The Dangers of Defending Human Rights in Honduras

by  translated by Katherine Wingfield-Dobbs  /  April 4, 2016  / No comments

Protesters the day after Cáceres' murder. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Protesters the day after Cáceres’ murder. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Around the world, thousands of protesters unite as the crime against Berta Cáceres brings to light the dangerous situation facing human rights defenders in Honduras.

The crime against Berta Cáceres, a human rights defender–particularly of the indigenous Lenca people and their common property–on March 3, 2016 further laid bare the system of criminalization of the defense of human rights, a task which becomes ever more dangerous in Honduras.

  1. Honduras has one of the world’s highest murder rates. It is also one of the most dangerous countries to practice journalism, ranking 129th out of 180 in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. Journalists are regularly threatened, attacked, and killed for their work. The Honduran government fails to punish those who use violence against reporters, essentially granting them impunity. This space will be dedicated to examining the lack of protection for Honduran journalists exercising their profession. Topics will include the use of state-sponsored advertising as a mechanism to reward or punish publications, and censorship and self-censorship as hindrances to democratic progress.
  2. Born in Cofradía, Honduras, Dina Meza has been recognized by PEN International, Amnesty International, Index on Censorship and Reporters without Borders for her work as a journalist and human rights advocate. Currently, Dina is the driving force behind the creation of Honduras PEN Centre. In 2013, she wrote “Reign of Terror,” an in-depth report on threats to Honduran journalists for Index on Censorship’s magazine. In 2014, she was named one of Reporters Without Borders’ “100 Heroes and Heroines of Information.”

The world reacted to Berta Cáceres’s murder by demanding justice and punishment for those responsible, but the Honduran State has ignored the demands. Cáceres acted as the Coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH, the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras). Almost two weeks after she was riddled with four bullets the authorities have still not issued a report on the progress of the investigations. It is becoming clear that they will not identify those responsible. Instead, the authorities are trying to create a smokescreen to hide the perpetrators and to blame the organization Berta loved and with which she was involved for some 20 years.

Berta raised her voice as loud as she could. She traveled through countless countries denouncing the atrocities that were committed by energy companies within her people’s territories, in violation of Convention 169 of the ILO and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Those businesses have not come to Honduras on a whim. They did so because the Honduran Parliament themselves generously granted them concessions to the rivers, immediately after the coup. That was the goal of a greedy political and economic class: to generate more wealth at the expense of the hunger of thousands of people and the bloodshed of those who dared to say “no” to the destruction.

To recall the work of Berta is to see the defense of human rights in all its dimensions. In the defense of freedom of expression, she, alongside her people, drove the creation of community radio because she realized the power of the word – especially as their problems were drowned out by the corporate media which often sought to misrepresent the struggle for ancestral lands.

Honduras itself is changing, but is heading towards such terrible scenes. From the heads of government to President Juan Orlando Hernández, zero tolerance is applied to human rights defenders. The reality is that life is worthless to this leader, who aspires to remain in power for many years.

Hernández came to power in January 2014, after elections which were recorded as the dirtiest to have taken place in the country. Scarcely two years have passed under his rule, yet it feels like he’s been running Honduras for 50. This man has done so much damage to the country that every day that passes with him in power seems like a century.

He still has two years remaining and he has brought about disasters: mass dismissals of workers from different units without paying their labor rights. He uses the police and military to remove employees by force who now no longer have work thanks to the policy of trade union destabilization coming from the seat of government.

The president has control of the Supreme Court of Justice; of the Public Ministry; of the Honduran Parliament. In other words, he has concentrated his power in order to suppress the country.

A few days ago I spoke to members of the water trade union, who told me that as the government had not been able to suppress them, the government had now commenced proceedings in the Public Ministry for a series of offenses. The aim is the removal of trade union privileges and afterwards dismissal.

According to the Constitution of the Republic, workers can join together to ensure respect for their rights but, in Honduras, that is a crime and doing so may bring about consequences ranging from discrediting their image to violent death.

However, hope is not lost for thousands of people who have realized that the key is unity and fighting in the streets. People are arriving in Tegucigalpa (the capital of the country) in the hundreds to demand justice in the case of Berta Cáceres.

The city is on edge, faced with the announcement of mass mobilizations: the movement of the military and preventive police is going ahead. They use their batons and guns as deterrents against those who defend their rights and who are seen by the President as the villains of the story.

The outlook in Honduras is complicated, dangerous, and fragile. Anyone who visits from another country can smell the blood, hostile climate, and an atmosphere heavy with unlawfulness.

President Hernández may be able to buy journalists and the media, but not the people, who know that a right not defended is a right lost.

We still have faith and hope that one day this situation will be merely a bad memory. For this to happen, we must remain firm in the defense of human rights despite the circumstances. Fear paralyzes but action is needed.

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