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.