“Do not allow them to silence you” – Shelter City Guest Génesis Dávila on human rights amid crisis in Venezuela

Meet Génesis Dávila, a trained lawyer and human rights defender from Venezuela, and a former guest of the Shelter City Network. Over the last years human rights defenders have been targeted by Maduro’s regime, and Genesis has faced many difficulties because of her work. Her stay in Shelter City Rotterdam was to provide her with a safe and peaceful environment to work while taking care of herself.

Almost three years ago, Génesis established Defiende Venezuela (Defend Venezuela), an organisation dedicated to filing cases of human rights violations taking place in Venezuela before international mechanisms of protection. Two years before that, her vision of Defiende Venezuela was born. At only 24, Génesis had to go against all the odds to follow her calling and to find ways to claim justice. Because of the malfunctioning of the legal and justice systems in her country, most violations have gone unpunished in the last years. What is more, the Venezuelan regime has been heavily involved in these violations.

But in a country facing a human rights crisis, how do you seek justice from the same people who are violating your rights?

Envisioning Defiende Venezuela

This is where Génesis’ vision came to provide a way. In 2015 she was working as an intern in the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reviewing cases of violations filed against Latin-American countries. 2015 was also part of the first period of anti-government protests in Venezuela, which had started in 2014 with ‘fatal unrests’. In the context of these protests, an immense number of rights violations were perpetrated by the regime, but only an insignificant number of them were reported. “This caught my attention and generated a lot of frustration”, Génesis shares. This was the moment when she decided that what she wants to do is to document these violations and support the victims in reporting them to the appropriate international mechanisms.

“I want to assist the victims so that one day they will be able to find justice”.

Setting the foundation and taking action

However, having the vision was not enough. Being a young woman in a country facing a crisis and daring to find justice in the middle of this crisis, meant that the odds were not on Génesis side. But she was very lucky, and luck only comes to the ones well prepared. In 2017, Génesis won a scholarship from Georgetown University in Washington DC for the Latin-American Leadership Programme. The scholarship allowed her to develop her vision into a project with a concrete plan during the span of four months.

And while Génesis was in Washington working on her project, back home in Caracas the second and worst period of protests was taking place with brutal crackdowns. Human Rights Watch observes that in 2017 the violence and repression exercised by the government on the protesters “reached levels unseen in Venezuela in recent memory” . Hundreds of students were executed by the regime for claiming for their rights on the streets, and thousands were arbitrarily detained and tortured for demonstrating against the regime . With the increase of cases of violations, Génesis vision of filing these cases and seeking justice became more fitting than ever.

“For me having all of these warnings made me more conscious about my decision. I decided that for me that was the moment to take action”.

Set out to return to Venezuela and to fulfil her project, Génesis received many warnings to reconsider moving forward with it. But she knew that it was a ‘now or never’ situation. “For me having all of these warnings made me more conscious about my decision. I decided that for me that was the moment to take action”.

‘I, Génesis, defend Venezuela’; Credits: ‘Defiende Venezuela’ (Website)

Establishing and supporting the victims

Later in 2017 Génesis returned to Venezuela and established Defiende Venezuela, first hiring two lawyers who were previously her supervisors at the National Prosecutor’s Office. Since then the organisation has grown into a team of 16 human rights advocates. Over these three years, they have together represented more than 200 victims from different social structures in the Venezuelan society. The victims have varied from patients with chronic diseases unable to access medical treatment provided by the State, to students arbitrarily detained and tortured in the context of the 2014-2017 demonstrations, to some of the most prominent opposition leaders.

“The best you can do is to speak loud, move people and take action. Do not hide, do not allow them to silence you.”

Defiende Venezuela has filed an uncountable number of cases on behalf of the victims before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations mechanisms, and Génesis has been the lead attorney in these cases before the institutions. Filing cases before the mechanisms of protection, however, was not always resorted to. In some occasions the victims are not aware of the possibility of reporting the violations against them and the accessibility of these institutions. In others, they may fear reprisals from the regime in the case of speak up against it. However, what they have learned in Defiende Venezuela so far, Génesis explains, is that “the best you can do is to speak loud, move people and take action. Do not hide, do not allow them to silence you”.

Génesis representing Defiende Venezuela at a hearing of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Credits: ‘Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos’ (YouTube)

Growing and reaching out

It did not take long for Defiende Venezuela to earn the respect and recognition from the international mechanisms for protection and from human rights NGOs nationally and internationally. Defiende Venezuela has worked with other Venezuelan NGOs to give them the tools to also file cases on behalf of victims. “We learned that they also need to know how to use the mechanisms; at the end it does not matter who reports the case. What actually matters is that the cases get reported”. Focusing also on advocacy work, Defiende Venezuela has collaborated with organisations abroad to raise awareness about the human rights situation in Venezuela and to teach human rights activists on advocacy. As part of this, Génesis has trained and continues training over 300 human rights defenders nationally and internationally on human rights practice.

Going against the risks

“The harassments and attacks seek to prevent us from our activities. Nonetheless, this is just a proof of how great the risk that we take is and how important it is to keep taking it”.

But as Génesis knew already from the start, defending the victims of the state regime comes with great risks. With government officials being behind the violations, they are willing to attack those who dare to claim justice internationally. Human rights lawyers and other human rights defenders have been targeted by Maduro´s regime as ‘internal enemies’, ‘terrorists’, and belonging to ‘imperialist organisations’. And the attacks do not end where discourse ends. Some of the lawyers Génesis had worked closely with on the representation of prominent political cases in the country have been harassed, attacked, detained and even murdered. “This is not a coincidence”, Génesis explains. “The harassments and attacks seek to prevent us from our activities. Nonetheless, this is just a proof of how great the risk that we take is and how important it is to keep taking it”.

Taking shelter

Over the past year, the Venezuelan crisis and the security risks have aggravated her situation. Génesis had to advise her mother to leave the country, as she did not want her to become a target due to her human rights work. The risks to Genesis’ personal safety also increased. Fortunately, she found out via the Dutch Embassy in Caracas about Shelter City, a network of safe spaces around the world that offers support to human rights defenders at risk. “Working in a place where you can breath and be far from the stress and all the risks for a couple of months was perfect for me”, Genesis shares.

Next to the security risks, her life in Venezuela had become almost impossible. Like every other Venezuelan, Génesis had to deal with the everyday chaos and uncertainty. She explains that the lack of water, food, electricity, poor internet connection, insufficiency of medical treatment, and the fear of street muggings, all significantly hampered her work.

Taking the opportunity, Génesis was hosted by Shelter City Rotterdam* where she continued working as the president of Defiende Venezuela from the safe space of the shelter. Not only could she work without disturbances, but she could also cook food for herself every day, do exercises, go to the doctor, and follow therapy sessions. “All these little things that might look normal, they are actually a privilege for me”. After her stay in the Shelter City, she saw herself with more energy to keep advocating for human rights in Venezuela and around the world, and with more tools to face the challenges.

Besides providing rest and respite, the Shelter City Network provides human rights defenders like Génesis with a variety of trainings on security, wellbeing, and other capacity-building tools. Next to this, the defenders can expand their network connections with civil society organisations in the Netherlands and in Europe, and can contribute to raising awareness about human rights among the citizens of the Shelter Cities.

If you are human rights defender at risk, you are eligible to apply for a three-month temporary stay with the Shelter City Network. Read more about the eligibility criteria here.

*Shelter City Rotterdam has been hosting human rights defenders since 2019 and is coordinated by our partner organisation Humanitas, with the financial support of the municipality of Rotterdam.