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Venezuelan Constitutional Reform Alarms Experts

Constitutional reform planned for Venezuela alarms UN human rights experts

Three independent United Nations human rights experts today voiced concern about planned constitutional reforms in Venezuela, saying the proposed changes could curb civil liberties and breach the South American country's international treaty commitments.

In a joint statement, the rapporteurs say that the proposals - which will go before Venezuelan voters in a referendum on Sunday - "will curtail a set of fundamental rights that should be enjoyed at all times, including during states of emergencies," citing the right to freedom of expression and the right of access to information as two examples.

They say the reforms could also limit the work of journalists and human rights defenders and harm the independence of the judiciary.

"We call upon the Venezuelan Government to firmly commit to the protection of the set of human rights, safeguarding the institutional guarantees that ensure that democracy and the rule of law will be upheld at all times," said the statement, issued by Ambeyi Ligabo, the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression; Hina Jilani, the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Human Rights Defenders; and Leandro Despouy, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.

Sunday's referendum comes a few weeks after Venezuela's National Assembly approved President Hugo Chavez's reform proposals, which include allowing the indefinite re-election of the president, extending the presidential term by one year and ending the autonomy of the country's central bank.

The rapporteurs expressed concern that some provisions regarding the declaration of a state of emergency would hinder citizens' civil liberties, while the elimination of the Supreme Court's authority to oversee and approve such declarations would be inconsistent with Venezuela's obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Amendments to three articles of the constitution also mean many "fundamental rights... [that are] stepping stones of all democratic societies" are no longer expressly guaranteed, according to the statement.

"We are also concerned about the situation of human rights defenders as the proposed reform establishes that associations with a political aim can only access funding at the national level. We fear that this definition might be selectively applied to human rights organizations to prevent them from accessing international funding," the experts said.

They also voiced concern about the situation facing human rights defenders and journalists "who have been subject to threats and attacks that not only affect their personal security, but generate a widespread atmosphere of intimidation that discourages them from engaging in their activities and from taking public stands for the defence of human rights."

Under the planned reforms the dismissal of Supreme Court judges can be decided a simple majority vote in the National Assembly, rather than the current two-thirds majority required, leading the rapporteurs to warn of the impact on judicial independence.


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