Press Release

IACHR Urges the Protection of the Right to Protest in Venezuela and Respect for Freedom of Expression

April 11, 2017

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Washington, D.C. - The IACHR condemns the repression of public demonstrations in Venezuela and urges the State to respect and guarantee the necessary conditions for the exercise of political rights, freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly of those protesting in the country.

According to the information available, agents of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) and the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) used police cordons, water cannons and tear gas to obstruct and disperse the demonstrations carried out in Caracas and other cities between March 30th and April 8th of this year. Presence of groups of armed civilians beating and threatening demonstrators, including national deputies, was also reported.

During the demonstration held on April 4th, police and military operations were deployed to prevent deputies, political leaders and demonstrators from reaching the National Assembly. Police and military action sparked clashes between security agents and groups of demonstrators. According to the information obtained, six policemen and nine demonstrators were reportedly injured, one of them by firearm. State’s conduct during the events was allegedly discriminatory, since supporters of the government were allegedly able to mobilize without police obstacles to participate in demonstrations to express their support for the government.

It was also reported that on April 5th, GNB and PNB officials entered the headquarters of the University of Carabobo, fired rubber bullets and firearms at students participating in protests and used tear gas bombs inside the building of the Federation of Student Centers [Federación de Centros de Estudiantes. At least two students were reportedly wounded by firearm and others by rubber bullets. The GNB informed that the dismissal of officials that participated in the operation was ordered and that an investigation of these events will be opened.

On April 6th and 8th protesters heading to the Ombudsman Office [Defensoría del Pueblo] were once again, blocked and dispersed with tear gas by security officers. Government ordered the closing of 17 metro stations in the city of Caracas. According to the information available, arrests were reported and tens of protesters were wounded. A 19 year-old youngster, Jairo Ortiz, died during a demonstration in a neighborhood in the outskirts of Caracas after being allegedly shot by security forces. The IACHR urges the State of Venezuela to perform a prompt investigation on the death of this youngster, allowing authorities to establish whether it was an extrajudicial execution and, as a consequence, apply the corresponding judicial responsibilities.

Of particular concern is the information received regarding alleged attacks and confiscation of equipment and materials of journalists and media workers by security officials and groups of armed civilians during the demonstrations. It was also reported that a cameraman was detained and not allowed to cover the protest held on April 6th. Attacks against journalists covering situations of this nature violate freedom of expression because they are prevented from exercising their right to seek and disseminate information, and a chilling effect is generated. It also deprives society of the right to know the information obtained by journalists. In this sense, the IACHR continues to reiterate the importance of the most robust protection of the right to freedom of expression of media in Venezuela, especially regarding the situation experienced in the country.

The situation of Venezuela is a matter being closely followed both by the Inter-American Commission and the political bodies of the OAS. The bodies of the Inter-American system have emphasized that in such situations, the relationship between rights, political rights, freedom of expression and the right of peaceful assembly is even more evident, especially when they are exercised jointly to claim the effectiveness of democracy. The Inter-American Court has stated that "demonstrations and expressions related to democracy must have the maximum protection possible" and that the protest in this context be understood as part of the right to defend democracy.

The IACHR is also especially concerned regarding the repeated stigmatizing declarations by high rank public officials and the threats of criminal persecution against the demonstrators and political and social leaders. It is also concerned regarding instances of violence in the protests.

The existence of isolated acts of violence during protests cannot justify a blank restriction of the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression or the indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force against demonstrators. The Commission has emphasized that when a demonstration or protest leads to situations of violence it must be understood that the State was not able to guarantee its exercise. Their obligation is to refrain from arbitrarily restricting the exercise of the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, to protect participants and third parties present from attacks by individuals, and to ensure the management of social and political conflict and grievances and to channel the demonstrators´ claims.

The IACHR has repeatedly expressed concern about the lack of guarantees for the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and political participation in Venezuela. For this reason, the IACHR reiterates its urgent appeal to the State to comply with its international obligations in the area of human rights, including the duty to facilitate demonstrations and protests that have spurred after the decisions of the TSJ. In particular, it calls the State to respect the following international standards:

  • Publicly recognize the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, without discrimination on grounds of political opinion.
  • Refrain from requiring organizers to obtain prior authorization to hold public demonstrations or other overly bureaucratic requirements that would obstruct holding an assembly. 
  • Facilitate public demonstrations, including counterdemonstrations, and cooperate with the organizers of assemblies to exercise that role, without discrimination on grounds of political opinion.  Should the actions of isolated individuals or groups of people—including agent provocateurs and counterdemonstrators—intend to disturb or break up assemblies; States have a positive obligation to actively protect the affected assemblies.
  • Refrain from stopping, searching or arresting participants on their way to an assembly, unless there is a clear and present danger of imminent violence.
  • Refrain from arbitrarily using or threatening to use criminal law against activists or social and political figures for their participation in or alleged organization of a social protest, or for being part of a group or entity that has organized or announced a protest.
  • Exclude participation of military and armed forces personnel in the management of public demonstrations.
  • Exclude the use of firearms of the equipment used to manage assemblies. The use of these types of weapons is an extreme measure; firearms must only be used in those instances where the police, using less lethal means, are unable to restrain or detain those who are threatening the life or safety of police officers or third parties. They should never be used to fire indiscriminately on a crowd or group of people in these circumstances.
  • Adopt and strictly implement specific protocols regarding the progressive and proportional use of less lethal weapons and punish its indiscriminate use.
  • Refrain from practices involving massive, collective, or indiscriminate arrests. It underscores the importance of complying with all requirements imposed by domestic laws and international standards with regard to the arrests security forces make in contexts of social protests, particularly to ensure that those detained and their families receive accurate information regarding the reasons for their arrest and the place where the person is being held.
  • Ensure that journalists and media workers reporting on public demonstrations are not arrested, threatened, assaulted, or limited in any manner in their rights as a result of practicing their profession.
  • Refrain from using direct or indirect methods to prevent the publication of critical opinions or complaints against public officials.
  • Undertake investigations into the reported events, as well as to reinforce all actions that guarantee that the investigations underway are carried out diligently and impartially and establish the appropriate responsibilities.

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. 044/17