Press Release

IACHR and its SRESCER Deeply Concerned about the Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on Venezuela, Call for Safeguards for the Rights of Venezuelans around the Americas

March 29, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship on Economic, Social, Cultural, and Environmental Rights (SRESCER) acknowledge—in the context of the recently launched Rapid and Integrated Response Coordination Unit (RIRCU) on COVID-19—the complex situation faced by States and societies around the world due to the exceptional measures taken in response to the pandemic caused by the coronavirus COVID-19. This virus is spreading exponentially and, by March 26, had already claimed at least 21,031 lives around the globe, 1,330 of these in the Americas. The COVID-19 pandemic poses extraordinary challenges for healthcare systems, for people’s everyday lives, and even for the enforcement of human rights. In this context, the IACHR and its SRESCER are deeply concerned about the impact of the pandemic on extremely vulnerable Venezuelans, given the profound, drawn-out crisis in their country.

The COVID-19 pandemic demands a responsible, supportive attitude from all States, national and international institutions, and citizens. The Commission and its SRESCER have observed that the serious human rights situation that Venezuelans have endured in recent years has deepened, due to a humanitarian crisis that has led close to 5 million Venezuelans to leave their country in the Americas’ worst displacement crisis. In such a complex scenario, Venezuelan authorities have the obligation to take serious, comprehensive action to address and contain COVID-19. Host countries must step up their efforts to protect individuals’ right to health and to mitigate the effects of a potential mass spread of the virus.

By constantly monitoring the situation of human rights and taking into consideration the conclusions of a recent in loco visit to the Colombian border with Venezuela, the IACHR and its SRESCER have seen that Venezuela is going through an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. This crisis has deeply affected the enjoyment of human rights—particularly economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights (ESCER)—for a major portion of the country’s population, especially groups who are vulnerable, suffer discrimination, or have historically been excluded. In this context, the Commission and its SRESCER stress that all human rights are interdependent and indivisible and that their effects are intersectional, something that is particularly clear in the Venezuelan case.

Concerning conditions for adequate healthcare, the IACHR and its SRESCER have repeatedly warned of the gradual deterioration of Venezuela’s hospital network. The country’s medical facilities generally have inadequate infrastructure and face shortages of both basic supplies and qualified medical staff. Many of Venezuela’s healthcare facilities lack permanent access to drinking water, electricity, hygiene and prophylactic supplies, surgical instruments, laboratories who can check blood transfusions, equipment to sterilize various instruments, vaccines for basic immunization, operational elevators, and contrast material for diagnostic procedures. This is compounded by an atmosphere of persecution and harassment targeting healthcare professionals and anyone protesting over the lack of equipment and supplies to provide quality care to individuals who are ill. In particular, the Commission and its SRESCER have been informed of the critical situation at José Manuel de los Ríos Hospital, the country’s largest pediatric facility, and at the Concepción Palacios Maternity Hospital, one of Venezuela’s main centers for obstetric care. Both hospitals are beneficiaries of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR, but the State has so far failed to comply with these precautionary measures.

Venezuelans’ situation is made worse by the lack of sufficient quantities of food of appropriate quality, by low wages, and by hyperinflation, as well as by frequent widespread cuts in public services including the supply of drinking water, natural gas, and electricity. The mix of all these factors in the context of a pandemic implies that individuals are unable to take essential measures for prophylaxis and prevention—including frequent hand washing with soap and water and isolation within homes—which in turn increases the risk of coming into contact with the virus and becoming infected with it.

In this scenario, the Commission and its SRESCER emphatically call on Venezuelan authorities to take action aimed at protecting the right to health of all people, without discrimination and with a differentiated approach to prioritize the welfare of older adults and other groups who are particularly at risk with COVID-19, with a perspective that ensures gender equality. Truthful, transparent data is essential in this context, without unwarranted restrictions of access to information concerning the pandemic and any containment measures. Further, the Commission and its SRESCER emphatically warn that persecution and harassment targeting healthcare professionals who complain about the lack of equipment and about a mismanagement of this crisis not only is incompatible with the State’s goal of managing the healthcare crisis, but also manifestly runs counter to States’ international obligations concerning human rights.

