Third murder of environmental campaigner in recent months sees increased calls for the US to investigate and halt aid payments to Honduras until a thorough investigation is carried outJuly 18, 2016 in Honduras
Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world, plagued by gang violence and high rates of impunity there is little trust in the capacity of the public security authorities to protect citizens. However, in recent months there has been increased attention on the role that public authorities — in particular an arm of the military, allegedly trained by US forces — may have played in the recent murders of environmental campaigners in the country.
On July 6th, Honduran authorities confirmed the death of Lesbia Janeth Urquía, an environmental activist and member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico del Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras, COPINH). According to reports, Urquía disappeared the morning of Tuesday, July 5 and was kidnapped while on her way to exercise in her home town. Her body was found the following day near a garbage dump in the Marcala municipality in the department of La Paz, 100 miles from the capital Tegucigalpa. She had suffered a severe head trauma and her body revealed signs of possible torture. In a statement made July 7th, Honduras’ Public Ministry announced it had formed a special commission to investigate the crime.
This move was greeted with relative scepticism by fellow campaigners. Honduras has been described as the deadliest place in the world for environmental activists defending the social, cultural and economic rights of the land. According to a Global Witness report, between 2010-2015 there were 115 reported murders of environmental campaigners who made a stand against destructive damn, mining, logging and agro-industrial projects. Yet, there has been little investigation by the authorities or prosecutions into those behind these murders. In June the British newspaper the Guardian published a controversial article looking at the role the military has played in persecuting environmental campaigners, claiming (though noted with only anonymous source) that there is a “hitlist” against a number of activists and they are being directly targeted (full article here). Whether the anonymous source is credible, it cannot be denied that this is the third murder of a high-level campaigner in recent months. Human rights supporters both inside and outside of Honduras, as well as international institutions such as the UN and the OAS, have called on the Honduran government to protect human rights defenders and fully investigate the murders. The spotlight is now firmly on Honduras, with increasing calls for international donors to halt funds to the country until these abuses are fully investigated.
The US in particular is facing high-level questions in Congress over their aid budget to the country. Since 2010 the US has given an estimated $200 million in police and military aid to Honduras, allegedly this aid is conditional on the respect for human rights and civilian security. The US has yet to investigate into the killings, and in 2015 pledged more money to the embattled country as part of the $750 million fund to Central America’s Northern triangle to try and curb the influx of child migrants heading to the US to escape gang violence. However, the movement to investigate is gaining traction in the US. In June Congress Representative Hank Johnson put forward the Berta Cáceres Human Rights Act in Honduras to suspend US security assistance in the country until human rights violations by the security forces cease.
The threat against human rights defenders in Honduras gained global attention in March following the murder of renowned environmental campaigner Berta Cáceres (see our blog post here) in her home in La Esperanza, Intibucá department. The inter-American Commission of Human Rights had formerly called on President Hernández’ government to ensure the protection of Cáceres and other human rights defenders by ensuring precautionary measures, noting their vulnerability. Prosecutions were made following Cáceres’ murder, likely because of increased pressure on the government and international media attention. However, they outline the complexity of the security environment for campaigners; two “sicarios”, a Honduran military official and the Manager of Security at the Honduran state owned hydropower company (DESA).
Background – Investing in Honduras
Violence against environmental campaigners has worsened since the 2009 coup – supported by the US – that ousted left-wing Manuel Zelaya from presidential office. Since then there has been a right-wing, business friendly government that has pushed for investment in the impoverished country. In particular numerous hydraulic projects have been signed off without the requisite checks and balances into the social and environmental impact on local communities. Campaigners like Cáceres were defending the rights of local communities to their land, access to water and the environmental degradation that will affect local communities living on land where hydro projects are taking place. Despite provisions in Honduran law to protect social and environmental rights, and those in international law (Honduras is a signatory to the ILO), human rights defenders claim that the government has signed off on projects without proper assessments and has taken hard-line security measures against those that speak out.
A number of international development funds and private financiers have pulled out of projects in the country following widespread pressure from civil society and international scrutiny around violation of human rights frameworks. All investors looking to finance projects in Honduras, particularly in regions where there are land-rights and social disputes, are strongly advised to carry out detailed due diligence into local partners and conduct a thorough risk assessment into existing tensions with local communities.
Around 1am on March 3 renowned Honduran environmental and indigenous rights campaigner Berta Cáceres was shot dead by armed assailants at her home in La Esperanza, in Intibucá department, Honduras.
The high-profile murder has sparked international outrage and underlines the significant threats facing social campaigners in one of the world’s most dangerous countries. While Honduras is no stranger to high levels of violent crime, with one of the highest homicide rates globally, few are likely to take seriously any suggestion that Cáceres’ murder was a random act of violent crime.
The campaigner had received multiple death threats in recent years, primarily concerning her involvement in the campaign to halt the development of the partially internationally funded Agua Zarca Damn. In a country where 101 environmental campaigners were killed between 2010-2014, she was aware of the vulnerable nature of her safety. According to local sources, the assailants broke into her house after she had gone to sleep and questions have arisen as to why there was no security service protection. In 2015 the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) formally called on President Hernández’ government to ensure the protection of Cáceres and other human rights defenders by ensuring precautionary measures. Its failure to do so has sparked widespread criticism from local and international groups, and calls on the government to fully investigate the murder. Yet, impunity remains one of the key challenges in the embattled country, where according to former Attorney General Luis Rubí, more than 90% of crimes go unpunished.
Cáceres was a campaigner for the Lenca indigenous peoples, and in 1993 co-founded the COPINH (Civic Council of Indigenous Organisations in Honduras). In recent years COPINH has been campaigning for the rights of the Lenca community and ensuring the right to free-prior and informed consent before a government/or private company can develop their land, as outlined by the ILO, which Honduras is a signatory too. In particular, Cáceres vociferously campaigned against the Agua Zarca Damn, one of Central America’s biggest hydropower projects in the Gualcarque. The damn is a joint project between Honduran Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA) and Chinese state-owned Sinohydro – the world’s largest dam developer.
Following the ousting of former president Zelaya in 2009, the government has pushed through numerous damn and agricultural projects to make way for major extractives investment in the country, an area they claim is necessary to aid the country’s flailing economy, and raise revenues to tackle major social issues. However, many opponents argue this has been done without proper legislation, information and local engagement, and that those who have spoken out have found themselves at the end of the barrel of a gun, with little investigation carried out by the authorities. Speaking about its 2015 report into this, a Global Witness representative called on governments across Latin America to tackle this regional issue more seriously, claiming that rampant impunity allows perpetrators to get away with it, and that the problem is widespread across the region.
On the evening of 3 March violent clashes broke out in the capital Tegucigalpa, where students accused the government of failing to protect the activist by ensuring basic security measures. The protest voice also points to the complex nature of foreign investment in projects with high social risks if effective due diligence is not carried out. The Dutch development bank and other international lenders have come under increasing pressure to pull out of the highly politicised damn project. Cáceres won the prestigious 2015 Goldman award for her grass-roots environmental campaigning, which had placed the issue onto an international stage and raised her global profile and that of her campaign. This is likely to ensure that the government will come under the scrutiny of global investigation watchdogs to investigate the murder fully.
 As recorded by the International NGO Global Witness in a 2015 report.