The horrific assassination of acclaimed indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres earlier this year shed a spotlight on the tragic situation that has gripped Honduras.
Land, environmental, and indigenous rights activists continue to be killed with impunity over land and resource disputes. On October 18, 2016, Jose Ángel Flores and Silmer Dionicio George, members of the Unified Peasant Movement (MUCA), joined a list of over 120 murders since the military coup d’état to overthrow President Manuel Zelaya shook the country in 2009. These murders have arisen primarily from the intersection of business interests, predominantly in the extractive industries, and communities who claim their rights to the land have been taken improperly and without their consent. According to Asier Hernando, Regional Deputy Director in Latin America and the Caribbean for Oxfam: “the dynamics of extractive industries fail to respect the right to free, prior and informed consent as these businesses undertake large-scale projects without authorization from the communities, triggering widespread violence against citizens who oppose these projects in their territories.” Despite international pressure, the government of Honduras remains steadfast in its unwillingness to legitimately investigate these murders.
As a UN member state and a signatory to both the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), Honduras is obligated to protect the right to life of all persons and prevent, punish, and remedy violations of such right. Thus, a significant part of Honduras’ obligation to protect the right to life, under international mechanisms including the ICCPR and the ACHR, requires the government to conduct fair investigations and to administer swift and impartial justice. The fair and expeditious administration of justice deters and disincentivizes future violations of human rights. It signals to perpetrators that their egregious conduct will not be tolerated.
However, the judicial system’s ineffectiveness in bringing perpetrators to justice has only caused the situation to metastasize. In 2014, fewer than four percent of murder cases resulted in a conviction. A part of the issue seems to stem from a lack of evidence due to inadequate reporting of crimes. Although Honduras has strong witness protection laws on its books, these laws are rarely implemented. Witnesses seldom come forward for fear of reprisal from perpetrators. This issue only compounds the difficulty in bringing quick and just convictions.
Widespread corruption in the police force has also exacerbated the situation, pitting prosecutors and criminal justice administrators against corrupt police officers. The murders of security advisor Alfredo Landaverde in 2011 and top anti-drug prosecutor Orlan Chavez in 2013 were allegedly arranged by the very police officers responsible for their protection. According to the Associated Press, “Chavez was known as a highly effective, professional prosecutor” and Landaverde was an “outspoken critic of corruption in Honduran law enforcement.” In 2009, a conversation between paid assassins and two police officers arranging the murder of another top anti-drug prosecutor Julian Aristides Gonzalez for $20,000 was caught on tape.
According to Amnesty International, the clear deficiency within the criminal justice system has resulted in “pervasive impunity for human rights abuses.” Honduras should ensure that it does its part to abide by obligations under both the international covenants as well as its domestic laws. The right to life is a fundamental human right. The government can and should do more to protect citizens.