The IACHR was informed—through its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression—that journalist Darvinson Rojas had been arrested (along with his parents) by the Special Action Forces on March 21, without an arrest warrant, allegedly to be tested for COVID-19. Earlier, Rojas had posted on Twitter statistics for COVID-19 in the state of Miranda. The Commission and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression stress that the media play a crucial role in the context of the pandemic, by spreading vital information and monitoring State action, and that journalists must not be arrested or prosecuted for reporting or for questioning official data.

Further, the IACHR and its SRESCER note the measures taken by Venezuelan authorities, which—according to a public statement issued on March 22—include suspending rent payments for real estate for six months, suspending interest payments for some loans (including banks’ full commercial-loan portfolios), and banning for six months any cuts in the supply of telecommunications and other public services. The IACHR and its SRESCER call on the State to ensure that these and any other economic and social measures that may be adopted are implemented fairly and reflect international human rights standards, as well as considering the different contexts and needs of Venezuelan citizens. These measures must not be used as mechanisms for coercion or discrimination along political or any other lines, the Commission and its SRESCER noted.

The IACHR and its SRESCER highlight the statement issued on March 24 by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, asking that the sectoral sanctions on countries facing the COVID-19 pandemic be urgently reassessed to consider their potentially negative impact on healthcare and human rights.

Situation of Venezuelan forced migrants around the Americas

In press release 60/20, the Commission already addressed the complex nature of the current global epidemiological emergency and the need for States’ responses to reflect the highest standards to ensure the comprehensive protection of human rights. In this context, the IACHR stresses—along with its special rapporteurships—that Venezuelan forced migration highlights the need for coordinated action, international cooperation, and an exchange of information and best practices, to ensure that any action taken takes into consideration the integrated nature of human rights.

More generally, the Commission stresses that the COVID-19 pandemic must not be used as an excuse for States to escape their obligations based on domestic and international law concerning people who need special protection. The IACHR therefore observes with great concern the disproportionate impact on Venezuelan migrants, refugees, and other individuals who require international protection of measures aimed at containing COVID-19 in the main host and transit countries around the Americas. The Commission acknowledges the need to take action to prevent the spread of COVID-19. However, it warns that such measures must not be merged with migration-related policies and mechanisms and lead to violations of the principle of non-refoulement or otherwise hinder access to instruments for adequate protection.

The IACHR further acknowledges that this epidemiological crisis may become a factor for forced displacement. A deepening COVID-19 pandemic may cause new migration flows around the Americas, particularly among the social groups with the weakest social protection networks. This requires that States prepare themselves to integrate into their response mechanisms new capacities as hosts. In the case of migrants, refugees, and other individuals with special international protection needs who hail from Venezuela, the pandemic can potentially reinforce existing displacement factors, such as the search for healthcare services. From the point of view of comprehensively protecting human rights, the IACHR and its SRESCER issue an urgent call to countries in the Americas, asking them to comply with their obligations concerning asylum seekers and refugees and to provide treatment and other health services without discrimination. They further note that all people—whatever their migration status or place of origin—have the right to the same healthcare as citizens of a transit or host country.

The Commission and its SRESCER observe with concern that some countries who host migrants are taking measures to partially or fully close their borders with Venezuela and are intensifying raids against migrants and reducing the capacity of services in charge of issuing and distributing the relevant documents. For instance, the IACHR has been informed of restrictions to freedom of movement adopted on both sides of the border between Venezuela and Colombia. These restrictions include fully closing the border on the Colombian side and opening a humanitarian corridor for individuals who require medical care. In this context, the IACHR and its SRESCER stress the need to ensure access to healthcare for Venezuelans with chronic health problems and the need to conduct an assessment of the impact of all measures restricting border crossings for thousands of Venezuelans and Colombian-Venezuelans who used to cross the border every day to obtain their food in Colombia.

Similarly, the Commission and its SRESCER believe it is urgent for States to integrate into their prevention and assistance programs the emergency needs of almost 5 million Venezuelans who have left their country—among other millions of refugees and displaced persons around the Americas—and who are set to be particularly affected by the current epidemiological crisis. Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, the IACHR’s Rapporteur for Venezuela, expressed her profound concern for the lives, health, and integrity of Venezuelans inside and outside their country. She called for regional solidarity to provide Venezuelans with the humanitarian assistance and international protection they need.

The SRESCER is an autonomous office of the IACHR and was especially created to brace the Commission’s compliance with its mandate to promote and protect economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights in the Americas.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 064/20