In the run-up to 2024 presidential elections, the Venezuelan government is further restricting the rights and freedoms that enable the expression of dissent. The most recent attack on civic space is an NGO law aimed at further controlling, restricting and potentially shutting down noncompliant civil society organisations and criminally prosecuting their leaders and staff. The initiative was approved at first reading only two days before the start of an official visit by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. For many in civil society, the visit offered a vital opportunity to make a strong statement in defence of Venezuelan civic space – but it was found lacking.

In late January, the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, made an official visit to Venezuela. He met with President Nicolás Maduro and various government officials, as well as members of civil society, human rights defenders, victims of human rights violations and representatives of victims’ organisations. On leaving the country, he said he’d found a fragmented society in great need of bridging its divides and encouraged the government to take the lead in listening to civil society concerns and responding to victims of rights violations.

But Venezuelan civil society had hoped for more. Two days before his arrival, the National Assembly, Venezuela’s congress, had approved the first reading of a law – the Law on the Control, Regularisation, Performance and Financing of NGOs – that aims to further restrict and criminalise civil society work.

Quickly nicknamed the anti-NGO law, the initiative is part of a broader, long-term pattern of repression of civil society space. Restrictions have been targeted not only against independent activists and organisations, but also against media outlets, journalists and the political opposition.

International civil society urged the High Commissioner to call for the bill to be shelved and to emphasise the need for the state to respect civic space. But many found his response disappointing.

Another turn of the screw

The bill that Venezuela’s National Assembly passed on 24 January imposes further restrictions on the establishment, accreditation and authorisation of civil society organisations (CSOs). If it passes into law, they’ll have to hand over lists of members, staff, assets and donors. They’ll also be obliged to provide detailed data about their activities, funding sources and administration and use of financial resources – the kind of information that has already been used to persecute and criminalise CSOs, activists and others perceived as critical of the government.

The law will ban CSOs from conducting ‘political activities’, an expression that lacks a clear definition and could easily be interpreted as prohibiting human rights work and scrutiny of the government. This would endanger civil society’s efforts to document the human rights situation, which produces vital inputs for the UN’s human rights system and the International Criminal Court, which has an ongoing case against the state of Venezuela: in 2020 the Office of the Prosecutor concluded there were reasons believe that crimes against humanity, particularly in the context of detention, had been committed since at least April 2017.

The new law will also limit CSOs to working in the areas explicitly stated in their statutes, and specifically humanitarian, social, aid, cultural and educational activities. Any expansion or change in scope will require government approval.

The government will have extensive powers to supervise, inspect, control and sanction CSOs. Under the new law, it will have the authority to use surveillance to identify those whose ‘deviations’ compromise ‘national sovereignty’.

There’s every chance these measures will be used against human rights organisations that cooperate with international human rights mechanisms or receive foreign funding. These have been considered ‘foreign agents’ since at least 2010, when the National Assembly passed the Law for the Defence of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination, which prevented CSOs dedicated to ‘defending political rights’ from receiving international funding and imposed steep fines on those inviting foreigners to express opinions that ‘offend’ government institutions.

The new bill was introduced by Diosdado Cabello, vice-president of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, who appears to be obsessed with CSOs and their imaginary machinations and recently accused some of them of conspiring against Venezuela. The justification put forward – that more controls are needed to prevent wrongdoing – legitimises this stigmatising narrative, which in turns enables other forms of aggression against civil society.

The law-making process has been shrouded in secrecy: the draft bill wasn’t made publicly available and wasn’t discussed at the National Assembly before being approved. The initiative was immediately denounced as a tool to control, restrict and potentially shut down CSOs and criminally prosecute their leaders and staff. Similar legislation has been used in other countries, notably Nicaragua, to shut down hundreds if not thousands of CSOs and arrest opposition leaders, journalists and human rights defenders.

CSOs in Venezuela, around the region and globally emphatically reject the NGO bill, pointing out that it’s aimed at subordinating CSOs to the interests of the incumbent government, violating their autonomy and independence. If implemented, they’re clear, it will mean the end of civil society as we know it.

The UN and Venezuela

In September 2019, following an official visit by then-UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, the UN Human Rights Council established the Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (FFMV). Initially set up for one year, the FFMV was tasked with investigating alleged human rights violations committed since 2014. That was the year when a wave of mass anti-government protests was violently suppressed, leaving at least 43 dead and thousands injured and detained. The FFMV’s mandate was later extended until September 2024.

In September 2022, the FFMV issued a report detailing the involvement of Venezuela’s intelligence agencies in repressing dissent, including by committing serious crimes and human rights violations such as torture and sexual violence.

That same month, the Office of the UN High Commissioner published a report on intimidation and reprisals against people who cooperate with international human rights mechanisms. Several cases were documented in Venezuela, including those of human rights lawyers Karen Caruci and Theresly Malavé Wadskier, who is also director of the CSO Justicia y Proceso Venezuela.

