The Venezuela Accountability Project: An Interview with Ashley Major

An international partnership seeks to hold the Venezuelan state accountable for its crimes against humanity

By: Sabrina Sukhdeo (2L)

Over the last six years, the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has waged a brutal campaign of repression against the Venezuelan people. The United Nations recently released a report declaring that the grave human rights violations against anti-government protesters in fact amounted to crimes against humanity. Addressing the pressing need for accountability, Research Associate Ashley Major is spearheading the University of Toronto’s involvement in the Venezuela Accountability Project. The student-led project will be a collaboration with the Global Accountability Network, the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights at McGill University, and other partners across the world.

Sabrina Sukhdeo (SS): What is the Global Accountability Network (GAN)?

Ashley Major (AM): The GAN is a group of international criminal prosecutors and practitioners who supervise law students working on specific atrocity projects. GAN currently operates three accountability projects: Syria, Yemen, and now, Venezuela. GAN lawyers collaborate with local partners in each conflict region to determine research aims and priorities. The law students assigned to each project then engage in open-source investigations, research, and legal analysis regarding alleged war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. The ultimate goal of each project is to gather evidence that can one day help to form the basis for a criminal prosecution.

SS: How was the Venezuela Accountability Project conceived? Why the focus on Venezuela?

AM: Over the past few years, Venezuela has descended into a political, economic, and humanitarian crisis. The Maduro regime has committed grave human rights abuses against civilians, including torture, sexual violence, and enforced disappearances. Much of the abuse was targeted at political dissenters. The regime has been committing these violations with impunity because of widespread judicial and governmental corruption. In addition to these abuses, Venezuela is experiencing a state-induced massive shortage of food and medicine, and a lack of access to healthcare and social services. As a result, thousands of Venezuelans have had to flee as refugees to surrounding states. Due to these many compounding human rights violations, GAN has chosen to focus its next project on Venezuela.

GAN lawyers first conceived of this project when discussing the human rights situation with Venezuelan contacts. Certain GAN lawyers have been conducting advocacy for Venezuela for years, working with Venezuelan grassroots organisations, United Nations bodies, and NGOs to address this conflict. TheVenezuela Accountability Project (VAP) will build upon the years of advocacy already conducted, and benefit from the expertise of the lawyers, and advocates involved with the project.

SS: What does GAN hope to accomplish from this project in both the short term and long term?

AM: In the short term, GAN intends to gather evidence of human rights violations, conduct legal analysis, and create criminal dossiers on individuals suspected of committing crimes against humanity. GAN hopes to keep a spotlight on the situation in Venezuela, as much has happened in 2020 to take the focus away.

In the long term, GAN hopes that the evidence gathered will assist with criminal prosecutions for high-ranking members of the regime. The ultimate hope is that VAP will contribute to justice for victims, accountability for perpetrators, and the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms in the future.

SS: What are some of the biggest challenges associated with this project, speaking in terms of both the Venezuela context and accountability projects generally?

AM: There are many challenges with projects such as these. Such undertakings are massive and are difficult to get off of the ground. We have dozens of members to coordinate from U of T, McGill University, Florida International University, and the Global Accountability Network. There is also a lack of institutional memory to pass on to new trainees; everyone, including myself, is starting from scratch. It will take a long time, likely longer than this academic year, to transform the research of our volunteers into publishable work products.

Regarding the Venezuelan context specifically, realistically defining the temporal and structural limits of VAP is certainly a challenge. There are thousands of pages of open-source documents relating to the atrocities of the Maduro regime. Such atrocities have allegedly taken place over the course of several years. An investigation into this regime could be unending. It is difficult to strike the delicate balance of ensuring that the research is thorough, but manageable.

Additionally, our project may face language barriers. Although many of our volunteers speak Spanish, a lack of English sources and a need for translation services may create timing and accuracy concerns.

Because of COVID-19, all of our training sessions and interactions with group members and partners will take place online. Building camaraderie is difficult without face-to-face interactions. Additionally, the ability to obtain evidence from Venezuelan activists and witnesses will also likely be impacted by travel bans and safety concerns for everyone involved.

In light of all of these concerns, I’ve been very honest with the students volunteering on this project that our first year is likely going to be a difficult learning process of trial and error for everyone involved. And that’s okay! If everyone goes in with realistic expectations, this year will be a meaningful and worthwhile experience for all.

