U.N. urges Venezuela government to allow opposition-organized plebiscite and to respect dissent

The United Nations called on Venezuela's government to let people take part in an unofficial referendum on the constitution on Sunday and to make sure security forces do not use excessive force against protesters.

Opposition groups have called the plebiscite after months of protests, saying Venezuelans should have their say on President Nicolas Maduro's plan to rewrite the constitution. The U.N. human rights office said six to eight million people were expected to take part. 

"We urge authorities to respect the wishes of those who want to participate in this consultation and to guarantee people’s rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly," U.N. human rights spokeswoman Liz Throssell said

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets in Venezuela in recent months calling for an end to Maduro's presidency, amid food shortages, a collapsing currency and soaring inflation. About 100 people have died and more than 1,500 have been injured in the anti-government unrest, which started in April. 

The U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of assembly, Annalisa Ciampi, said she was deeply concerned at the pattern of violence by the police and National Guard, as well as reported attacks on voting centers by armed pro-government civilians. 

"The Venezuelan authorities should not interfere with peaceful demonstrations, and indeed are obliged to actively protect assemblies," Ciampi said in a statement. "They should facilitate the exercise of people’s rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression." 

Thousands of demonstrators are reported to have been "arbitrarily detained" and more than 450 civilians are believed to have been brought before military tribunals, Throssell said.