Commissioners: Margarette May Macaulay, Joel Hernández García, Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño, Antonia Urrejola Noguera
Petitioners: Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH); Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL)
Topic: Honduras’ Implementation of Precautionary Measures and Investigation into the Murder of Indigenous Environmental Activist Berta Cáceres
“How can we hope for security from a state that protects the masterminds behind my mother’s murder?” asked Laura Zúñiga Cáceres at the 170th Period of Sessions of the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR). Laura is the daughter of environmental activist Berta Cáceres, who defended indigenous Lenca land and the Río Blanco community in Honduras until her murder on March 2, 2016. Berta Cáceres was head of the indigenous rights group Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH) and was already under the state’s protection when she was shot and killed for her opposition to the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque river in western Honduras. The company holding the concession for the planned dam, Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), has faced significant local resistance to the project because the Gualcarque river is sacred to the Lenca people, who rely on its waters for subsistence. During the December 6, 2018 hearing, Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, other members of COPINH, and representatives from the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) presented information to the Commission and to the government of Honduras decrying the state’s ongoing delays in the trial process and the exclusion of victims’ legal representatives from the investigation. The purpose of the hearing was to clarify facts surrounding the implementation of the precautionary measures and the investigation into the masterminds behind Berta Cáceres’ murder.
Campaigns demanding justice for Berta Cáceres’ death pressured the Honduran government to investigate the circumstances surrounding her murder. Berta Cáceres’ family, COPINH, and other groups experiencing similar targeted attacks and threats jointly sought the state’s protection through precautionary measures. Article 25 of the Rules of Procedure of the IACHR provides that under “serious and urgent circumstances,” the Commission may request that a state adopt precautionary measures as a means of ensuring observance of fundamental rights and preventing irreparable harm. The IACHR chose to grant this hearing in light of increasingly dangerous circumstances for environmental defenders in Central and South America, where Berta Cáceres’ murder is emblematic of a wider phenomenon. There have been cases across the region of organized murders of land rights activists by organized crime, death squads, and paramilitary forces.
At the hearing, representatives of Honduras informed the Commission of its recent convictions of seven individuals for the murder of Berta Cáceres. However, the state has not yet called DESA to testify. Assuring the Commission that the government would continue working to identify possible masterminds behind the attack, the state representative pointed to the government’s successful implementation of the precautionary measures, which has included holding trainings in the Rio Blanco community, installing a 24-hour generator at the COPINH office, and situating security cameras in the beneficiaries’ residences.
In response, María Luisa Gomez Comi of CEJIL stated that the beneficiaries of the precautionary measures will issue a written response to the state’s alleged forms of protection. According to CEJIL, the state provided no justification for violating its own constitution by prohibiting the victims’ access to trial information, including denying access to real-time audio recordings of the trial. Members of COPINH asserted that the conviction of seven individuals did not resolve the underlying threat of violence stemming from a complex criminal scheme, headed by members of the Honduran government and DESA. According to COPINH, Berta Cáceres’ murder was not an isolated event, but the culmination of sustained, strategic attacks against members of COPINH. The masterminds of the attack commanded a multi-level criminal hierarchy consisting of at least 25 individuals, including high-level government officials and employees within DESA.
“If you do not attack the criminal structure and you do not revoke the concession, the risks to the beneficiaries of the precautionary measure will persist and possibly even increase,” a member of COPINH urged. According to COPINH, members of their community have experienced violence and threats due to their advocacy work at least eight times in the three months before the hearing. These problems have been compounded by the Honduran government’s persistent portrayal of COPINH’s activities as fighting against development and progress. Laura Zúñiga Cáceres of COPINH pointed out that if the government had respected the right of indigenous peoples to Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), this violence would never have ensued. She also warned that “the Agua Zarca dam project should be canceled on our sacred river; conviction is not the same as justice, and while there is no justice, there will be no protection.”
Commissioners expressed solidarity with the Petitioners and questioned the state on several fronts. Commissioner Joel Hernández García denounced the Public Prosecutor’s Office’s lack of response to the petition to permit the family’s participation in the legal process, referencing a press release by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras and the IACHR. Commissioner Soledad García Muños and Commissioner Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño asked whether the Public Prosecutor’s Office had any justification for excluding information and participation of the victims, and what impacts the project had on human rights and the rights to a healthy environment, clean water, and public health. Commissioners Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño and Commissioner Antonia Urrejola Noguera both questioned the appropriateness of the state’s concession due to the structural violence it caused. Commissioner Arosemena de Troitiño suggested possibly revoking the concession as an effective and appropriate response given the scale of the organizational structure involved in the attack. Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, the current President of the Commission, went further, arguing that the state granted the concession “in contradiction of the jurisprudence which has been settled by the Inter-American Court and Commission and [therefore] is, in law, null and void.” She concluded that the state should revoke the concession for the hydropower project in order to bring itself back into compliance with the Inter-American System.