Press Release

IACHR and Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Condemn Measures to Shut Down Spaces for Political Participation in Venezuela and Raise Alarm at their Impact on Democracy

October 25, 2016

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression condemn the actions taken by the Venezuelan State to shut down vital space for political participation in the country and persecute those who have exercised their right to freedom of expression. The IACHR and de Office of the Special Rappourter, raise alarm at the impact of these measures on Venezuelan democracy.

Throughout 2016, the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have followed with great concern the different ways in which the State has imposed serious limitations on pluralism in the exercise of political rights and freedom of expression, both through the application of the law and outside the law. Most notable among these actions are the obstacles that have been imposed by the authorities to prevent Venezuelans from participating in free and trustworthy elections,  the gradual suspension of the constitutional powers of the majority opposition Congress, the arbitrary detention and incarceration of opponents and persons who publicly dissent from the government or express their opinions in the media, the repression and undue restriction of protests, the dismissal and threatened dismissal of public employees who make statements or express political opinions against the party in office, campaigns of stigmatism, surveillance, and harassment against human rights defenders and journalists, as well as the continual use of the criminal law and other government controls to punish or stifle the work of the critical press. 

The Commission and its Office of the Special Rapporteur are especially concerned over the October 20, 2016 decision of the National Electoral Board to indefinitely suspend the signature gathering process for the presidential recall referendum promoted by opposition parties and other sectors of society.  A number of Venezuelan civil society organizations have reported that five criminal courts in the States of Aragua, Bolívar, Apure, Monagas, and Carabobo invalidated—“unexpectedly” and “without any legal authority”—the act of collecting signatures from 1% of voters registered in the Venezuelan Electoral Registry in their jurisdictions. According to the information available, the judgments, which were handed down simultaneously, were almost immediately complied with by the nation’s highest electoral body. This suggests the possibility of a coordinated plan to prevent the public from being able to assess the president’s performance through the referendum mechanism. 

In the case of Rocío San Miguel et al. (Venezuela), filed with the Inter-American Court in March 2016, the Commission found that a signature in favor of convening a political participation mechanism like the presidential recall referendum not only constitutes the exercise of political rights but is also an expression of the political opinion of the signatories, protected in turn by the right to freedom of expression and the principle of nondiscrimination. As is known, this electoral process is also considered by several Member States of the OAS to be a free and democratic form of channeling the country’s social and political polarization.

All of these measures have taken place against the backdrop of a profound weakening of the separation of powers and an economic, food, and health crisis in the country that continues to affect the rights to health, life, and humane treatment of the general population, with a differentiated impact among individuals or groups in situation of high vulnerability, including children, the elderly, people with disabilities, people with serious illnesses, and people living with HIV-AIDS.
The Inter-American Commission has underscored that there is a “direct relationship between the exercise of political rights and the concept of democracy as a form of State organization,” and has reiterated to Venezuela the need to guarantee the rights of citizens and organized political groups to political participation and freedom of expression without fear of retaliation, permitting and fostering a plural, broad, and robust public debate.

In the Inter-American system, the relationship between human rights and democracy is enshrined in the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which states that: “Essential elements of representative democracy include, inter alia, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, the pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, and the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government.”

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur urgently call upon the State of Venezuela to comply with its international human rights obligations. In particular, to respect and guarantee the right to freedom of expression and the right to participation of all sectors in the country’s political life, including the duty to facilitate demonstrations and protests that have been called for as a result of this serious decision by the electoral body and to put an end to those actions that impede the exercise of the right of individuals to choose their representatives and exercise oversight over them.

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 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. 154/16