful shows of force by Venezuelan authorities. [IJRC] Many are fearful that President Maduro is moving the country toward a dictatorship. [New York Times: Jailings; Guardian] Earlier this year, Maduro unsuccessfully attempted to consolidate government authority and dissolve the legislature. [IJRC; New York Times: Jailings]

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 peaceful assembly, freedom of expression, liberty and security of the person, due process, and 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]

Additional Information

For more information about the situation in Venezuela or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.

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