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U.N. mission to probe rights in Venezuela

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted to create a mission to investigate cases of suspected human rights abuses in Venezuela over the past five years.

GENEVA (AN) — The U.N. Human Rights Council voted to create a yearlong, independent fact-finding mission on Friday that will investigate cases of suspected human rights abuses in Venezuela over the past five years.

The United Nations' top human rights body called for the international team of investigators to look into allegations of "extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions, torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment since 2014."

More than a dozen countries from Latin America supported the resolution to create the fact-finding mission, a lesser council measure than a commission of inquiry. The resolution was sponsored by the 14-nation Lima Group, which was created out of a 2017 Lima Declaration to mediate the Venezuelan crisis. The 47-nation council adopted the resolution in a 19-7 vote, with 21 nations abstaining.

Also on Friday, the European Union approved economic sanctions on seven members of Venezuela’s security and intelligence services. That raises to 25 the number of people in Venezuela subject to E.U. sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, over cases of suspected human rights abuses.

E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the 28-nation bloc applied targeted measures against the seven people because they were "involved in torture and other serious human rights violations." She said the E.U. also supports a permanent presence for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, in Venezuela, with full access for U.N. investigators.

"The people of Venezuela continue to face a dramatic situation. The regional impact of the crisis is unprecedented, with severe risks for regional stability," Mogherini said in a statement.

"On the political front, the dismantlement of institutional checks and balances has eroded democracy and the rule of law," she said, "while repression, including against members of the National Assembly, and serious human rights violations take place with impunity."

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government has overseen a national economy that has all but collapsed. At least 3 million people have fled the country. Venezuelans who cannot leave remain in the grips of a humanitarian crisis, reeling from severe hyperinflation, lack of food and basic services.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies won permission from Maduro's government in March to deliver emergency aid.

In January, the opposition-majority National Assembly declared Maduro’s 2018 re-election invalid and named the assembly’s president, Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela until credible, free and fair elections could be held. More than 50 nations recognized Guaidó as a legitimate leader.

But Maduro, an authoritarian leader, kept his grip on the cash-poor, oil-rich nation with the military's backing. His nation has the world’s biggest proven oil reserves and is the fifth biggest oil exporter, and his government controls the oil and natural gas company, Petróleos de Venezuela.

The United States added Maduro to its economic sanctions list two years ago. More than 100 Venezuelan officials and others are on that list and have had their U.S. assets frozen.

A basis for dialogue

On Monday, OHCHR and Venezuela's government announced an agreement to allow two U.N. human rights officers to be posted in the country, where OHCHR hopes to establish a permanent country office.

The yearlong agreement sets the stage for more cooperation such as visits by U.N. special investigators, or rapporteurs. It was signed between Michelle Bachelet, a former president of Chile who has headed OHCHR since September 2018, and Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza.

“I and my office are committed to working closely with the authorities, as well as with civil society organizations, to promote and protect the human rights and fundamental liberties of everyone in the country,” Bachelet said in a statement.

Bachelet's office said in a July report that Venezuela must take immediate, concrete measures to halt and remedy its "grave violations of economic, social, civil, political and cultural rights documented in the country." Without improvement, the report warned, the unprecedented outflow of Venezuelan migrants and refugees would continue, and life for those remaining would worsen.

Bachelet visited the country in June to meet with Maduro and other senior government officials, along with many others including business people, academics, human rights victims and families. She said she heard first-hand accounts of "victims of state violence and their demands for justice."

The report found the government tally of killings for "resistance to authority" had reached 5,287 in 2018, and there were at least 1,569 more such killings in the first four and half months of 2019.

Some 1,557 people had died due to a lack of hospital supplies between last November and February, the report said, and at least 793 people were arbitrarily imprisoned as of the end of May.

“A Catholic priest in Caracas said to me: ‘This is not about politics, but about the suffering of the people,' " Bachelet said. “I call on all those with the power and influence — within Venezuela and elsewhere — to work together, and to make the necessary compromises to resolve this all-consuming crisis.”