The Venezuelan government authorized the use of lethal force to suppress peaceful protests last night in a surprise move that has wide-reaching implications for the country prone to civil unrest. The law has become instantly controversial since it contradicts the Constitution, which strictly forbids the use of firearms by security forces during peaceful protests.
The move came by way of resolution 008610 from the Ministry of Defence, published in the Gaceta Oficial 40.589 of January 27. New laws written into the Venezuelan law books are published in this way periodically. The new law is found in page 418.354 of the document. Gaceta Oficial 40.589 can be found here, in Spanish.
The law attempts to define how military officials should act during disturbances, authorizes them to carry and use firearms during peaceful protests. Article 15, section 9 of the law reads:
9. They [the armed forces] will not carry, nor will they use firearms to control public meetings and peaceful protests, unless, due to necessity and proportionality of the means used to control them, they need to be carried and used.
The same law authorizes the use of “lethal force” in cases where no other alternative proves effective. Article 22, section 7 reads:
Lethal Force: [At the occurrence of] a situation involving mortal danger, the military official will use the potentially lethal force, either with their firearm or with a potentially lethal weapon.
The same law makes provisions to attempt to protect protesters in times of civil rest, including exercising “precaution” when using force against pregnant women and children and barring the use of force against fleeing protesters.
When asked by the media what she thought about the contentious new law, Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said that she would reserve judgement until she had a chance to give the law a “deep” examination.
New Law Contradicts Constitution
The Venezuelan constitution is unequivocal regarding the use of firearms and other potentially lethal weapons during peaceful protests: their use is banned. Article 68 of the Constitution of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela reads:
Article 68. Citizens have the right to demonstrate, peacefully and without weapons, subject only to such requirements as may be established by law. The use of firearms and toxic substances to control peaceful demonstrations is prohibited. The activity of police and security corps in maintaining public order shall be regulated by law.
MUD Rejects New Law
Delsa Solorzano, the Mesa de la Unidad Democratica‘s Human Rights Commission Coordinator, gave a press conference today in response to the new protest law. Solorzano had strong words for the law, calling it a clear violation of the Constitution, and blamed the head of the army, Vladimir Padrino Lopez, of undermining democracy in the country:
In this way, Padrino Lopez, by signing resolution 008610, you’ve not only usurped the functions of the voting constituency by modifying article 68 of the Constitution, but you’ve also usurped the jobs of the National Assembly deputies, because you don’t have legislative powers.
The new law authorizing the use of firearms to suppress peaceful protests should be dead in the water. The most superficial examination of the law yields one very obvious fact: it stands contrary to Article 68 of the Constitution.
It is heartening that the attorney general’s office is at least promising to look into the law. There is still hope – however small – that the law might be overturned, being the blatant assault on the constitution that it is.
However, this being Venezuela, “I’ll believe it when I see it” is the safest course of action.
Should the law stand, it would have terrifying implications for future protests in the country. According to the government, any anti-government protest is by definition a violent protest. Attorney General Luisa Ortega Diaz said in May 30 of last year – after weeks of largely peaceful protests – that “there haven’t been any peaceful protests” in the country. Maduro has echoed her comments a number of times since then, claiming time and time again that the “ultra-right wing” is incapable of acting peacefully.
Venezuelan security officials routinely use tear gas to break up protests, peaceful or otherwise. This, too, is prohibited by the constitution, and yet the government has no qualms about breaking the country’s most sacred code so casually, almost as a matter of routine. Now that security officials are legally allowed to carry and use their firearms during peaceful protests, how can we trust them to show any restraint at all?