Honduran Human Rights Defenders at Risk, Says UN

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Honduras was singled out for a visit by the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Margaret Sekaggya, in February 2012. The Honduran government, and the international community, should listen to what she had to say. I have identified some key passages from her statement below. You can find a complete version in English here, in Spanish here

“The 2009 coup d’état aggravated institutional weaknesses, increased the vulnerability of human rights defenders and provoked a major polarisation in society. Due to the exposed nature of their activities, human rights defenders continue to suffer extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and ill-treatment, death threats, attacks, harassment and stigmatisation.

“I have observed that certain categories of human rights defenders are at particular risk, including journalists, staff of the National Human Rights Commission, lawyers, prosecutors and judges, as well as defenders working on the rights of women, children, the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Intersex community, the indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities as well as those working on environmental and land rights issues.

“I am concerned that public officials, including high-ranking authorities, have made public statements which stigmatise human rights defenders. In particular, I have received information indicating that human rights defenders working on the protection of the rights of LGBTI have been threatened and persecuted because their work is perceived to defend immoral behaviour. Defenders working on children’s rights have been harassed, particularly those denouncing social cleansing of children and youth at the hands of public and private actors. Women’s organisations raised concerns that, due to pervasive gender discrimination, their complaints of violations against their integrity and work are dismissed and that they suffer intimidation by the authorities, in particular members of the police force.

“I received reports of serious violations of and restrictions on the freedom of expression since the coup d’état. An alarming number of journalists were killed in 2009 and 2010. Measures to restrict the media remain in place and have resulted in self-censorship among journalists. Numerous community radio stations were closed shortly after the coup and remain inoperative. This affects in particular the right to access information among indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities.

“I met several representatives of organisations who had been threatened as a consequence of their interventions to protect the environment against projects by private companies, in particular relating to dams and mining, where indigenous peoples had not been consulted as required by the International Labour Organization Convention No. 169 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. I am concerned over the levels of violence affecting people who are claiming economic and social rights, including land rights, through peaceful means.

“The absence of a national protection programme for human rights defenders is a principal concern which has been echoed among a majority of stakeholders. Authorities have also shared the same concern. I must underline that the State has an obligation to demonstrate due diligence and take preventive measures to protect persons who are at risk for having defended human rights. The lack of protection for human rights defenders at risk increases their vulnerability, obstructs the ability of authorities to undertake investigations and thereby contributes to the cycle of impunity.

“The Public Prosecutor’s Office ability to undertake effective and impartial criminal investigations is seriously undermined by the alleged participation and collusion of police force members in committing crimes, including serious violations of human rights. I received information indicating that police agents, including at senior levels, have impeded and obstructed investigations. The Human Rights Office of the Public Prosecutor is seriously affected by political interference, lack of efficiency and lack of resources, and its staff has been subjected to threats.

“I was repeatedly informed by human rights defenders that due to their fear of the police, they abstain from seeking protection as they consider that contact with the police exposes them to increased security risks. The only measures for protection currently available are provided by the police; however it has no specific unit with vetted officers to provide protection. I met several human rights defenders who observed that the police officers assigned to provide their protection were frequently rotated and that not knowing who was assigned to provide protection increased their feeling of insecurity. One human rights defender with precautionary measures commented that the police who were assigned to be providing protection were confused about their task and presumed that the human rights defender was on provisional release. Consequently, the person who was supposed to be receiving protection was treated as a suspect rather than a victim.

“I have received disconcerting information indicating a lack of independence and impartiality of the judiciary which undermines both the effectiveness of the administration of justice and the potential role of judges as human rights defenders. As a consequence, protection remedies such as habeas corpus and the writ of amparo become illusionary mechanisms. The absence of an independent body to safeguard the independence of the judiciary and to supervise the appointment, promotion and regulation of the judicial profession has resulted in political interference which jeopardises the legitimacy of the judiciary. I observe that the incertitude over judges’ tenure is detrimental to the exercise of their functions.

“I regret that during my mission I received reports indicating that the National Human Rights Commission (CONADEH) is unable to effectively undertake its crucial functions as an independent entity. The creation of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights is a positive development to fulfil the State responsibility to monitor and protect human rights. However, I would emphasize that the institutional responsibility for monitoring human rights should also fall within the scope of an independent National Human Rights Institution. The lack of coordination between relevant authorities results in a protection gap and requires clarification. This institutional weakness generates a lack of credibility in the national human rights protection system.

“I received information from various stakeholders indicating that the Inter-Institutional Commission for the Protection of Human Rights, headed by the Procurator General (Procuraduría General de la República), fails to provide an effective framework for institutional coordination of human rights issues as its emphasis is on responses to international human rights mechanisms rather than on concrete measures at the national level.

“Regarding the legitimate right of human rights defenders to associate, I am concerned that the valuable role of human rights organisations may be affected by the adoption of legislation aimed at restricting the work of civil society organisations, particularly the Decree 32-2011 on the Specialized Law for the Promotion of NGOs for Development, (Ley Especializada de Fomento para las Organizaciones Non-Gubernatales de Desarollo) and the Decree 252-2010 on the Law against Financing Terrorism (Ley contra el Financimento de Terrorismo). I received information indicating that human rights organisations are facing difficulties to gain the legal recognition required to register with authorities and that organisations have been threatened with closure.”

Among the helpful recommendations by the Special Rapporteur to the Honduran government are the following:

  • “The Government should establish a clear State policy which recognises the indispensible work of human rights defenders and ensure their protection. The President should promote and lead dialogue between authorities and civil society in order to create a favourable environment for human rights defenders. A holistic approach should be the baseline for establishing a State policy which provides for the effective operation and comprehensive coordination of public institutions. All policies, strategies and programmes should be developed taking into account recommendations by international and regional human rights mechanisms. Anational mechanism to regularly evaluate the degree of implementation of the recommendations should be established in consultation with civil society.
  • “As a crucial measure to overcome the distrust of authorities among human rights defenders, an adequately resourced protection programme for human rights defenders should be established and implemented as a matter of urgency and an inter-institutional framework developed to assume responsibility for its coordination and regular and transparent review. All measures for the protection of human rights defenders should be planned and agreed upon directly with the concerned individuals. The Special Rapporteur underlines the responsibility of the State in ensuring that human rights defenders are provided with effective protection measures in a prompt manner.
  • “A policy for effective criminal investigations should be defined and investigative working methods should be revised. Considerable human resources and technical advice should be provided to strengthen the investigative capacity of the Human Rights Office of the Public Prosecutor. Reports of threats and attacks against human rights defenders should be given priority and investigated ex-officio when required. The witness protection programme of the Public Prosecutor’s Office should be revised and significantly strengthened. Safeguards should be put in place to protect the Human Rights Office of the Public Prosecutor from political interference and to ensure the physical security of prosecutors, particularly when investigating cases involving members of the police force as alleged perpetrators.”
  • “The State should ensure that both public and private actors, including transnational companies, respect human rights defenders and instances where non-State actors have committed violations against human rights defenders should be investigated, prosecuted and punished and compensation provided to the victims. Dialogue and mediation between private non-State actors, such as corporations, and civil society should be promoted, particularly with regard to Afro-Honduran communities, indigenous and rural communities. Consultations with indigenous communities should be undertaken in accordance with the ILO Convention No. 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
  • “Any stigmatisation of human rights defenders, whether by public or private entities such as the media, should be discouraged and sanctioned.” 

The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations and conclusions provide a road map for basic protections for Honduras’ at-risk defenders. Let’s hope that the Honduran government takes them to heart.