Paul Seils, UN Rapporteur: "No One In Their Right Mind Will Doubt That There Are Abuses And Torture In Venezuela"

A year ago, the UN Human Rights Council ordered the creation of an international investigative mission to study possible human rights violations committed by the Government of Venezuela as of 2014. Paul Seils is one of the three members of that team, which presented its final report of more than 400 pages on Wednesday. In this document – drawn up from 274 interviews, confidential documents and public sources – the authors directly accuse the Maduro government of contributing to the commission of crimes against humanity, specifically extrajudicial executions, disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture.

Seils is a member of the European Institute of Peace and has specialized in human rights cases for years. He has been head of situation analysis at the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, head of analysis at the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, director of the rule of law unit at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and Vice President of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

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The Government of Venezuela rejected from the outset the configuration of the investigation team, saying that it was an example of the political use of the Human Rights Council. Now that the report is published, the Executive denounces that it is not rigorous and that it is plagued with falsehoods. What is your reaction to these accusations?

First, we fully regret the lack of cooperation on the part of the State of Venezuela during the mission’s work, but they have always had the opportunity to do so. At the beginning of the work we invited them to collaborate, to talk about the mission, about the mandate… and they never responded. During work we also sent several letters that remained unanswered. We also gave them the opportunity to answer and respond to the conclusions, but they never responded.

It is quite common for state governments where there are fact-finding missions or commissions of inquiry to not cooperate. I have worked on others before and have seen the same story. I have worked a large part of my professional life investigating and taking cases in Guatemala against the Army regarding genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the indigenous people during the civil war. During all that time, of course, the government and the army accused us of being communists.

You have to take it seriously, but you have to understand what it is; and it is a fairly common and unsubstantiated criticism. It really is a haven and it is not a serious job analysis.

Has this lack of cooperation influenced the results of the investigation?

Well, one has to honestly say that of course any investigation is going to be richer if it has information on the people who appear to be responsible for the rapes and crimes that we are investigating. Sure it would help, but that does not imply that it damages the conclusions.

We had to arrive at what we call a test standard, a threshold. That threshold is that we have to establish reasonable grounds to conclude something. This is obviously not the same level as a conviction in criminal court. It is not the same degree of certainty because we do not have to check in the same way. We are setting something to another level. In this sense, the conclusions are absolutely stable and firm and we have a high level of confidence in them.

Returning to the issue of criminal responsibility that you mentioned earlier, do you think there is any possibility that these accusations will reach some kind of national or international court?

Well, ideally, what in my opinion should happen are two things. First, that the Government cease the violations. This is a fundamental message. One can accuse the mission of being a political abuse of the Human Rights Council and many other things, but no one in their right mind is going to doubt, for example, that there are abuses and torture occurring in a common way in the facilities of the intelligence services. .

Second: investigate and initiate cases against those responsible at the national level. That would be the strongest and most honest message that the state is taking its obligations seriously.

This would be the ideal, but in real world terms, there are no very positive indications so far that the justice system will fulfill its responsibilities. If that does not happen and if they do not carry out the investigations, of course other institutions that have the mandate to do so can and we hope they will. That includes, for example, the International Criminal Court which is obviously looking into that possibility right now.

The report points to the top of the government. What makes you think as investigators that the president and the ministers of Defense and Interior contributed to the commission of these crimes?

Basically what the report says is that we identified two plans or two policies at the government level. One plan has to do with the repression of the political opposition and the other policy has to do with what we would call, in vulgar terms, social cleansing, that is, a policy where there were extrajudicial executions of people identified by State agencies as criminals or linked to criminals. In other words, it is a manifestation of what we have seen several times in Latin America, especially in the 70s and 80s of the last century.

Large numbers of people have been murdered in the framework of this social cleansing in situations where it was obvious and essential that there be a high level of planning, logistics, communication and human resources. All the information we have is that during the years that we are investigating, that is, since 2014, the chain of command, communication systems and internal discipline of the public forces were fully functioning. We know this not only from objective inferences, but also from people who worked within these systems. In concrete terms, we have some specific clues where the president or minister were present during the discussions of various specific operations.