SS: Since 2019, there has been an ongoing dispute as to whether the legitimate President of Venezuela is Nicolás Maduro or opposition leader Juan Guaidó. How has this affected the human rights situation?

AM: This power struggle has exacerbated political dissent and an already glaring lack of faith in Venezuela’s governmental institutions. Many Venezuelans (and states around the world) view Guaidó as the rightful leader and consider Maduro’s refusal to relinquish power to be an assault on democracy. In the months after the election, there has been an increase in crackdowns on rallies and protests, including an increase in violent clashes between protestors and the military. Security forces have also escalated their violence against protestors, firing live rounds at close range and killing dozens. Despite these protests and international support of Guaidó, Maduro remains in power to this day.

SS: You have worked extensively on initiatives addressing gender-based violence. What issues have Venezuelan women endured under the Maduro regime?

AM: One pattern that emerges in times of conflict and civil unrest is that civilian populations are vulnerable to sexual violence. This holds particularly true for women and girls. The situation in Venezuela is no different. Female political protesters and human rights defenders have experienced gender-based threats of sexualised violence. Many who have been detained have been raped, sexually assaulted, and tortured. The precarious economic state of the country has also left many women and girls vulnerable to being trafficked and sexually exploited.

The lack of access to adequate healthcare, medication, and social services also disproportionately harms Venezuelan women. Women lack access to affordable birth control and safe, legal abortions. Many Venezuelan women risk secret, unsafe abortions in an attempt to avoid criminal charges. Many die each year.

As a result of a lack of prenatal care, the rates of infant and maternal mortality have skyrocketed in Venezuela over the past several years. Thousands of pregnant women have had to flee to neighbouring states in order to receive adequate care and to safely give birth. However, such journeys are arduous and can be harmful for pregnant women. The lack of nutrition and monitoring throughout pregnancies can also lead to complications for both mother and fetus.

Women also experience the most extreme forms of poverty, as they are paid less than men and are often primarily responsible for caring for children. Venezuela’s failing economy and shortage of supplies has made it difficult for women to obtain formula, diapers, clothing, and food for the many family members under their care.

SS: International efforts to advance human rights are often criticized as a form of Western imperialism. How does an endeavour like VAP evade that sort of criticism?  

AM: This is a fair critique of international law and humanitarian efforts, one that everyone who practices international law needs to engage with critically. Which states were present at the table when determining the content of international conventions, and which weren’t? Whose laws contributed to the body of customary international law, and whose didn’t? Who has international law historically targeted, and who has it historically protected?

A project such as this could easily be yet another example of Western imperialism. My colleagues and I are working diligently to ensure that it will not be. GAN Lawyers have fostered and developed strong relationships with Venezuelan activists and lawyers over the past several years. We will be working directly with these individuals to identify research focuses and priorities. We will examine both international and domestic avenues of redress with local lawyers. In our training, we will also explore critical theories of international law, such as Third World Approaches to International Law (TWAIL). Ultimately, our goal is to use our privilege and resources to assist with longstanding, grassroots efforts to hold this regime to account.

SS: How will University of Toronto students be involved in VAP?

AM: University of Toronto students will be leading this project under my direct supervision, and under the supervision of GAN as a whole. Our plan is to have VAP function as a multi-year IHRP project, where student researchers from the previous school year will fill the leadership positions the following year.

This summer, I put out an upper-year application call for several leadership positions. I filled all of these positions in late August, and then recruited 1L students through the Clinics Recruit in late September. Students chosen for VAP will undergo several training sessions throughout October on topics relating to the Venezuelan context and international criminal law investigations. Approximately 50 students will take part in the project.

VAP is made up of three divisions. The Investigations Division is responsible for finding and assembling open-source information on alleged crimes against humanity. One group of students in this division will identify whether the necessary elements of allegations are present, and document them in a crime-based matrix. Another group will draft out a conflict narrative spanning the temporal timeline of our inquiry.

The Intelligence Division will take the work of the Investigations Division and develop it more fulsomely. One group of students will identify the most egregious incidents and conduct legal analysis as to whether they equate to a crime against humanity. Another group of students will identify and research high-ranking individuals who are alleged to be the most responsible for these atrocities.

The Registrar Division will take the work of the Intelligence Division and turn it into reports and white papers. A subset of students in this group will also undertake ad hoc research assignments for GAN lawyers.

While our project is full for this year, please keep an eye out for our work over the course of the year. Recruitment for next year will take place near the end of the Winter Term.