Human Rights Watch research shows that the abuses were not isolated cases or the result of excesses by rogue security force members. Instead, the repeated widespread violations by multiple security forces, during a specific time frame, and in numerous locations, support the conclusion that the security force abuses have been systematic. Human Rights Watch also documented cases of enforced disappearances for days or several weeks, and other egregious abuses since 2014.

Police and security forces killed nearly 18,000 people in Venezuela for alleged “resistance to authority” between 2016 and 2019. Nobody has yet compiled detailed information about how many of the killings were extrajudicial executions. But the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has concluded that “many of these killings may constitute extrajudicial executions.” In six of the cases documented by OHCHR, those killed were government opponents or perceived as such. Agents executed them during raids after anti-government protests.

In a report released in April 2021, Human Rights Watch documented new cases of extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, prosecution of civilians in military courts, and instances of torture in Apure state that follow a pattern similar to the systematic abuses that have led to international inquiries into possible crimes against humanity in Venezuela.

There is a widening gap between the ICC Office of the Prosecutor’s workload and available resources. Venezuela is the court’s sixteenth situation under investigation and its first in the Americas region.

The court’s budget, funded by its member countries, has been held to near-zero growth since 2017 while its docket has grown substantially.

The ICC prosecutor should prioritize engaging ICC member countries to expand the court’s resources to meet its mandate, Human Rights Watch said.

The ICC acts as a court of last resort, stepping in only when national courts cannot or will not investigate and, as appropriate, prosecute the most serious international crimes. On the same day the prosecutor announced the opening of the investigation, the Office of the Prosecutor signed a letter of understanding with Venezuelan authorities, which states that the Maduro government considers that the allegations should be investigated in Venezuela by existing national institutions. The government agreed to “adopt all necessary measures to ensure the effective administration of justice.”

Human Rights Watch research has shown that Venezuela’s judiciary has failed to adequately investigate widespread abuses despite compelling evidence and that impunity for human rights abuses remains the norm. Since the late President Hugo Chávez and his supporters in the National Assembly carried out a political takeover of Venezuela’s Supreme Court in 2004, the judiciary has stopped functioning as an independent branch of government. Supreme Court justices have openly rejected the principle of separation of powers and have consistently upheld abusive policies and practices.

Judicial authorities have been complicit in the abuses, the UN Fact-Finding Mission reported in September, including by issuing retrospective arrest warrants for illegal arrests, routinely ordering pretrial detention, upholding detentions based on flimsy evidence, and failing to protect victims of torture. Judges allowed significant procedural delays and interfered with the right to choose one’s own lawyer.

The Maduro government previously referred crimes, which it alleged were caused by unilateral United States government sanctions imposed on Venezuela, to the ICC prosecutor in February 2020. This led to the Office of the Prosecutor opening a second, separate preliminary examination. That examination remains ongoing.

“In the absence of robust and independent investigations in Venezuela into those most responsible for egregious abuses, which would require an overhaul of the country’s dysfunctional and politicized justice system, the ICC will have a critical role to play as a court of last resort,” Vivanco said. “To deliver on expectations for justice in Venezuela as well as in other situations around the globe, ICC member countries need to step up their political and financial support for this court.”