Merida, June 24, 2019 (venezuelanalysis.com) – The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, culminated a landmark three-day visit to Venezuela on Friday which looked to evaluate the human rights situation in the country.
The trip, which Bachelet described as “crucial,” followed a preliminary fact-finding mission by her office in March and a subsequent invitation by the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The visit is the first by a United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to the South American country.
A number of agreements were signed with the government, including the opening of a permanent two-person office to represent the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) in Venezuela, provide technical assistance, and “monitor” the situation. Agreements were also reached to “carry out an evaluation of the National Commission for the Prevention of Torture and to assess the main obstacles for access to justice in the country.” The Venezuelan government additionally agreed to grant OHCHR staff “full access to detention centres to be able to monitor conditions and speak to detainees.”
While in Caracas, the former Chilean president held meetings with a number of political and social leaders from across the political spectrum, including President Nicolas Maduro and self-declared “Interim President” Juan Guaido. She also met with members of Maduro’s cabinet, including the foreign, defence, interior, and prisons ministers, in addition to other leading officials such as Venezuela’s national ombudsman, the president of the Supreme Court, the attorney general, and the president of the National Constituent Assembly.
Likewise, she had contact with a range of civil society organisations, particularly those involved in human rights advocacy, as well as academics, religious representatives, trade unionists, and members of the business community.
The high commissioner equally had the opportunity to hear allegations of human rights abuses from both pro- and anti-government actors, including claims of extrajudical killings and torture by security services as well as opposition political violence involving citizens being burnt alive, all of which she described as “heart-rending.”
Following the visit, Bachelet offered a press conference to offer her initial conclusions. A fuller report is due to be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on July 5.
During the declaration, Bachelet noted a “deteriorated” humanitarian and economic situation in the country, especially regarding access to food and medicine, highlighting US-led sanctions as one of the factors “exasperating and aggravating the pre-existing economic crisis.” She went on to praise government-led projects to ease the impact of the crisis..
Bachelet also addressed the issue of currently detained opposition activists, calling on authorities to release “all those in detention or otherwise deprived of their liberty for peaceful dissent.” She made no reference to those involved in violent acts.
Venezuela’s opposition claims there are more than 600 “political prisoners” in the country, while the government argues that they are citizens facing or awaiting justice for having broken the law.
Finally, Bachelet called on all political actors to “constructively engage” with recent dialogue efforts and put differences aside in the interests of improving humanitarian conditions in the country.
Talks between the government and the opposition were held in Oslo in May, with opposition leader Guaido later affirming that he would not participate in further negotiations unless they came with the precondition of President Maduro’s departure.
Venezuela has been locked in a political standoff since Guaido declared himself “interim president” in January and was immediately recognised by the United States and over fifty allies. Most other governments, as well as the United Nations and its constituent bodies, however, continue to recognize Maduro as president.
In recent months, Guaido has led a number of failed attempts to overthrow Maduro, including a botched putsch in April. He and a number of his inner circle have recently been accused of a number of crimes, including embezzlement, treason, and organising terrorist cells.
Following his meeting with the UN representative, President Nicolas Maduro told the country that he had “given [Bachelet] every guarantee (…) that those responsible for human rights violations will be processed without [political or other] distinction.”
He also promised to “take her suggestions, recommendations and proposals very seriously.”
For his part, Foreign Minister Arreaza explained that his encounter with Bachelet focused on the impact of US-led sanctions on Venezuelan human rights, describing the meeting as “positive.”
Attorney General Tarek William Saab took advantage of Bachelet’s visit to deliver a report compiling his office’s efforts to uphold human rights. Meanwhile, several human rights groups such as Sures and the Committee for Victims of the Guarimbas, an organisation which brings together the families of those who lost their lives in the violent uprisings led by the opposition in 2014 and 2017, handed her reports compiling alleged human rights abuses.
“After many years of struggle finally we are recognised by the system of human rights which has always opted to protect those responsible for the murder of our family members,” wrote the Committee for Victims of the Guarimbas on Twitter.
For his part, opposition leader Juan Guaido, who met Bachelet in his capacity as president of the National Assembly, warned Bachelet against being fooled by the government, accusing Maduro’s team of “putting on sheep’s clothing for the visit of the high commissioner.”
He also urged her to leave the “bubble” Caracas and “see the reality,” explaining that conditions are worse outside the capital.
During his meeting with the UN official, Guaido reportedly presented accusations regarding “political prisoners,” torture in the prisons, the use of “paramilitary collectives,” the recruitment of children by the guerrilla, illegal mining, and the foreign military presence in Venezuela.
A number of opposition supporters also took advantage of the visit to organise protests in some of the major cities, including outside the UN building in Caracas. According to the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, 31 protests were held during the three days, calling for the release of “political prisoners” and humanitarian assistance.
Wider opposition calls to greet Bachelet with a “national street protest” did not, however, materialize.
Edited by Lucas Koerner from Caracas.