In Venezuela, legislation seeks to criminalize civil society in the country
On January 24, new legislation was presented and approved in first debate by the Venezuelan National Assembly that enables the criminalization of organizations and restricts legitimate activities of civil society protected by the human right to freedom of association.
In the last five years, the Venezuelan regime has threatened civil society on at least 14 separate occasions with the enactment of a law furthering the restrictions to non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Jan. 18, the Vice-President of Venezuela’s ruling party, and member of the National Assembly, Diosdado Cabello, announced once again the introduction of a draft bill titled "Law for the Control, Regularization, Performance and Financing of Non-Governmental Organizations and Alike" (Ley de Fiscalización, Regularización, Actuación y Financiamiento de las Organizaciones No Gubernamentales y Afines) before the National Assembly. The draft bill was ultimately presented on Jan. 24, and a first reading was approved that same day.
. Its articles are composed of highly restrictive measures against NGOs, establishing a “uniform system” for their constitution, registration, functioning and administration, forcing them, among others, to seek authorization for their creation, and accreditation for their ability to operate in the country. The organizations would not be allowed to operate without authorization, and those that do so, may be subject to sanctions.
This contravenes international standards on freedom of association, as NGOs should have the ability to do their work without being subjected to limitations and undue suspensions based on burdensome administrative requirements aimed at ostracizing them, and conditioning their existence. In this sense, under international human rights law, NGOs should work under a system of notification, which entails a simple procedure of notifying the State of the NGO’s existence. In contrast, a regime of authorization conditions the existence of an organization on the approval of an administrative authority, which has the discretionary power to either deny or approve its constitution. While international human rights institutions like the IACHR consider that a national registration system for organizations is not necessarily incompatible with international standards, the laws that regulate these systems should not grant the authorities discretionary powers to authorize the constitution and operation of the organizations.
Furthermore, as part of its provisions, the bill contemplates the "suspension" or "ex officio dissolution" of the organizations that violate the prohibitions established by the law. Such prohibitions are written ambiguously, which opens the door for their arbitrary interpretation. Similarly, the draft bill also includes highly restrictive regulations; the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) has warned about the risks they represent for civil society organizations, namely: the risk for the suppression of the legal personality of organizations that have already been constituted, as the draft bill forces existing organizations to re-register in accordance to the new regulations; the obligation to seek the State’s authorization to change their mandates or objectives; the legal authority it gives the State to indiscriminately request any sort of internal information from NGOs without a concrete justification; and the obligation to accept the participation of individuals who may have a “legitimate interest” in the organization.
The approval of this legislation occurs in the context of an ongoing complex humanitarian emergency, widespread impunity, and grave human rights violations. Venezuela’s Rule of Law and democracy are extremely weakened and thus, all public powers and institutions, including the Judicial Power, have become an arm of the executive branch, and its political interests, circumventing all forms of checks and balances. Given the Venezuelan context, and the patterns of gross human rights violations, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation for the commission of alleged crimes against humanity.
In a context of persecution and erosion of the Rule of Law, the Venezuelan regime has directed efforts to progressively close the civic and democratic space in the country through different factual and legal measures, including the approval of the Administrative Ruling 002-2021. This rule, subjects organizations to register in the Unified Registry of Subjects Obliged by the National Office Against Organized Crimes and Financement of Terrorism (Registro Unificado de Sujetos Obligados ante la Oficina Nacional Contra la Delincuencia Organizada y Financiamiento al Terrorismo), as well as the 796 ruling, which establishes that civil society organizations who receive international funds could qualify as “foreign agents.” It is pivotal to note that all of these efforts to close civic space are part of a systematic trend of repression. For example, the Venezuelan regime has been responsible for 1,654 attacks against individuals and organizations defending human rights during the last five years, according to information from the Venezuelan organization, Center for Defenders and Justice (Centro para los Defensores y la Justicia).
The efforts to criminalize and restrict the work of NGOs through international cooperation laws are not new in Latin America. For example, in 2020, Nicaragua's Foreign Agents Cooperation Law was approved. This law shares similarities with the Venezuelan draft bill, in that it not only establishes a closed regime of authorization to operate, instead of one of notification, but also contemplates as part of its sanctions the "cancellation of the legal personality" of the organizations that do not comply with its provisions. In addition, both share a similar statement of reasons, focused on the idea of “sovereignty,” and the “prevention of foreign interference.” Similarly to other laws of this nature in the region, the proposed bill is justified under pretenses related to the fight against terrorism. The Venezuelan regime has quoted the Financial Action Task Force’s 8th recommendation, which is oriented to guide States on the design and application of measures aimed at the prevention of terrorist activity and promotion through the work of NGOs. According to ICNL’s analysis, this recommendation is set to prevent the use of NGOs for terrorist activities, and should be applied only to organizations that, after a process of risk assessment, pose a threat to be used for these purposes. In spite of this, the bill at the National Assembly intends to arbitrarily regulate, limit and compromise the work and existence of organizations in Venezuela.
With the approval of the draft bill aimed at restricting and criminalizing civil society organizations, the closing civic and democratic space in Venezuela continues, while the institutional breakdown deepens and impunity for gross human rights violations advances.
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