Venezuelan Human Rights Experts Call for End to “Media Distortion” of Protests and State Response
Two demonstrators at a pro-government march “for peace” in Mérida recently. The banner reads “no more violence, we want peace and life”. (Ewan Robertson / Venezuelanalysis.com) Source: Aporrea.org
A group of thirty six Venezuelan human rights activists offer their views on the guarantee of human rights in the current protests. Analysing the overall situation, they argue that there is a purposeful distortion of the situation by mass media and even some NGOs for political reasons. This is the second statement on the situation by the group. A summary of the first can be read here. Signatories of this document can be seen below. Translated by Ewan Robertson for Venezuelanalysis.com.
Human Rights in Venezuela: An Alternative View II
As leftists and human rights activists, we the signatories offer a new summary of the events which have occurred in the country in recent days. We reiterate the warning about the persistent distortion of the issue of human rights, as shown through the disinformation campaign on the situation in Venezuela that many national and international media outlets maintain.
The utilisation of human rights discourse continues
During February and March, large media corporations contributed to the notion that the Venezuelan government has responded to legitimate student demands with brutal repression1. As a consequence this notion portrays a systematic and generalised violation of the human rights of peaceful protesters.2 In effect, there are cases that point towards the responsibility of state officials. However, an analysis of the facts indicates that a purposeful distortion of the issue of human rights is being created at this moment.
Some NGOs that defend the [pro-opposition] students have circulated statistics of high levels of mistreatment of protesters, [including] torture and arrests. However, the number of cases presented to the Attorney General’s office (including those brought to international organisations) was less than those publicly announced [by these NGOs]. In recent declarations, the UN’s rapporteur against torture, Juan Mendez said in relation to the cases that had been brought to this organisation: “There are two or three cases that I would say qualify as torture, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t more. Those that have been brought to my knowledge are two or three”. 3
Many of these denouncements made through media or social networks are substantiated by images that don’t match the Venezuelan reality.4 Others have been debunked publicly by witnesses.5 With respect to the right to life, the number of victims attributed to security forces is significantly less than a lamentable toll of political violence between civilians. Moreover, there is a deliberate omission of the violent character of many of the protests. Together, this has created an international perception of a grave crisis in human rights in Venezuela.
The toll of the protests
After five weeks of protests, the official toll is 461 wounded and 1,854 arrested, of which 121 remain in custody. 6 The majority of those arrested were given bail conditions and the rest were freed without charge.
Thirty three people have lost their lives. All of these losses are equally painful for the country, and an analysis of the circumstances that produced this is a warning to us of the danger of allowing an agenda of political violence, that is of a nature previously unknown to Venezuelans. Of the victims, 17 died on street barricades, 15 died in the context of street protests and one was shot while leaving a student meeting. Twenty seven of the victims were civilians (among them, a public attorney and a maintenance worker with the Mayoralty of Caracas), and the other six were officers of security bodies. Of the overall toll, 28 died from gunfire as a consequence of the political violence, four were violations of the right to life, and one was an accident8.
Three deaths are attributed to the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force by security officials in the control of disturbances at the end of marches organised by the opposition. These denouncements involve SEBIN (intelligence service) officials and a National Guard (GNB) officer. Another victim died as a result of blows received during a local protest repressed by the GNB.
Ten deaths also occurred during protests as a result of gunfire, presumably committed by civilians: five victims participated in protests organised by the opposition, three were GNB officers shot while controlling violent protests. The other two victims included a worker who had returned from a government organised peace march in Bolivar state, and a chavista student leader that was calling for the demobilisation of the violent groups and the restarting of academic activities. A teenager was also run over by a civilian who tried to pass through a street blockade by force.
