[Interview] Shelter city research fellow Omar Piñango: “We are on a path to justice”Published 21 December 2023
By Sara Urso & Pascal Messer
Omar Piñango is a Venezuelan lawyer and human rights defender who is working with the NGO Defiende Venezuela to document crimes against humanity in the country. In the past three months he was also a Shelter City Research Fellow at the Asser Institute in The Hague, where he conducted research on the International Criminal Court's Venezuela I investigation. Omar Piñango: “In Venezuela we have no rule of law." An interview.
A decade after Nicolas Maduro became president of Venezuela, serious human rights violations persist. They include the systematic use of arbitrary detention and torture, extrajudicial executions by the security forces, enforced disappearances and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, including sexual and gender-based violence, committed since 2014.
Allegations of these crimes center on the Venezuelan government's handling of mass protests in 2014, which arose amidst the economic crisis following the death of former socialist president Hugo Chavez. The protests were met with violent repression by Maduro's government, resulting in more than a hundred deaths and thousands of injuries.
Wave of repression
Another wave of public protests and repression followed in 2017, during which allegations of arbitrary detention, torture of opposition supporters, and other crimes against humanity skyrocketed. Venezuela is grappling with the devastating effects of hyperinflation, widespread shortages of essential goods, rampant unemployment, and soaring crime rates. An exodus of over seven million Venezuelans have sought refuge in neighbouring countries.
According to Marta Valiñas, Chair of the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FFMV), the Venezuelan state “relies on the intelligence services and its agents to repress dissent in the country. In doing so, grave crimes and human rights violations are being committed, including acts of torture and sexual violence.”
In a significant development, International Criminal Court (ICC) judges on June 27 2023, gave the green light for the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) to proceed with its investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela. This ruling came after the Venezuelan government had requested a temporary suspension of the investigation, citing its own domestic inquiries. However, the ICC's judges found the government's domestic investigations to be inadequate and ordered the OTP to resume its probe.
Given this recent development, I'm curious to learn about your research focus during your three months at the Asser Institute.
“I have been working on developing an interview protocol specifically for civil society organisations in Venezuela, designed to provide them with the necessary skills and knowledge to conduct proper interviews with victims and witnesses of crimes against humanity and human rights violations.
Additionally, I have been conducting research on the "complementary principle," which means that the ICC is a court of last resort. States hold the primary responsibility for investigating and prosecuting international crimes within their jurisdictions. However, if a state's legal system is unable or unwilling to genuinely pursue investigations into international crimes, the ICC may exercise jurisdiction. This is a particularly relevant topic in the context of Venezuela, where the government has repeatedly maintained that it is investigating perpetrators of such crimes.
However, in practice, their efforts have been largely ineffective, with only direct perpetrators being prosecuted. The chain of command, for instance, has not been adequately investigated, and cases of torture and assassination have not been pursued. The "complementarity principle" is particularly significant because it is not limited to the initial admissibility stage under Article 18 of the Rome Statute; it can also be raised at other points during the investigative process. This means that when a case is brought before the ICC, the state may argue that it has undertaken its own investigations and therefore the ICC should not pursue the case.”
Why is Venezuela not prosecuting international crimes?
“Well, this is probably because the authorities are the ones that actually committed these crimes or have ordered them. The two main events that the ICC prosecutor currently is investigating, are the 2014 and 2017 demonstrations that took part within a context of political instability. During these demonstrations, torture was committed. There was persecution on political grounds, sexual violence, and there were many arbitrary detentions.
The Venezuelan government has attempted to portray these human rights violations committed during the protests as ‘isolated incidents’ caused by individual police officers. However, we have evidence that suggests that the government had a coordinated plan, known as Plan Zamora, to suppress dissent through the use of violence. This plan outlined several stages of escalating violence against protesters. In fact, President Maduro publicly announced the implementation of a "new level of measures" to deal with the demonstrations. While he did not explicitly mention violence, his rhetoric was clearly intended to intimidate and coerce protesters into submission.
Widespread pattern of abuse
As a legal practitioner involved in documenting human rights violations, I have compiled evidence from victims' testimonies. This evidence reveals a consistent pattern of abuse all over the country and involves multiple state institutions. Victims from different regions have described similar tactics employed by the police, the National Guard, and even Maduro's intelligence police. This widespread pattern of abuse, coupled with the government's publicised plan to escalate violence, underscores the deliberate and systematic nature of the human rights violations committed in Venezuela.”
