The International Criminal Court (ICC) has recently decided to open an investigation in Venezuela aimed at determining whether crimes against humanity were committed under President Nicolás Maduro’s mandate. In particular, the committee will investigate the legitimacy of the allegations of torture and bloodshed perpetrated by the Venezuelan police during the 2017 demonstrations. Despite disagreeing with the criteria employed to open the examination, Maduro has signed a copy of a memorandum of understanding and has agreed to cooperate with the prosecutor Karim Khan. Whatever the outcome, the ICC resolution represents a judiciary step forward that will not only allow the victims to receive justice but may also force leaders such as Maduro to take accountability for their wrongdoings.
The ICC has chosen to examine thoroughly the events that happened during the protests that erupted in Venezuela in 2017 to determine whether the security forces committed crimes. Back then, people took the streets to force President Nicolás Maduro to give his resignations. In what has been named the "mother of all marches", citizens accused Maduro of turning his mandate into a dictatorship. Moreover, people from all walks of life were lamenting rising hyperinflation and shortages of food, basic goods, and medicines. However, the demonstrations quickly turned into violent clashes, with several seriously injured or dead. In particular, the police were at the centre of the public's complaints because of the brutality and lethal weapons by which they resorted to repress dissent. As recounted by an astonished doctor, "(V)iolence doesn’t surprise me but the level of hatred security forces are showing towards average citizens and the use of non-conventional weapons like loading tear gas canisters with nails and marbles does take me aback". As a result, the United Nations had accused the Venezuelan security forces saying that they had "systematically used disproportionate force to instil fear, crush dissent and to prevent demonstrators from assembling, rallying and reaching public institutions to present petitions". Moreover, the United International and Independent Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela recently published a study affirming that there were "reasonable grounds to believe that instead of providing protection to victims of human rights violations and crimes, the justice system has played a significant role in the State’s repression of Government opponents".
The ICC had already conducted an investigation aimed at determining whether Maduro's administration had committed crimes against humanity. Indeed, the ICC's prosecutor Karim Khan's enquiry will be consistent with the prior 2018 preliminary probe that intended to resolve the allegations of excessive force, arbitrary detention and torture by the Venezuelan police. According to prosecutor Karim Khan's predecessor, there was a "reasonable basis" to assume the government was responsible for crimes against humanity. Taking this into account, the ICC prosecutor has affirmed that his job is to reveal the truth and demanded that the investigation not become a political instrument. He affirmed this by asking "everybody now, as we move forward to this new stage, to give my office the space to do its work" and added that he "will take a dim view of any efforts to politicise the independent work of my office".
As a response to the ICC decision, Maduro said that the administration "respects his (Karim Khan's) decision as a state, though we have made clear we do not share it". However, he agreed to collaborate to the enquiry affirming that the government "signed an agreement that does guarantee, in an effective way, cooperation, positive complementarity, mutual support, constructive dialogue to seek truth and justice".
The ICC ruling has been praised by both the US-backed political opposition and humanitarian organizations. Since its foundation, the ICC mainly focused on offences that occurred in Africa, making Karim Khan's investigation the first of this kind to happen in Latin America. The judiciary investigation is believed to be a step stone that will allow victims to obtain justice and hold the government accountable for its actions. According to Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director for Human Rights Watch, "(T)his is a turning point” because “(N)ot only does it provide hope to the many victims of Maduro’s government but it also is a reality check that Maduro himself could be held accountable for crimes committed by his security forces and others with total impunity in the name of the Bolivarian revolution".
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, the step taken by the ICC represents a milestone for the upholding of international law and designs Venezuela as the first LATAM state to be examined by the Court. The unfolding of the case will have wide-ranging consequences and is expected to have an impact on the regional elections that will occur at the end of the month.
Written by Cinzia Saro
Cinzia Saro is a columnist at DecipherGrey.