The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Venezuela is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Venezuela is also a party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Venezuela is a State Party to the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, having denounced it in 2012 and then ratified it again in July 2019. Article 15 governs the right of assembly:
The right of peaceful assembly, without arms, is recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights or freedom of others.
Venezuela has accepted the competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hear complaints by individuals under the jurisdiction of the State that their rights under the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights have been violated.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Under Article 52 of the 1999 Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, everyone has the right to assemble for lawful purposes, in accordance with law. The State is obligated to facilitate the exercise of this right. In accordance with Article 53, everyone has the right to meet publicly or privately, without obtaining permission in advance, for lawful purposes and without weapons. Meetings in public places may be regulated by law.
Article 43 of the 2010 Law on Political Parties, Public Meetings, and Demonstrations requires 24 hours' notice to the local civil authority, indicating the "planned place or itinerary, day, time, and general objective pursued”. The law provides that if the first civil authority finds justified reasons to "fear" that staging public demonstrations in the same location might "cause disturbances of public order," it may order the demonstrations or public meetings to be held at a different places and times.Art. 44, 2010 Law on Political Parties, Public Meetings, and Demonstrations.
Resolution No. 008610 of the Ministry of Defence considers peaceful protest movements to be threats to public order.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
The 2009 Organic Law of the Police Service and the Bolivarian National Police (Ley Orgánica del Servicio de Policía y del Cuerpo de Policía Nacional Bolivariana) established the Bolivarian National Police Body. The general principles of policing include acting in respect of human rights and in proportion to the seriousness of the situation and the legitimate objective being pursued. Police officers must use the minimum force necessary to achieve the proposed objective. Force be never used as a form of punishment.Art. 70, 2009 Organic Law of the Police Service and the Bolivarian National Police.
The 2012 Code of Criminal Procedure, issued in 2012 by Presidential Decree, governs police use of force during arrest. In such situations, force shall be used only when strictly necessary and in proportion to the circumstances. Use of weapons such as firearms is forbidden, except when there is resistance that endangers the life or physical integrity of people. In such cases, they must be used within the limitations of necessity and proportionality.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
The use of deadly force will only be justified in the defence of the life of a police officer or a third party.Art. 68, 2009 Organic Law of the Police Service and the Bolivarian National Police.
With respect to assemblies, Resolution 008610 of 2015 on the Conduct of the National Armed Forces, issued by the Minister of Popular Power to Defense, Padrino López, allows the National Bolivarian Guard to use firearms when managing public demonstrations. The resolution requires graduated use of force, but when the use of firearms is "unavoidable", military personnel shall: take special precautions to protect human life, reduce damage and injuries, and avoid affecting other people.
These rules do not comply with international law and standards.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
International Criminal Court
On 26 September 2018, Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru referred the situation of Venezuela to the ICC, asking the Court to investigate crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela since 12 February 2014. This move marks the first state referral of another State Party’s situation in the history of the ICC. The Office of the Prosecutor has an ongoing preliminary examination of alleged crimes committed since at least April 2017 in Venezuela in the context of demonstrations and related political unrest.
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
in its 2015 Concluding Observations on Venezuela, the Human Rights Committee called on the authorities to
take the necessary measures to ensure that all individuals under its jurisdiction are able to fully enjoy their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association and that the exercise of those rights is subject only to restrictions which are in accordance with the strict requirements of articles 21 and 22 of the Covenant.
On 6 June 2017, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) established a team to document and report on human rights violations in the context of mass protests in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela between 1 April and 31 July 2017. The OHCHR found that security forces systematically used excessive force and arbitrarily detained protesters.
Credible and consistent accounts of victims and witnesses indicate that security forces systematically used excessive force to deter demonstrations, crush dissent and instil fear. The Bolivarian National Police (PNB) and the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB), which is part of the armed forces, used tear gas and other less lethal weapons, such as water cannons and plastic pellets, during demonstrations without prior warning, in a non-progressive manner, and in violation of the international legal principles of necessity and proportionality. Less lethal weapons were also used systematically in a manner intended to cause unnecessary harm, for example security forces shot tear-gas grenades directly at demonstrators at short range and manipulated ammunition to make them more harmful. OHCHR also documented the use of lethal force against protestors by security forces. Authorities rarely condemned incidents of excessive use of force, in most cases denied security forces were responsible for such incidents, and repeatedly labelled demonstrators as “terrorists.”
In May 2018, the Report of the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States and the Panel of Independent International Experts on the possible Commission of Crimes Against Humanity in Venezuela was published. The report found evidence pointing to
the systematic, tactical and strategic use of murder, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as tools to terrorize the Venezuelan people in a planned campaign to quash opposition to the Regime.
The panel of independent international experts found that reasonable grounds exist to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Venezuela. This included more than 8,000 extrajudicial executions recorded since 2012.
Views of Civil Society
According to Freedom House's 2021 report on Venezuela:
While guaranteed by the constitution, freedom of assembly is severely restricted in practice. While protests were nevertheless common despite government restrictions and the threat of deadly crackdowns by security forces, their numbers fell dramatically due to the state of emergency and lockdowns declared to prevent the spread of COVID-19. More than half of the roughly 4,400 protests recorded by the Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflicts in the first half of the year were motivated by the lack of public services, especially electricity, water, and gasoline; others were explicitly related to politics, and some were related to a lack of protective or medical equipment. The group reported that 221 of those were repressed by security forces or paramilitary groups, that 129 people were arrested, and 2 were killed.
In recent years, there have been violent clashes between protesters and security forces. In 2017, there were more than 1,900 protest-related injuries and 136 deaths, with at least 102 people apparently killed by security forces or state-affiliated colectivos.