Of [the 17] who died on barricades, seven were motorists or passengers of vehicles that couldn’t dodge obstacles placed on the road. Eight suffered shots from firearms; in the other cases a protester was stabbed [during a dispute on a barricade] and another accidentally fell from a building. Three civilians and three GNB officers died as a result of gunfire from a building while trying to clear barricades to open the road.9
The character of the protests
The protests have been attributed to several motives: shortages of certain foodstuffs, personal insecurity, the high cost of living and other legitimate reasons for discontent. In the course of events the protesters themselves and various opposition leaders recognised10 that the ultimate aim was to force the exit of the constitutional president, without turning to the correct constitutional mechanisms to do so.11
The information cited above contradicts the notion that many of the protests that have taken place in recent weeks in Venezuela have been peaceful. We stress that if indeed there have been peaceful marches and demonstrations, there is also evidence of the use of firearms by demonstrators in many of these incidents. 12 In recent declarations, the president has announced the seizure of 25 guns, Molotov cocktails, catapults, large objects and C-4 explosives that were handed into the Attorney General’s office. 13 The Attorney General, Luisa Ortega Díaz, reported that 21 of the security officials wounded during the control of protests received bullet wounds.14
Above all, we cannot speak of peaceful barricades, as they have been verified to be dangerous. The barricades have affected the main and secondary roads in middle and upper income sectors in eight of the country’s 335 municipalities, all of which are governed by opposition mayors.15 Cables, barbed wire, felled trees, rocks, and spilt grease oil on asphalt mix with disused furniture, tires and rubbish that are lit on fire have been used. The covers of public drains have been lifted, leaving holes in which at least two motorcyclists have died. Messages exchanged in social networks and testimonies in mainstream media reveal that those who participate in this type of protest believe they are in a state of war.16 Since the beginning of the protests, local authorities of these municipalities have not condemned the deaths that have occurred on barricades, and neither have opposition spokespeople or student leaders. The exception is the case of Valencia, one of the cities with the greatest levels of confrontation. On 17 March the pro-opposition mayor of the city of Valencia, Miguel Cocchiola, rejected the violent acts, and without referring to concrete responsibility for the deaths, said: “I don’t believe that violence is the way. People must understand that there is no way that the country will progress that isn’t through dialogue [with the government]. The barricades haven’t produced results, what they have done it pit neighbours against neighbours. There are places where there isn’t cooking gas, and ambulances cannot enter. This can’t be allowed”. 17 Following the statement, Cocchiola was expelled from his political party, Voluntad Popular (Popular Will).
The silence of local authorities in the municipalities where the barricades are occurring contradicts their mandates, and can be interpreted as collusion with unconstitutional, violent protest tactics. If indeed their responsibilities in the maintenance of public order are limited, and despite the fact that the barricades are organised through social networks, no mayor has taken provisions such as increasing vigilance in specific [affected] areas. Very much to the contrary, municipal authorities stopped fulfilling their responsibilities to collect rubbish and maintain public spaces. Debris and trash have been left on the streets for days, impeding traffic and further creating an additional public health concern. Such a situation prompted demands for the protection of collective rights by a citizen from one of these areas, which was heard by the Supreme Court (TSJ). The TSJ ordered the mayors to fulfil their responsibility of regulating vehicle transit in order to guarantee adequate and secure passage through the public roads of their municipality.18 In the following days, the TSJ widened the order to prohibit the barricades in four municipalities of the country.19 In addition to all this, the barricades caused the loss of classes in various educational centres, negatively impacting children and youths’ right to education. The transport of sick people who required medical attention was also affected in some places. These violent forms of protests have acquired particular severity in the border state of Táchira.
On the other hand, we point with great concern to what appears to be the practising of fringe forms of violence such as the use of snipers, “armed strikes”, sabotage and selective assassinations, and even the marking of the houses of chavistas in an area of the country’s interior. We warn of the possibility that these forms of violence could turn into ongoing, residual forms of resistance to the government and state institutions.
The right to peaceful protest is fully protected in Venezuela20 as various demonstrations undertaken by the opposition prove, the most recent protest being last Sunday. However, faced with the violent character of the barricades, the state has the duty to use mechanisms to maintain public order and the protection of people, with adherence to the law and full respect for human rights.
