The International Criminal Court Needs To Investigate Venezuela | Opinion

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is at a turning point. With diminishing credibility and looming elections for chief prosecutor, whether the Court decides to investigate Venezuela could determine its future.

In December 2020, the Organization of American States accused the Court of failing to investigate Nicolás Maduro's government for committing grave human rights abuses, including torture, rape, politically motivated detentions and extrajudicial executions. The ICC prosecutor has since announced that she believes there is a "reasonable basis" to believe Venezuela committed crimes against humanity, and will soon determine whether to open a full investigation.

The ICC was designed with a mandate to exercise jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, aggression and genocide—but the institution has fallen laughably short of its mandate. To date, the Court has spent more than $2 billion and yielded just eight successful convictions and four acquittals, all of which were related to African countries.

The ICC's reticence on Venezuela is just the tip of the iceberg. The chief prosecutor has stated that she might complete a case between Russia and Georgia by the end of 2020, but this remains incomplete. What the ICC has done is take political aim at U.S. figures by authorizing an investigation into alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity by American forces in Afghanistan.

The ICC claims to be an independent judicial institution not subject to political control. However, the politicization of the Afghanistan case and targeting of only African countries demonstrate a markedly different picture. Unlike prosecuting Chinese, American or Russian individuals, the Venezuela case does not impose steep political costs on the ICC. If the Court wants to retain the substance of its mandate and not devolve into a political spectacle, it must target the most flagrant instances of violations. And there's no better investigation to reverse its current trajectory than Venezuela.

Human rights in Venezuela have declined precipitously since the Maduro regime's slide into authoritarianism. In a 411-page report from September 2020, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights documented in painstaking detail the systematic abuses of human rights characteristic of Maduro's Venezuela, including hundreds of extrajudicial executions at the hands of the Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales, the shadowy special forces unit of the National Police; countless arbitrary detentions and instances of torture; the politicization of sentences; and enforced disappearances as a tool of political repression. These violations occurred as Venezuela descended into lawlessness, with a judiciary that has made a mockery of the rule of law.

International Criminal Court building in The Hague
International Criminal Court building in The Hague Michel Porro/Getty Images

Maduro employs a two-tiered system of repression—against everyday Venezuelans, on the one hand, and members of the military whose loyalty undergirds his regime, on the other. Venezuela's feared National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) has targeted dissidents and members of the political opposition with torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, which it uses either to extract confessions or as punishment. Several reports have noted a "culture" of torture within the SEBIN. The human rights group Foro Penal says there are around 400 political prisoners in Venezuela as of November 2020, and that politically motivated arrests have touched the highest levels of the Venezuelan political opposition. Recent arrests include the vice president of the National Assembly, Edgar Zambrano and Juan Requesens, who once served as a spokesperson for interim President Juan Guaidó.

Meanwhile, to ensure control over the military and snuff out any hint of defection within its ranks, the Cuban-inspired Directorate General of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM) tracks officers to ensure regime loyalty and uses officers' families as collateral in the event of disloyalty. The DGCIM is also known for meting out severe penalties to deter defection. This was the case with former Navy Captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo, who died in DGCIM custody after appearing at a court hearing suffering from clear signs of torture.

Numerous watchdogs have noted the recent decline of democracy around the globe; it is high time for international justice to bare its teeth. Bringing the Maduro regime to heel would also have a deterrent effect for other authoritarian countries in Latin America, such as Nicaragua.

The competition for the next ICC chief prosecutor is heating up, and the selection will be a crucial litmus test for the viability—or hypocrisy—of the Court. If the Court cares about the protection of human rights and justice, or refuting its well-deserved reputation as a paper tiger, it should choose a candidate that pursues the case against Venezuela.

Ivana Stradner is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where her research focuses on the intersection of international law and security. Ryan Berg is a research fellow at AEI, where he focuses on transnational organized crime, Latin American foreign policy and development issues.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.