Added to this are public statements where the president himself and the ministers indicated admit that they approved and supported what was happening. For example, if we take the president’s statement very shortly after a request from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, where he basically called for the dismantling of FAES (Special Action Forces), the next day the president said ‘Long live the FAES!’. That is, there was an intention to support and he knew what was happening.

In the first place, the political authorities knew, supported, directed and planned. Second: they never did anything to prevent it. That is the responsibility of the president and the appointed ministers.

The report speaks of patterns of behavior that make them think that there is a coordinated plan regarding these crimes. Could you specify or detail any of those patterns?

The way in which the mission has investigated is divided into the identification of three contexts: the first is the repression of the political opposition, another has to do with security operations, which is basically social cleansing, and the third refers to political protests. In each of these contexts we investigate patterns of behavior.

For example, in political repression, we first see the practice of arbitrary detention. People arrested without a warrant, people held incommunicado, but even more worrying is a more or less systematic pattern of torture, especially since 2018.

As for social cleansing, the pattern of conduct has to do with the systematic extrajudicial execution of people. What we see in several operations is more or less the same modus operandi –we have seen it in many other Latin American countries–: the group enters, usually in the early hours of the morning, closes the entrance and exit of the community and they divide people, for example they send women and children elsewhere. Inside the house, in many of the cases we investigated, there was a montage of evidence. For example, before killing the person they detained, they shot at the wall to make it appear that there was an exchange of fire or that the detainee was trying to get out. And this does not happen once or twice, but many times.

The same goes for protests. It is true that there were killings and possibly arbitrary executions in the context of the protests, but perhaps the most systematic and planned was the torture of detainees. What must be remembered here is that we are talking about people exercising their democratic rights, it does not matter if we agree with the Government or against the Government, this has nothing to do with it. It may be that they are violating national law in terms of assembly and in terms of not having the necessary authorization to demonstrate, but we have absolutely clear information on a pattern of torture. We are talking about serious things like electric shocks, rape… that happen in the central buildings of intelligence and police institutions. It is not happening in some secret and unknown corner.

Associations of victims of violence committed by opposition forces have stated in the past that their voices have not been heard. Are you aware of these demands?

It sounds like a very elegant response, but one must take seriously the mandate that we have, and that mandate is to investigate human rights violations committed by the state.

In normal terms, if we are not talking about a civil war or a conflict where combatants have taken control of a territory where they can exercise State functions, they cannot assume responsibilities as if it were the State, that is, duties as guarantors of human rights. In Venezuela to date we are not in those conditions. It is true that what we have in some cases are assaults or attacks by people from the opposition, but this is not the mandate of the mission. The mandate is to investigate violations of extrajudicial execution, arbitrary detention, torture, and enforced disappearance. All this has to do with the duties of the State.

What is the government’s objective in relation to these systematic crimes?

The two policies seem quite clear to us. The first is to repress or silence the political opposition and the second is to reduce the serious crime problem in a way that, in our opinion, totally violates their internal duties to guarantee the right to life and due process.

Do you think that political pardons like the ones we saw on August 31 are a way to de-escalate the social conflict in Venezuela?

Well, there are several possible interpretations. What I would say is that any positive step has to be welcomed. Although the mission should not meddle in political affairs, if the human rights conditions of some people improve, we celebrate. And we also hope that this practice will quickly expand until everyone is released. If it is possible for a limited group, it should be possible for a much larger group.

Second, as to the motives behind it, one can think of various things, but we cannot say much. What I am saying is that it shows that the State has control of the facts, knows what it is doing and is not surprised. So I hope you expand that measure. But above all, I hope that it also demonstrates a change in attitude and a fundamental decision to stop the violations.

Was there anything that particularly impressed or affected you during the investigation?

It is difficult, but for me, who have worked for several years in Guatemala, I regret that decades after what happened in Latin America during the 70s and 80s – especially at the hands of right-wing dictatorships, although I don’t care if they are from the left or from the right – We are seeing something so serious in terms of systematic human rights violations by a government in the region. I’m not saying it’s the same or similar. It is sad that we have not managed to reach a stage where political problems are faced without these kinds of violations.

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