Venezuela: The End of Civil Society as We Know It?

By Inés M. Pousadela, Senior Researcher at CIVICUS

In late January, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, finished an official visit to Venezuela. He said he’d found a fragmented society in great need of bridging its divides and encouraged the government to take the lead in listening to civil society concerns and responding to victims of rights violations.

But Venezuelan civil society had hoped for more. Two days before his arrival, the National Assembly, Venezuela’s congress, had approved the first reading of a law aimed at further restricting and criminalising civil society work. International civil society urged the High Commissioner to call for the bill to be shelved. Many found the UN’s response disappointing.

Another turn of the screw

The bill imposes further restrictions on civil society organisations (CSOs). If it becomes law, CSOs will have to hand over lists of members, staff, assets and donors. They’ll be obliged to provide detailed data about their activities, funding sources and use of financial resources – the kind of information that has already been used to persecute and criminalise CSOs and activists. Similar legislation has been used in Nicaragua to shut down hundreds of CSOs and arrest opposition leaders, journalists and human rights defenders.

The law will ban CSOs from conducting ‘political activities’, an expression that lacks clear definition. It could easily be interpreted as prohibiting human rights work and scrutiny of the government. There’s every chance the law will be used against human rights organisations that cooperate with international human rights mechanisms. This would endanger civil society’s efforts to document the human rights situation, which produces vital inputs for the UN’s human rights system and the International Criminal Court, which has an ongoing case against Venezuela.

The law-making process has been shrouded in secrecy: the draft bill wasn’t made publicly available and wasn’t discussed at the National Assembly before being approved. The initiative was immediately denounced as a tool to control, restrict and potentially shut down CSOs and criminally prosecute their leaders and staff. If implemented, it could mean the end of civil society as we know it in Venezuela.

Read on Inter Press Service