Malavé Wadskier was threatened, harassed and put under surveillance for cooperating with the UN. The threats allegedly came from officials of an anti-terrorism court, where she provided legal defence in several high-profile cases of people criminalised with unfounded terrorism accusations. As a result, her family had to flee Venezuela.

Caruci, who had previously been arbitrarily detained, was rearrested, questioned about her engagement with the UN and asked whether the UN was paying her for sharing information on human rights violations. She was charged with inciting hatred.

Further moves to silence dissent

The High Commissioner’s visit was preceded by renewed attempts to silence dissent. In Venezuela, 2023 was greeted with a wave of labour protests led by public sector workers, particularly teachers, demanding living wages. On 23 January alone, Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflict, a CSO, documented 41 protest actions across 21 of Venezuela’s 23 states. Cases were recorded of security forces preventing protesters from marching, and intimidation grew as the UN visit approached, with some protest leaders put under surveillance, followed and detained.

Espacio Público, another CSO, documented 227 violations of freedom of expression and media freedoms in 2022, the most common being censorship, bureaucratic restrictions and intimidation. Last year the government shut down at least 80 radio stations, claiming they didn’t meet the requirements set by the National Telecommunications Commission.

On the eve of Türk’s arrival, several staff members of El Nacional, a news outlet, were cited in connection with a criminal complaint, seemingly in relation to a news article that linked President Maduro’s son to two Venezuelans sanctioned by the US government for their alleged involvement in illegal gold mining. The paper’s editor described this as a government attempt to intimidate them with threats of a criminal investigation.

A missed opportunity

Since High Commissioner Bachelet’s visit in June 2019, civic space in Venezuela continued to deteriorate. Venezuelan CSOs pointed out that the situation now merited a more energetic approach, not least because most of the commitments contained in the agreement the government  signed with Bachelet were never fulfilled.

But Türk followed his predecessor’s footsteps. His visit was characterised by secrecy and brevity, particularly in terms of the time dedicated to engaging with civil society.

Bachelet’s agreement with the Venezuelan government had included the presence of a two-person UN team to monitor the human rights situation and provide technical assistance and advice. Upon leaving Venezuela, Türk announced that the office’s mandate has been extended for two more years, but the details of the signed letter of understanding weren’t made public, meaning they aren’t subject to civil society monitoring and accountability.

Any strategy that involves trusting the government and hoping it will change its position seems doomed to failure.

Civil society activists have continued to work closely with the UN field office and wouldn’t want to risk its presence in the country, so to some extent they understand Türk’s caution in dealing with the Venezuelan government. But they also view his visit as a missed opportunity.

At the end of her visit, Bachelet had demanded the freedom of political prisoners – who, three and a half years later, remain in jail. In an attempt at equanimity, Bachelet had also decried the negative impacts of US sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry. She was criticised for making human rights part of a bigger political negotiation, and now her successor faces similar accusations.

Türk’s statement to the media at the end of his visit on 28 January was very much focused on addressing the political and economic crises and healing divisions in society, with human rights ‘challenges’ occupying third place on his list of major concerns.

Alerta Venezuela, a recently formed human rights group based in Colombia, recognised positively the references Türk made to ‘new issues’ – such as the need for Venezuela to sign the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights and decriminalise abortion – alongside ongoing human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, torture and dire prison conditions. But it criticised crucial omissions and the UN’s apparent willingness to take government data at face value, such as the vast underestimation the government gives of the number of people who need humanitarian assistance.

When it came to the anti-NGO bill, the High Commissioner said he’d asked the government to take into account his comments but didn’t provide any information on their content. It isn’t clear whether he advocated for amendments to a law that can only remain deeply flawed or for it to be shelved – which is what civil society wanted him to do.

The reality is that the Venezuelan government has all along paid only lip service to cooperation with the UN and hasn’t kept its promises. Repression is only going to intensify in the run-up to the presidential election scheduled for 2024 and legislative and regional elections in 2025. Any strategy that involves trusting the government and hoping it will change its position seems doomed to failure.

High-level human rights advocacy needed

More energetic criticism came from the independent and less politically constrained FFMV. In a press release on 30 January, the FFMV expressed ‘deep concerns’ about the potential implications of the draft NGO law for civic and democratic space. As one of its experts put it, the extremely onerous requirements this law would impose would grant the state a ‘quasi-permanent power’ to suppress CSOs at will.

That is the stance civil society would like the High Commissioner for Human Rights to have taken. They want the office holder to be a human rights champion standing independent of states and unafraid of causing a stir. They don’t want a technocrat but someone who stands in defence of civil society and human rights activists.

Türk is only five months into his four-year term. Civil society will keep doing its best to engage, in the hope that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights can become the human rights advocate the world – and Venezuela – need.


  • The Venezuelan National Assembly must reject the proposed NGO bill.
  • The Venezuelan government must roll back existing restrictions on freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly, and free people arbitrarily imprisoned for expressing dissent.
  • The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights must emphatically condemn any measure aimed at further shutting down civic space in Venezuela, including the proposed NGO bill.

Cover photo by Federico Parra/AFP via Getty Images