The UN Human Rights Council on Friday voted to send a team of investigators to probe alleged violations, including extrajudicial executions and torture, in crisis-wracked Venezuela.
The country's President Nicolás Maduro faces mounting pressure from world powers who accuse him of violently cracking down on dissent over Venezuela's economic collapse in recent years.
A resolution tabled by more than a dozen countries from Latin America and elsewhere was adopted by the 47-member council with 19 votes in favour, seven opposed and 21 abstaining. It called for the UN's top rights body to "dispatch urgently an independent international fact-finding mission" to Venezuela.
The mission, the text said, should "investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment" in Venezuela since 2014.
"Venezuelans, men and women, cannot wait any longer" for justice, said Silvia Elena Alfaro Espinosa, the representative of Peru, on behalf of the sponsoring nations, who also included Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada and Israel.
The one-year mission should carry out its investigation "with a view to ensuring full accountability for perpetrators and justice for victims," said the text, which also received the backing of the European Union.
Venezuelan Ambassador Jorge Valero slammed the resolution as a "hostile initiative," and said his country had no intention of cooperating with the new probe.
"Imposing additional monitoring mechanisms will never enoy the consent of my country and our people," he told the council.
Even when they are not granted access to a country, UN investigators can nonetheless carry out probes from abroad, as has been the case with investigations into abuses in Syria and Myanmar. The investigative team will be expected to present a report to the council in a year.
Venezuela is caught in an economic crisis and a political stand-off between Maduro's government and National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó.
The oil-rich country suffers from hyperinflation and shortages of basic goods from food to medicine, a crisis that has forced some 3.6 million people to flee since 2016. Maduro blames the United States and its allies for the crisis, accusing them of meddling.
Friday's vote came amid growing pressure on Venezuela over rights abuses in the country.
The European Union on Friday imposed sanctions on seven Venezuelan intelligence officials for alleged grave rights violations, including the torture and killing of a renegade captain. And on Thursday, US President Donald Trump tightened US sanctions on Maduro's regime, suspending senior members of the Venezuelan government from entering the United States.
Friday's UN resolution deplored "the systematic abuse of state institutions... accelerating the erosion of the rule of law and of democratic institutions" in Venezuela. It also urged Caracas to release all "political prisoners" and voiced "grave concern" over UN rights office findings in July which suggested that many of the more than 6,000 killings in alleged confrontations with state forces since early 2018 may in fact have been "executions".
"When violations of this gravity and scale are reported to us, we must respond in an equally serious manner," British Ambassador Julian Braithwaite, whose country backed the resolution, told the council before the vote.
Rights activists hailed the council decision.
The resolution "sends a clear message to the Venezuelan authorities that they will eventually be held accountable for their crimes," Human Rights Watch's American director José Miguel Vivanco said in a statement. "This is a victory for victims, who are one step closer to seeing those responsible for years of abuse brought to justice."
Valero, meanwhile, maintained that the countries behind Friday's resolution were seeking to hinder the country's budding cooperation with UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and her office.
A week ago, she and Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza signed a Memorandum of Understanding establishing "a framework for future discussion and cooperation".
Among other things it would enable two UN rights officers to settle in the country, and be given access to places of detention.
Bachelet, a former president of Chile, herself had appeared reluctant to back the establishment of a UN investigative body.
The UN rights chief, who recently visited Venezuela and has been working to set up an office there, told journalists earlier this month that her main priority was to establish a monitoring and reporting presence in the country.
The European Union on Friday slapped sanctions on seven members of Venezuela's security and intelligence services on suspicion that they are involved in torture and other abuses.
EU headquarters said Friday that four of the seven , who face asset freezes and travel bans, are linked to the death of Captain Rafael Acosta Arévalo, a Venezuelan Navy officer allegedly tortured in state custody. The move means 25 people are now subject to EU sanctions over the crisis in Venezuela.
"The people of Venezuela continue to face a dramatic situation. The regional impact of the crisis is unprecedented, with severe risks for regional stability," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement. She said the EU stands ready to broaden the sanctions to encourage a political transition and presidential elections, but that the measures can be dialed down if progress is made.
In Geneva, the Human Rights Council voted 19-7 with 21 abstentions for the resolution to create a one-year mission to investigate "extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detentions and torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment" in Venezuela over the past five years.