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Honduras: the battle to protect women human rights defenders

Protection of women human rights defenders must be based on recognizing not only their existence, but also their contribution to creating better societies.

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A shrine in memory of Berta Cáceres. Photo: Just Associates ( JASS)

You shouldn’t have to risk your life to demand respect for your rights and the rights of others, but in Honduras hundreds of defenders have been threatened and murdered for doing just that. Most of these cases are not investigated or prosecuted. 

Honduran women human rights defenders delivered this message to UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel Forst, during a visit to the country in August. Just days before arriving in Tegucigalpa, Forst issued a joint press release with the Inter-American Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, José de Jesus Orozco, publicly declaring, “Honduras is one of the most hostile and dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.” His visit focused on impunity, which he deemed “a huge obstacle to access to justice for defenders”.

Just weeks later, an armed commando stole the case files on the assassination on 2 March of the world-renowned feminist and environmental leader Berta Cáceres. The masked men, as yet unidentified, took the files at gunpoint from the car of a judge who claimed she was taking them home “to study.” Although six people have been arrested, including two military men and employees of the company building the dam Cáceres opposed, the masterminds of the crime are suspected to be higher up and as yet untouched. Forst issued a statement saying that the theft demonstrated the incapacity or lack of will of the Honduran authorities to investigate.

Seven UN Rappoteurs co-signed a call to end impunity in Honduras a month after the assassination, citing “A backlash against women human rights defenders,” and explaining that “Women human rights defenders are generally further exposed to retaliation, harassment and violence as they usually challenge the patriarchal culture and deep-rooted gender stereotypes about the role of women in society.”

With Berta Cáceres’s case moving farther, rather than closer to justice, and assassinations of human rights defenders unabated, a surreal sense of outraged impotence has settled on Honduras. In death, Cáceres's case and her cause continue to create a stir. People around the world shook their heads in disbelief at the latest news of the bizarre abduction of the files. The UN again called for an independent investigation into the murder, which the Honduran government has rejected.

The Honduran justice system fails in more than 90% of cases, criminals are not tried, found guilty and punished. This is especially true when the culprits are powerful economic or political actors, or government officials and members of the police and armed forces. Daysi Flores, national director of Just Associates (JASS) in Honduras, said that this context of impunity has allowed organized crime to flourish, “And not just drug trafficking, but also the organized crime that carries out illegal land grabs and usurps communities’ natural resources, and the organized crime that loots our social security system and public goods to the detriment of the people’s living conditions.”

While unable or unwilling to prosecute crimes, the government has moved aggressively in charging human rights defenders on the basis of weak or non-existent evidence. Three years before being murdered, Caceres was arrested in a military operation and accused of “illegal arms possession” and being a threat to Honduran security. The courts released her only after an international campaign demanding her freedom. More recently, Gladys Lanza, director of the Movement of Women for Peace “Visitacion Padilla”, was charged and convicted of defamation for defending a woman who denounced a government official for sexual and labor harassment. Due to the constant stream of threats against her, she was granted precautionary measures until her death in Sept. 2016 from an illness that many say was exacerbated by the legal harassment she faced.

Forst’s visit opened up a forum for Honduran human rights defenders to recount the attacks and threats they suffer in their daily work in defense of land and territory, political rights, and sexual and reproductive freedom. Marcia Aguiluz of CEJIL, warned in the meeting that  “Criminalization is becoming one of the obstacles that governments use to limit the right to defend rights.” Others described a nation where those who seek justice are assassinated, threatened, imprisoned and slandered. The attacks take place as the government looks the other way - or actively delivers the blows.

In a press release on 19 August, Forst and Orozco urged the Honduran government to “Immediately adopt and apply effective measures to protect human rights defenders, so they can carry out their human rights work without fear or threat of violence or murder.”

Ada Osorio, leader of the Miskita Indigenous Women / Mairen India Miskitu Asla Takanka. Photo: Just Associates

Most of those who testified at the forum were women human rights defenders (WHRD) who face a double burden of risk due to discrimination. Despite their vulnerability, they lead many of the most significant and dangerous battles for defense of rights. 