You said that you have been working on an interview manual for Venezuela's NGO's. Can you explain why it is important for them to have expertise in the technical aspects of documentation?
“Given the abundance of global crises vying for public attention, such as the ongoing conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza, it is crucial to have more voices highlighting the human rights situation in Venezuela. So, we need more academic research, more expertise, and more media coverage to shed light on these ongoing injustices and ensure accountability. The catalyst for Venezuelan civil society's involvement in documenting human rights violations was the realisation, after the 2014 demonstrations, that these abuses needed to be brought to light.
At the time, we focused on international mechanisms like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), as the Venezuelan justice system's abysmal impunity rates have left victims with no recourse. This recognition prompted civil society to take on the crucial task of documentation. While there are academic experts specialising in documentation and human rights violations, it was primarily the Venezuelan civil society organisations that from then on operated as practitioners. This came with a somewhat limited understanding of the technical aspects of documentation.”
What are you aiming to achieve with your work?
“We are on a path to justice for the Venezuelan victims. You should realise that in Venezuela we have no rule of law. The World Justice Project's Rule of Law Index for years has been ranking Venezuela as country number 140, the very lowest-scoring country in the world... This pervasive injustice has instilled a deep distrust in the Venezuelan justice system, prompting victims to seek recourse through international mechanisms like the International Criminal Court or the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Our work aims to address this dire situation by shining a spotlight on the human rights violations committed in Venezuela and seeking justice for the victims. We believe that by documenting these atrocities, raising awareness, and by collaborating with the ICC, we can bring perpetrators to account and bring a measure of justice and healing to the victims.
The ICC could bring some justice, although we recognise the challenges that the Court is facing. It is trying to balance the expectations of the victims, who are relying on the ICC, with its limited resources and competing priorities. I sometimes find this difficult to hear, as I have talked to victims whose daughters and sons have been killed during the demonstrations, and they haven't obtained any justice whatsoever in seven years. For them we need to have the perpetrators on trial to have some accountability. However, we remain hopeful that with continued support and international pressure, the ICC can play a pivotal role in restoring justice and upholding the rule of law in Venezuela.”
Can you walk us through a bit of your experience? What did you do in the past that led you here?
“My journey into the world of international criminal law began by participating in judicial simulations competitions, international criminal law moot courts. These tournaments provided me with experience in understanding and applying the principles of ICC proceedings. I do not have a Master's in international criminal law, but I have been studying this really hard, even training other young people that were also eager to learn. Every Saturday, I would religiously follow and later give classes on international criminal law at university, while also raising the money to travel abroad for the competitions.
In 2016, I represented my university in the Spanish ICC moot court competition in The Hague, an experience that ignited my passion for this field. We were the first university in Venezuela winning this championship and it was awesome, obviously. Over the years, my involvement in these competitions grew, leading me to become a trainer, head of delegation, and even the author of the case for the Victor Carlos Garcia Moreno International Criminal Court Competition in Mexico, the oldest of its kind worldwide.
This not only honed my technical knowledge but also fostered my desire to make a real-world impact. When one of my fellow moot court competitors invited me to join the NGO Defiende Venezuela, I saw an opportunity to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application. In 2018, I joined the organisation, initially focusing on research but soon transitioning into documentation work related to ICC investigations into crimes against humanity in Venezuela.
My first major undertaking was preparing a communication to the ICC prosecutor in 2019, which involved gathering evidence, drafting documents, and conducting interviews with victims and witnesses across Venezuela. The Defiende Venezuela team was fortunate to receive training from a lawyer that was part of the Office of The Prosecutor team of former ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo, who provided invaluable insights into the rigor and importance of documentation in pursuing accountability. This experience marked the beginning of my dedicated involvement in documenting human rights violations in Venezuela.”
What did you study at university?
“I studied law at the Andres Bello Catholic University. Financial constraints were a challenge, as Venezuela's economy struggles, and I was not raised in a very wealthy environment. However, my father and mother managed, and I followed my older sister who also studied law there. I was granted a scholarship, that I later paid back to the university. But the important thing is that I took advantage of being at university. I made friends there and I jumped at the opportunity to be involved in extra-curricular activities like the competitions.
For some professors it was difficult to understand that I wanted to travel to The Hague or to Mexico, having to juggle my studies with the demands of these competitions. They said: ‘Just study for your exams and that's it.’ Although it often felt like having two jobs, I still went the extra mile. It eventually paid out (smiles); not only because of all the experiences I enjoyed throughout this journey, but hey: I now have had the opportunity to be here at the Asser Institute in The Hague, for example.”