In recent days, the violent protests have reduced significantly. On 17 March the national government undertook a public order operation to restrict the violent protests that had been daily in Plaza Altamira, the centre of the strongest protests in Caracas. In coordination with municipal authorities, special security mechanisms were established to ensure peace in the area. Since then, a group of peaceful protesters has remained in the square.
The conduct of the judicial apparatus
The Attorney General has informed [the public] of the status of the different cases mentioned above. Days after her appearance before the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva,21 she said, “The Attorney General’s office is investigating 59 cases of presumed violations of human rights and 17 officials of different security bodies are being held in custody,” 22 as a consequence of the violent acts which have occurred in recent days.
With respect to this, we indicate two aspects that get in the way of the administration of justice. Many of the denouncements, especially those related with personal freedom and physical integrity, are made through media and social networks without offering proof to the competent [state] bodies. In other cases, the testimonies of the victims contradict with the results of the following technical investigation. 23
According to information from the Attorney General, the SEBIN officers responsible for the deaths of two people are under arrest and are being judicially processed. The same is happening with the GNB officer involved in the case of Jose Alejandro Marquez, and the mistreatment suffered by the artisan Marvinia Jimenez in the city of Valencia. In the cases of the deaths which occurred in the framework of the street barricades or were caused by armed civilians, investigations are underway and in some cases suspects have been arrested.
It’s worth mentioning that on 6 and 7 March the Attorney General met with two of the non-governmental organisations that had denounced torture and mistreatment [translator note: these were the Penal Forum and PROVEA]. One of them didn’t officially report a single case and the other handed over documentation on 40 cases, several of which were already being investigated by the Attorney General’s office. 24 Likewise, meetings have been held with [NGOs] and the ombudswoman.
We are not facing a systematic policy of human rights violations
We insist that the violations of human rights, including the cases of the violation of the right to life and denouncements of mistreatment and torture, should be condemned and must be fully investigated. According to official information, all the cases of killings attributable to security officers are being processed by the competent judicial authority. The Attorney General has stated that, “if an officer, no matter the rank, commits a crime of torture, cruel, or inhumane treatment, we are going to punish them”. 25 Likewise, she has assured that, “the Attorney General’s office isn’t going to permit any arbitrary arrest”. Meanwhile, President Maduro has also recognised that [there exist] security officers that have broken their role of defending the human rights of the population, and has shown his will for these situations to be investigated and punished.
Beyond official declarations, both an analysis of the protests in recent weeks and the evidence of the measures adopted by different state powers to tackle the violent protests and confront the cases of abuses by security forces indicate clear political willpower, and contradict the notion of a systematic and generalised policy of human rights violations. Between these measures, it’s worth mentioning the effective use of mechanisms for the administration of justice, the dialogue with human rights NGOs, and the application of legislative and executive measures to preserve the human rights of the population in the maintenance of public order.
The principles of the progressive and proportionate use of force must be those that guide the actions of the GNB, just as the constitution establishes. Situations such as the current one reveal the need for the government to insist upon and deepen the efforts that it has been undertaking to profoundly reform the state’s security forces and adjust their conduct to the full respect of human rights. If indeed important achievements have been reached in this sense, it is imperative that the government assures continuity and due urgency in the application of this fundamental agenda.
Overcoming the conflict
The capacity of Venezuelan society to resolve its differences and overcome the crisis of this moment has been demonstrated, just as was recognised by the resolutions of the Organisation of American States (OAS) and the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). In this context, we consider that the invocation to foreign intervention that is found in the discourse of a sector of the opposition, and that has been enunciated by some international actors, is unacceptable and doesn’t contribute to ending the conflict within the parameters of the constitution.
