The president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Jorge Rodríguez, warned (before the most recent international meeting in Bogotá on the country’s crisis) that one of the requirements for resuming the dialogue with the opposition was the following: “The lawfare (or ‘legal war’) policies, the policies of attack ventured in the U.S. courts, or through the International Criminal Court (ICC), must be stopped because they directly affect our most important leaders”. In short, Chavism demands impunity for corruption and crimes against humanity, in order to continue negotiating fair electoral conditions, lifting sanctions, and releasing political prisoners.
In the case of the U.S., judicial and administrative decisions have varied according to political expediency: from the release of the nephews of the presidential couple Maduro-Flores, convicted for drug trafficking, and the exchange of seven executives of the oil company Citgo who were imprisoned in Caracas, to the elimination from the OFAC (Treasury Office) sanctioned list of another nephew of the First Lady Cilia Flores, who was accused of money laundering.
But in the open ICC process, which is in the preliminary review stage, the matter is complicated for Venezuelan military and civilian officials who are accused of alleged crimes against humanity, crimes for which there are no statutory limitations. Following a conference by the Chief Prosecutor of the ICC, Karim Khan, organized by the Raoul Wallenberg Center for Human Rights and the University of Ottawa, it seems that the determination of who should eventually lead the prosecution against the alleged Chavist criminals will be a hard nut to crack for the regime of Nicolás Maduro.
Karim Khan did not speak directly about the Venezuelan case, as he cannot issue a public opinion on a process that is under review. However, the ICC Chief Prosecutor insisted in his lecture that the most important challenge facing the court in The Hague is to make real that promise of “never again” that was issued after the trials against the Nazi commanders in Nuremberg for genocide against Jews, Roma people, and other human groups. However, this promise has not been fulfilled as witnessed by the genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, and the Balkans, and the more recent persecutions and massacres against the Rohingya in Myanmar or the Uyghurs in China.
What is at stake, according to Khan, is the credibility of the international justice system and of the very foundations of the global order established after World War II that has served, for now (and who knows for how long), to avoid another major confrontation that could have a nuclear outcome.
How to move beyond the skepticism and cynicism with which many view the ICC’s actions (or lack of actions)? Khan asserted that ICC prosecutors are not “paratroopers who can conduct lightning operations against those accused of crimes against humanity,” but he did show examples of how justice should be applied. The most important matter for the ICC prosecutor is to go to the field, to listen to survivors and victims, and to understand the social, political, cultural, and religious context in which the crimes have been committed.
Justice is not an abstraction, but an action that has practical consequences. He himself, faced with scenarios of conflict and human rights violations, visited Venezuela in 2021 and 2022. His trips to Caracas have served to force the Maduro government to sign an agreement with the ICC, which implied the opening of an office of the international court in the country. Although it is obvious that the Chavista regime has sought to wash its face by receiving Khan, the chief prosecutor himself has said in statements to the press: “One cannot be naïve, but one cannot be unnecessarily suspicious either, because then you are not being impartial”.
The ICC prosecutor’s office faces budget, technological and logistical constraints. Khan indicated in his lecture that the ICC generates high expectations with regard to a wide variety of cases, but has few resources. The chief prosecutor believes, however, that the key lies in the independence of the court and his office. And when asked about who, from positions of power, questioned his impartiality, he stated: “We deal with the floor, not the ceiling”. He emphasized, in turn, that his focus is on the survivors and victims of crimes against humanity. “They have not lost hope that justice will be done,” he concluded.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva