The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The international community wakes up to torture in Venezuela

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, on Feb. 4. (Ariana Cubillos/AP)
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The prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, Fatou Bensouda, announced Thursday that she is launching a “preliminary examination” of human rights abuses in Venezuela. As Bensouda stressed, such an examination could potentially lead – “depending on the facts and circumstances of each situation” – to prosecution for crimes against humanity.

The ICC is specifically responding to accounts compiled by human rights organizations, which are in turn based on firsthand testimony from former detainees. The stories sound like something out of the darkest times in Latin America’s dark past. They tell of the arrests of hundreds of political dissidents who have endured severe beatings, stress positions, sleep deprivation and electric shocks — all for the “crime” of disagreeing with the government.

They tell of people jailed for exercising their basic rights to protest, deprived of even the bare minimum of due process. Of people tear-gassed in confined spaces, or forced to eat food containing insects, or cigarette ash, or feces. Of detainees sexually abused or raped.

The testimony documenting these abuses was collected over several months by Human Rights Watch.

Meanwhile, the Organization of American States has been holding hearings in Washington that have publicly aired similar allegations. OAS has heard again and again from victims of many of the same types of abuses detailed in the Human Rights Watch report.

The pattern of abuses documented by the two organizations is unmistakable. The Venezuelan government has tried to blame them on a few “bad apple” cops or soldiers. But the reports show that are not isolated. They are systematic. The same types of abuses have cropped up over a long period and in multiple locations around the country. Different security bodies are responsible.

The Human Rights Watch report notes the disproportionate use of violence against protesters by both the National Police and Venezuela’s National Guard (a militarized police force along the line of France’s Gendarmes or Italy’s Carabinieri). It also refers to abuses committed by the colectivos,” vigilante groups with a long history of collaborating with the regime, as well as by the civilian secret police (the infamous SEBIN), military counterintelligence (DGCIM) and state police forces.

Always careful to stick to what can be proved, Human Rights Watch notes that there is still no evidence that these abuses were ordered by the politicians at the top. But the import of the testimony is clear. Why, otherwise, would so many different agencies violate human rights in the same way, in different parts of the country and over an extended period of time, unless they were following an official policy?

At the very least, it’s plain that Venezuelan cops, soldiers and colectivos have gotten the message: You can do whatever you want to members of the opposition, and you can expect complete impunity. Venezuela’s hyper-politicized court system will make sure of that.

Faced with systematic violations of basic rights on this scale, the international community has a choice to make. It can look the other way, quietly endorsing the Venezuelan regime’s actions, or it can use the tools of international human rights law to draw a line in the sand. That’s where the ICC comes in.

As far as torture is concerned, the principle of universal jurisdiction is clearly established. All 162 parties to the U.N. Convention Against Torture have the duty to demand accountability from Venezuelan state officials implicated in committing acts of torture. As long as a system of torture remains a reality in Venezuela, and as long as the government there takes no action to stop it, other countries have the right and the responsibility to arrest and either prosecute or extradite Venezuela’s torturers. For that to happen, investigations that can support charges against them must begin right away.

It’s time for the international community to speak out clearly about the widespread abuse of human rights in Venezuela. Countries like Canada, Argentina and Peru, which have taken the lead in investigating abuses through the OAS process, must take the lead in affirming universal jurisdiction on torture and must support the ICC in its work.

As Venezuela sinks deeper into a morass of hunger, chaos and abuse, the international community should make it clear: The days of looking the other way are over. Faced with specific, credible and minutely documented reports of grave human rights abuses committed by the Venezuelan state, governments must speak out, or their inaction begins to shade into complicity.