On the other hand, mutual recognition between the political forces of the government and opposition is a necessary prerequisite of a dialogue-based solution to the conflict. Violent protests and media manipulation don’t create solutions to the legitimate problems cited by the opposition leadership. What is required to confront these problems is the development and application of agreed-upon policies through the institutional channels offered by the constitution. The resorting to [violent] tactics as a strategy to force the resignation of a legitimately elected government; the demand that characterises the rallies and slogans of the protesters, means putting yourself outside the constitution and international law, which in no moment validates violence as a legitimate way of achieving political objectives. Moreover, the refusal of the leaders of the opposition and protesters to participate in dialogue, and the lack of condemnation by opposition leaders of these forms of protest add [to these problems].
Open and transparent national dialogue in the framework of respect for human rights is the only legitimate and harmonious way to end the escalation of violence. If the opposition continues as it has, this violence could have irreversible ramifications. As such, the initiatives undertaken by the government and the recent convoking of a National Peace Conference should be the platform that makes this dialogue possible. Due to this, we highlight with concern the refusal of the Democratic Unity Table (MUD) to participate [in the conference], despite the attendance of various sectors of national life such as business groups, religious organisations, political party leaders, students, social and cultural movements, regional and national governmental authorities, and representatives of public powers. So far the conference has advanced in the production of a set of proposals to tackle urgent issues in the national agenda which have been brandished as a banner in the protests.
In our role as human rights activists and facing the situation described, we express ourselves in the following terms:
- We repudiate the persistence of practices that constitute violations of human rights and we firmly demand their exhaustive investigation, the punishment of those responsible, and above all, the eradication of the conditions that facilitates them.
- We show solidarity with the victims and their families, who we urge to go to the relevant judicial bodies.
- We exhort national authorities to push forward measures that strengthen the process of police reform and the consolidation of a new police model in the short term, that should be extended to security bodies such as the SEBIN, GNB and CICPC (investigative police).
- We entirely condemn the violent protests exercised by minority sectors of the population and we warn of the possible appearance of new patterns of violence characterised by selective killings with firearms.
- We reject the continued use of human rights for purposes other than to promote their full protection and respect, just as is happening at the current moment.
- We request human rights organisations and national and international media to undertake a weighted, balanced and verified monitoring of the situation that Venezuela is going through. Further, that they abstain from manipulating the facts with the aim of defending the positions of those who encourage violent protests to advance toward unconstitutional goals that are contrary to democratic principles.
- We exhort the opposition leadership to firmly condemn the violence and echo the request of Amnesty International, who urges them to “call to followers not to commit violent acts, including attacks against people because of their political preference”. Likewise we convoke them to actively and purposefully join the dialogue initiatives organised by the government.
- We exhort all citizens independent of their political sympathies to abstain from resorting to violent methods to express discontent.
- We exhort all the country’s political forces and actors to respect the mechanisms and terms established in the constitution to settle their differences.
Caracas, 21 March 2014
1. Keymer Avila. Lawyer, researcher and university professor. Area of investigation: judicial systems and human rights.
2. Ana Barrios. Member of the coordinating committee of PROVEA (1990 – 1995), member of Amnesty International Venezuela (2004 – 2009). Associated member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace (2000 – present).
3. María Isabel Bertone. Educator in human rights. Member of the coordinating committee of PROVEA (1996 – 2005).
4. Marieva Caguaripano. Journalist. Member of the coordinating committee of PROVEA (1990 – 1995). Producer of campaigns for prevention and awareness-raising on teenage pregnancy and domestic violence (2010 – 2012).
5. Alba Carosio. Feminist activist for human rights since 1975, professor and researcher at the Central University of Venezuela.
6. Cristobal Cornieles Perret Gentil. Lawyer, member of the assembly of the Support Network for Justice and Peace (2006 – present). [further human rights position given].
7. Luis Díaz. Researcher: Centre for Peace and Human Rights, Central University of Venezuela (1996 – 2009).
8. Michael Adolfo Díaz Mendoza. Lawyer and human rights activist. Member of the Education and Investigation Collective for Social Development, CEIDES (2008 – 2010).
