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Statement on Human Rights and Democracy in Venezuela

U.S. Congressional Human Rights Caucus

by Robert P. Jackson

Director, Office for the Promotion of Human Rights and Democracy

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor

Congressional Human Rights Caucus

April 22, 2004

Mr./Madam Chairman, Members of the Caucus. Thank you for the opportunity to brief the Human Rights Caucus on the situation in Venezuela. We appreciate your decision to hold this briefing now, as the citizens of Venezuela continue to seek a constitutional, peaceful, democratic and electoral solution to the political impasse there. I would like to address our concerns regarding the human rights situation in Venezuela, including developments that pose a threat to the free exercise of political expression and to freedom of the press.

I would also like to briefly describe our efforts to support conflict resolution and democratic processes in that country, and to address the misguided accusations brought against those programs, and against those courageous men and women who work to advance human rights and democracy in Venezuela and throughout the world.

I met with Venezuelan officials and human rights activists when I traveled to Caracas in September 2002. My Deputy, Kent Brokenshire, met with many of the same men and women when he was in Caracas last month.

Many of Venezuela's current troubles are the result of long-term systemic weaknesses and inequities, with a weak and politicized judicial system in particular contributing to widespread impunity, corruption and extrajudicial violence. There has, however, been a serious deterioration in the overall human rights situation under the administration of President Hugo Chavez.

As noted in our 2003 Country Report on Human Rights Practices in Venezuela, the Government's human rights record has been and remains poor. Security forces in Venezuela have been linked to the mistreatment of prisoners, forced disappearances and vigilante death squads responsible for hundreds of extrajudicial killings in at least 11 states. Also of great concern is an increased militarization of public administration, including the use of loyalist military officers in key political posts and as political candidates, and the growing and inappropriate involvement of public security forces in partisan political processes.

Public security forces, particularly elements of the Venezuelan National Guard and the Directorate for Intelligence and Prevention Services (DISIP), used excessive force during demonstrations in late February and early March 2004. The opposition reported 11 deaths, 417 politically motivated arrests, and over 1,700 injuries. There have been credible reports - amply documented in Human Rights Watch's April 9 letter to President Chavez - of the arbitrary detention and torture of political detainees during this period. There have been reported threats of reprisals against witnesses and victims of human rights violations. A failure to maintain impartiality and independence in key protective institutions, including the Defensoria del Pueblo and the Fiscalia, contributes to general impunity and lack of respect for rule of law. So too does a weak judiciary at all levels - in which 80% of the judges are temporary, provisional and subject to political pressures, including dismissal for decisions that go against the Government.

Also of grave concern are a rising number of threats and intimidation directed at non-governmental human rights defenders by government representatives and supporters. In a number of harsh statements, President Chavez and members of his Government have criticized - among other targets - individual human rights defenders, human rights organizations, the ILO, labor groups, the Catholic Church, and pro-democracy institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy. Such rhetoric contributes to social and political polarization in Venezuela, works to intimidate legitimate human rights and humanitarian assistance groups, and encourages unlawful attacks by government supporters on members of the opposition, the media, and civil society. At least 12 killings during 2003 appear to have been politically motivated, including the murder of human rights worker Joe Luis Castillo.

At the same time, there has been a serious deterioration of press freedoms, including a rise in physical attacks on journalists and television stations. The Government has intimidated the media through strict defamation laws (including potential prison terms for journalists showing a "lack of respect" for government officials or allowing the publication of materials showing officials in an "undignified" manner); through proposals for new legislation which, if enacted, would violate basic protections on the press and free speech; and by politically motivated misuse of legal authorities against the media.

We are concerned about the recall referendum. We share the views expressed by the Organization of American States (OAS) and The Carter Center regarding the National Electoral Council's (CNE's) arbitrary decision on numerous signature sheets, which has thwarted more than 800,000 Venezuela citizens from exercising their constitutional rights. This decision raises questions in the minds of some observers about transparency in Venezuela's electoral process.

We are also concerned about the Government of Venezuela's harsh rhetoric, including President Chavez' repeated assertions that the opposition had committed a "mega fraud" and other Venezuelan government officials denouncing those who signed as "traitors." Such rhetoric is a disturbing attempt to intimidate and control national electoral institutions and Venezuela's citizenry. We have seen disturbing reports of the intimidation of signatories, including pressure to recant and the documented firing of public sector employees who signed the recall petition. We are deeply concerned at the impact of these actions on basic political rights and freedoms in Venezuela.

We note that discussions on the recall process continue, with a focus on the reparos process. This process would allow Venezuelan citizens to revalidate or reaffirm that they signed the recall petition. The international community expects that the CNE will conduct a credible, viable reparos process that allows Venezuelan citizens to express their will freely and produces a timely result. In December 2002, the OAS Permanent Council passed Resolution 833, calling on the Government of Venezuela and the political opposition to find a "constitutional, democratic, peaceful, and electoral solution" to the crisis. That resolution also called upon the Government to ensure respect for the free exercise of the essential elements of democracy and the principles of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, including respect for human rights, the rule of law, and freedom of expression and the press.

The United States supports OAS Resolution 833. We will continue to work with our hemispheric and international partners to realize the goals set forth in that resolution. We urge all citizens of Venezuela to respect democratic order and processes, and to work through democratic channels. We continue to work through non-partisan organizations to support reconciliation and conflict resolution, to promote the democratization, accountability, and transparency of all political parties, including those supporting President Chavez, and to support and reform Venezuela's democratic institutions.

Some of this effort has been mistakenly characterized as an attack on the Chavez government. It is not. These programs - like many assistance programs throughout the world, including those funded by my own bureau and implemented through the National Endowment for Democracy - are designed to strengthen the democratic process and democratic institutions, promote conflict mediation, and help the Venezuelan people address their problems and concerns without violence and within constitutional channels. Members of President Chavez's MVR party are welcome participants in these programs.

I would like to close by stressing that promotion of democracy and the protection of fundamental human rights is a central, defining element of our foreign policy. The United States will continue to use all available bilateral and multilateral tools at our disposal to strengthen democracy and to institutionalize democratic reforms toward our goal of a stable, prosperous and peaceful Venezuela and a stable, prosperous and peaceful Western Hemisphere.

Source: U.S. Government.

Reprinted from Petroleumworld.com



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