Venezuela expels U.N. human rights officers, citing ‘colonialist’ behavior

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CARACAS, Venezuela — The Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro on Thursday suspended the operations of the local United Nations human rights office and ordered its staff to leave the country within 72 hours, in a sharp escalation of tensions with the international community following the arrest of a prominent human rights activist in the country.

In announcing the decision, Foreign Affairs Minister Yván Gil accused the local office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights of “colonialist, abusive” behavior and fomenting political opposition in the country.

“This decision is made due to the improper role that this institution has developed, which, far from showing it as an impartial entity, has led it to become the private law firm of coup plotters and terrorist groups that permanently conspire against the country,” Gil said in a statement.

The announcement came after the U.N. human rights office in Venezuela had condemned the arrest of Rocío San Miguel, a well-known Venezuelan human rights lawyer and military expert. San Miguel had been missing since Friday morning, when she was detained at an airport outside Caracas, according to her lawyer.

On Tuesday, Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab announced that San Miguel was being held in El Helicoide, a notorious prison where human rights abuses, including torture, have been documented. Her lawyers said Wednesday they have not been able to verify her whereabouts. Saab accused San Miguel of participating in an attempted conspiracy against Maduro and other senior officials.

San Miguel heads the Control Ciudadano, a nonprofit that has investigated and detailed extrajudicial killings by Venezuela’s security forces, as well as the military’s alleged involvement in illegal mining. Her arrest has drawn fierce criticism from the international community, including the United States.

“We are gravely concerned by the detention of Rocío San Miguel and we call for the immediate release of all unjustly detained individuals in Venezuela,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said. “Such attacks on civil society close space for much-needed dialogue.”

The statement described her as a “steadfast voice for democracy and dialogue” for more than 20 years, and said her arrest and others raise questions about Maduro’s willingness to uphold commitments made in October to pursue democratic reforms “and create a culture of tolerance and political coexistence.”

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva, on Tuesday called for the immediate release of San Miguel, saying it was following up on her detention with “deep concern.”

On Thursday, shortly before the foreign minister’s announcement, the U.N. human rights office noted that San Miguel’s place of detention had been confirmed and that her four relatives had been conditionally released. “Due process guarantees, including right to defence, must be respected,” the office tweeted.

Since 2019, the U.N. human rights office in Venezuela has monitored the human rights situation in the country and provided support to civil society.

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