9. Isamar Escalona. Responsible for Groups and Networks in Education, PROVEA (2000 – 2006).
10. Pedro Pablo Fanega. Member of the Centre of Community Organisation and Human Rights in Vargas state (2004 – 2007). Member of the National Police Reform Commission (2006 – 2007).
11. Julio Fermin Salazar. Member of the Training, Information and Publications Team (EFIP), 1980 – present. Member of the Latin American Information Agency (ALAI), 1982 – present.
12. Pablo Fernandez Blanco. Member and Coordinator of the Education of Human Rights Program (1996 – 2005) and General Coordinator (2006 – 2012) of the Support Network for Justice and Peace.
13. Judith Galarza Campos. Affected by the forced disappearance for political motives of her sister Leticia Galarza in Mexico D.F., 5 January 1978. Current Executive Secretary of the Latin American Federation of Family Members of Arrested and Disappeared Persons (FEDEFAM)
14. Jesus Chucho Garcia, Afro-America and the African Diaspora Foundation.
15. Angel Osiel Gonzalez Alvarado. Member of the Regional Coordination of Child and Youth Workers (CORENATs).
16. Ivan Gonzalez Alvarado. Member of the PROVEA Consultative Assembly (1994 – 2013)
17. Antonio J. Gonzalez Plessmann. Associated Member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace (2005 - present).
18. Enrique Gonzalez. Member of PROVEA (1995 – 1999), researcher with CECODAP (2002 – 2003).
19. Martha Lía Grajales Pineda. Member of the Coordinating Team of the Education of Human Rights Program (2008 - 2009) and member of the Assembly of the Support Network for Justice and Peace.
20. Alejandra Guedez. Anthopologist, researcher and audiovisual producer, with experience in community organisations and working with vulnerable groups.
21. Mary Luz Guillen Rodriguez. Internationalist, member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace (1993 – present).
22. Erick Gutiérrez García. Lawyer, volunteer in judicial clinics. Researcher for PROVEA. Executive secretary of the Venezuelan chapter of the Interamerican Platform of Human Rights, Democracy and Development.
23. María Lucrecia Hernández. Lawyer and human rights activist.
24. María Paula Herrero. Area of communication and information, PROVEA (1989 – 1996).
25. Elba Martinez Vargas. Internationalist. Head of the Education in Human Rights Project of the Venezuelan Section of Amnesty International (1992 – 1993).
26. Africa Matute. Lawyer and human rights activist. Member of the comprehensive attention to victims project, Support Network for Justice and Peace (2010 – 2013).
27. Lilian Montero, Assembly Member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace [previous human rights roles mentioned].
28. Vicmar Morillo Gil. Area of Information and Investigation, PROVEA (2000 – 2004), Assembly Member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace.
29. Gioconda Mota Gutiérrez. Educator, member of the “Feminist Spider” network. Activist for women’s human rights.
30. Maureen Riveros. Journalist. Member of the committee against forgetting, PROVEA (1999 – 2006).
31. María Elena Rodríguez. Member of the PROVEA team (1995 – 2007). Associated member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace (2009 – present).
32. José Ángel Rodríguez Reyes. Former PROVEA worker, member of Amnesty International 1984 – 1999.
33. Ileana Ruiz. Journalist. Member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace since 1987. Educator in human rights, grassroots communication, alternative use of law and the rehabilitation of torture victims.
34. Marvelys Sifontes Cerrada. Lawyer, social worker, human rights activist and defender of child and youth rights.
35. Belkis Urdaneta Jayaro. Associated member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace (1994 – present).
36. Wilman Verdú Canache. Human rights activist, member of the Support Network for Justice and Peace, facilitator of human rights in police bodies.