Can you tell us more about your human rights work for the NGO Defiende Venezuela?
“My work at Defiende Venezuela initially focused on documenting human rights violations. The president of Defiende Venezuela, Genesis Davila, recognised a gap in Venezuela's approach to human rights advocacy: the lack of documentation and submissions to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR). This disparity was striking when compared to other countries in the region, where there were significantly more complaints, petitions and precautionary measures awarded to victims. So you would have perhaps 819 complaints of human rights violations against Mexico, 536 against Colombia, 67 against Chile, but only 53 against Venezuela. Yes, 53 against the country that is going through the worst human rights crisis in the region! If there are more than two hundred political prisoners in the country, there should be at least two hundred complaints before the IACHR, right?
This prompted us to set up a project dedicated to utilising the IACHR more effectively. We began by drafting and submitting petitions and precautionary measures that were specifically tailored to the IACHR's procedures. This allowed us to gain familiarity with the system and, more importantly, to empower victims to access this crucial mechanism for seeking justice. Our focus was on health cases, arbitrary detentions, and violations of political and civil rights.
Currently, I lead the Crimes Against Humanity Observatory at Defiende Venezuela. This project involves monitoring and documenting events that constitute crimes against humanity in Venezuela. As the general coordinator, I supervise a team of five lawyers and alongside them conduct interviews with victims, gather evidence, and submit legal opinions to the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC. Our work encompasses a wide range of tasks, ensuring comprehensive documentation and advocacy for justice.”
What has been your proudest and your most challenging moments as a researcher so far?
“Since 2018 and 2019, we have been submitting information to the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC, albeit without receiving acknowledgments for all communications. This lack of feedback was initially discouraging, but it appears that the Office is now engaging directly with Venezuelan victims, having reviewed our drafts and communications. This revealed that they were very, very interested in our work.
One of our proudest moments was witnessing the Venezuelan victims expressing their support for our efforts. In March of this year, the Victims and Reparations Section (VPRS) of the ICC started a consultation process to gauge the victims' desire to continue the investigation, which had been temporarily halted because of the Venezuelan government's invocation of Article 18(2) of the Rome Statute. That article basically says that when ‘we are investigating, you [the ICC] cannot investigate’. So, the ICC conducted a consultation process to figure out if the victims wanted the resumption of the investigation. This challenging task required revisiting the testimonies that we already had compiled, to ensure victims confirmed their commitment to pursuing justice. Over four hundred victims took part in the consultation process, sending approximately 232 forms, proving their unwavering support.
The VPRS report highlighted the unprecedented nature of this consultation process, using the word ‘overwhelming’ and acknowledging the profound impact of victims' voices. Their involvement, as exemplified by the two thousand Venezuelan victims who in the end expressed themselves, underscored their resolute pursuit of justice. It has marked a turning point in the ICC's renewed investigation into Venezuela, proving the commitment of both victims and the ICC to achieving accountability. This was a big thing in Venezuela, no doubt about it.”
If you were to offer advice to any young academics or scholars who wish to enter the field of international criminal law, what would that advice be?
“Wow, that is a challenging question... I believe that pursuing knowledge beyond the classroom is essential. I didn't just attend classes and go home, as I mentioned earlier. I actively engaged in all the opportunities offered by the university to expand my knowledge and network with professionals in the field. These experiences have not only transformed me as a lawyer but they have also provided me with finding structures for drafting legal arguments.
While there are doubts surrounding the International Criminal Court and its work, I think it is also crucial to understand the difficulties it faces. Prosecuting individuals responsible for multiple crimes is far more challenging than prosecuting individuals for single offenses. The documentation process for massive crimes is particularly intricate. The ICC is making progress, albeit slowly, and I've had the privilege of interacting with its agencies and witnessing their impactful work. While legal justice is essential for victims and society, I would say it's equally important to recognise the limitations of the ICC and its mechanisms. Familiarising oneself with these boundaries is essential for anyone pursuing a career in international criminal law."
Omar Piñango is a Venezuelan lawyer and human rights defender who is working with the NGO Defiende Venezuela to document crimes against humanity in the country.
Shelter City fellowship programme for human rights defenders
Since 2017, the T.M.C. Asser Instituut yearly welcomes a human rights defender within the framework of Shelter City, a project initiated by Justice and Peace Netherlands that provides temporary relocation and training to legal practitioners who fight against human rights violations in their home countries. In the context of the visiting research fellowship programme of the Asser Institute, Shelter City fellows will carry out a research project during a three-month research stay. Read more.