Just Associates ( JASS) presented a new report, produced with Protection International and the Center for Justice and International (CEJIL), entitled “Gender Focus in the Protection of Women Defenders” which examines protection measures and legislation in Honduras and concludes, “Despite that Honduras is one of the countries in the region with the highest rate of violence against defenders, it’s among those that has had the fewest tools to confront it.”  The authors add that what measures there are, tend to exist only on paper. In this context, international protection can be an essential shield for defenders.

Daysi Flores, said “We’ve been warning that there are government reprisals againt defenders and that’s why we’ve had to resort to international mechanisms. The whole state apparatus and the laws are used to retaliate against women and men defenders, especially when they appeal to these protection mechanisms.”  Those present at the forum asked for protection mechanisms that specifically take women into account because “The current mechanisms tend to see defenders as objects of protection,” Flores noted. “We’re active subjects in protection. We have to have an integrated understanding that takes into account our particular circumstances and our diversity, but also recognizes that patriarchy is an intrinsic philosophy, and that protection without a gender focus isn’t protection.”

As if to underline the point, on Aug. 25 two defenders returning from the meeting with the UN Rapporteur, Karen Mejia and Carmen Gabriela Diaz, were apprehended by police and questioned for three hours without being allowed to contact their lawyers. Thanks to an alert sent out by defenders networks, the two were finally released. Forst’s office strongly denounced the incident, noting that it vividly demonstrated the situation they had just described to him as the UN representative. Human rights organizations sent out a statement saying, “The response of the state, instead of activating protection mechanisms, was to discredit and stigmatize both them and organizations of women’s human rights defenders,”

The continued vulnerability of women human rights defenders results in part from the top-down design and implementation of protection mechanisms. No one is asking the women. Flores said, “We can’t expect mechanisms to respond to the needs of women if women aren’t included in developing those mechanisms and actions that have to do with their protection,” She pointed out that active and empowering participation of WHRD in developing ways to be safe breaks with the failed patriarchal model of armed guards and restrictions. The forum concluded that “Protection of women defenders must be based on recognizing not only their existence, but also their contribution to creating better societies.”

COPINH leader Tomas Gomez lights incense in memory of Berta Cáceres. Photo: Just Associates ( JASS).

Honduras is now confronting a full-blown human rights crisis that makes headlines throughout the world, but has somehow not triggered any meaningful action on the part of the international community. Last March, after a second COPINH leader was murdered, UN experts warned that violence and impunity are so high the nation is at risk of turning into “a lawless killing zone.”

“What we’re experiencing today in Honduras is the result of the fateful coup d’état of June 2009,” stated Gilda Rivera, director of the national Center for Women’s Rights. Rivera explained in a recent interview that the military takeover virtually destroyed the institutional order, which has not been restored. “When a country is left in conditions of impunity, illegality and disrespect for institutions, what happens is that this turns against you and the instability and political crisis grows deeper.” Add to that, an economic model “That intensifies inequality, repression and looting of public goods” and you have a recipe for the kind of violence and rights violations that Honduras is experiencing today. Extractive industries that exploit raw materials such as minerals, oil, water and land have created tremendous pressure to transfer territory and resources from the traditional ownership and stewardship of indigenous and rural farmers to transnational corporations. The Honduran government has been an indispensable ally in this momentous shift.

Women like Berta Cáceres are at the forefront of defense against corporations’ incursions on their lands. Current models of protection largely ignore these causes of the attacks on defenders. The US and Honduran governments have pretended impunity is a technical problem, without political or economic roots. The strategy of pouring public money into US ngos, private security companies and the Honduran military and police has not resolved the problem. It has got worse.  

The Coalition against Impunity made up of some fifty Honduran human rights organizations, is now calling for an immediate suspension of all foreign aid to Honduras security forces due to widespread corruption, abuse and violation of human rights. More than fifty US Congressional members have presented the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act to suspend security aid until hers and ­­­more than 100 other assassinations are investigated and brought to justice, police and military are prosecuted for crimes, and the armed forces are removed from policing. 

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