Notes (in Spanish):
4 http://albaciudad.org/wp/index.php/2014/02/la-primavera-photoshop-medio…. http://actualidad.rt.com/actualidad/view/120227-medios-fotos-falsas-cao…. http://www.pagina12.com.ar/diario/contratapa/13-240368-2014-02-22.html
5 Un caso emblemático es el del joven con discapacidad mental supuestamente maltratado por fucionarios de la GNB, hecho desmentido por el propio periodista que tomó la gráfica. http://www.aporrea.org/medios/n247146.html
6 MIJ: Protestas insurreccionales suman 31 fallecidos y 461 heridos, en http://radiomundial.com.ve/article/mij-protestas-insurreccionales-suman…
7 Guarimbas: protestas violentas en las que personas cierran las calles colocando obstáculos de alta peligrosidad por medio de cables, alambres de púas, aceite vertido en el asfalto, árboles talados, piedras y escombros, entre otros, a los que se les prende fuego.
8 No se incluyen en el listado los casos de: María Heredia, madre del gobernador de Yaracuy, quien sufrió un infarto cuando manifestantes de oposición hicieron un cacerolazo a las puertas de su casa, y el de Luzmila Petit de Colina, quien murió por falta de atención médica cuando los manifestantes de una guarimba impidieron su traslado al centro médico. La prensa nacional ha mencionado casos similares de enfermos graves que no pudieron recibir atención médica por causa de las guarimbas. Sin embargo, se desconocen más datos concretos.
9 Los motorizados han sido estigmatizados, por algunos sectores de oposición, como miembros de colectivos armados pro gobierno.
12 La destrucción de espacios y servicios públicos como estaciones de metro, de autobuses y metrobuses, edificios de organismos públicos e instalaciones deportivas ha sido otra constante de estas manifestaciones.
13 Saldo de las guarimbas: 1.529 detenidos, C-4 y armas incautadas, 28 muertos y 78 efectivosheridos, en http://www.noticias24.com/venezuela/noticia/228281/maduro-el-uso-despro…
15 Los servicios de recolección de basura de algunos de estos municipios dejaron de funcionar con regularidad, de suerte que los manifestantes acumulaban basura para quemar en las guarimbas.
16 El asesinato del líder estudiantil Daniel Tinoco, en http://cronicasvenezuela.com/2014/03/17/el-asesinato-del-lder-estudiant…
17 Miguel Cocchiola: A mí no me han comprado, en http://www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve/noticias/actualidad/politica/miguel-c…
18 TSJ emite fallo contra alcaldes opositores, en http://www.correodelorinoco.gob.ve/nacionales/tsj-emite-fallo-contra-al…).
19 TSJ amplió prohibición de barricadas a otros cuatro municipios, en http://www.eluniversal.com/nacional-y-politica/protestas-en-venezuela/1….
20 El artículo 68 de la CRBV consagra el derecho de los ciudadanos y ciudadanas a manifestar pacíficamente y sin armas.
21 Fiscal General: Lo ocurrido en Venezuela se ha desvirtuado a escalainternacional, en http://www.ministeriopublico.gob.ve/web/guest/curriculum?p_p_id=101_INS….
22 Fiscal General: Tenemos 59 casos de presuntas violaciones de Ddhh, enhttp://www.ultimasnoticias.com.ve/noticias/actualidad/politica/fiscal-g…
23 Es el caso del joven que denunció haber sido víctima de violación por parte de funcionarios de la GNB y a quien la propia Fiscal General de la República desmintió afirmando: No es cierto que ese hecho haya ocurrido, de acuerdo al reconocimiento médico-legal practicado. Hechos todos los exámenes resultó que no es cierta esa afirmación". http://diariodecaracas.com/que-sucede/fiscal-niega-que-estudiante-haya-…
24http://www.primicias24.com/sin-categoria/provea-se-reune-con-fgr-para-t…; http://globovision.com/articulo/foro-penal-venezolano-entrego-a-la-fisc…; http://www.aporrea.org/ddhh/n246567.html
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick
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