In Defense of Human Rights Defenders

Global leaders must call for an end to killings of human rights defenders

Honduran protesters marching against the Aurora dam project in 2011. Credit: Art Action Union

Imagine that you were evicted from your home because your government decided to dig beneath it. And imagine that, if you spoke up to protest, you would face threats — even death.

I don’t have to imagine this scenario because I have witnessed it. Yet while I am alive to write about it, many of my colleagues and friends have not been so lucky.

Last month, my fellow human rights defenders Berta Cáceres and Nelson García were murdered because they dared to stand up to big corporations and corrupt government officials and say that Honduras’s indigenous people should not be robbed of their ancestral land. The struggle Berta and Nelson died for is taking place today in Honduras, in Mexico, and throughout Latin America, where indigenous people face routine discrimination and land theft — and even murder.

Berta, who was killed on March 3rd, was one of the leading activists for indigenous Hondurans. As founder and director of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), she spent her life defending the Lenca people’s right to access the water and other natural resources they depend on for the survival of communities and their culture. Nelson, who was killed on March 15th, worked alongside Berta at COPINH.

Their most well-known struggle, for which Berta won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015, was to halt the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam, which will irrevocably damage the Gualcarque River and threaten the existence of the Lenca people, if it proceeds.

Like many Latin American human rights defenders, Berta suffered constant death threats, attacks, and harassment. In the six months before her murder, COPINH says threats poured in from the military, police, local authorities, private security guards, and representatives of the hydroelectric company. An assailant fired bullets at her car. She was detained by the Honduran authorities and later granted protective measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). But when armed men broke into her home and murdered her, it became devastatingly clear that the Honduran government failed to implement the measures.

In fact, 15 Honduran human rights defenders have been killed while ostensibly under such protections. And at least 101 Honduran environmental activists were murdered between 2010 and 2014.

Today, Honduras is one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a human rights defender of any kind. Indigenous leaders, LGBTI activists, union leaders, women’s rights activists, and journalists reporting on corruption and rights violations have all been targets of brutal violence.

The situation is similarly dire in my country. In my 17 years as a human rights attorney in Mexico, I have been called “the lawyer of the devil.” My office has been broken into. I have received death threats. But I persevere because, if I do not speak up about the abuses I witness, they will continue unchecked against me, my colleagues, and other human rights defenders.

Unless the world acts, the responsibility for this bloodshed lies on all of our shoulders — especially on those in a position of power to do something about these horrendous human rights violations. It’s time for global leaders to say “enough is enough” and insist that Honduras, Mexico, and other countries around the world stop enabling the murder of human rights defenders. On March 24th the UN Human Rights Council adopted a historic resolution on the protection of defenders of economic, social, and cultural rights. Now, it’s up to us to insist that our countries live up to this commitment.

In Berta’s memory, in Nelson’s memory, and in honor of all who have lost their lives for the “crime” of protesting injustice, I urge world leaders to act now.

The demands are simple:

  1. Honduras must allow an international, independent, and transparent investigation, led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Such an investigation is currently underway in Mexico for the forced disappearances of 43 students in the state of Guerrero in 2014 — and Honduras must do the same. These crimes must not go unpunished.
  2. We must protect our human rights defenders and end government intimidation of activists and repression of social protests, creating a safer environment for all who speak out to defend freedom. Although it’s too late to save Berta’s and Nelson’s lives, Honduras must protect COPINH staff and members of their families.
  3. It is time to stop abuses against indigenous people that have engendered the violence we mourn today. The Honduran and Mexican governments must fulfill their obligations to consult indigenous communities rather than develop their land and natural resources without their consent and under military or paramilitary rule.
  4. The U.S. should suspend security and military aid to Honduras and Mexico until these demands are met. The U.S. government has a role to play and can demonstrate that it is serious about human rights and won’t allow aid dollars to support government impunity.

Berta and Nelson died defending basic human rights. We — human rights defenders, world leaders, and everyday citizens — owe it to them to achieve justice for this crime and protect others similarly at risk. I will spend the rest of my life continuing to support the cause to which they dedicated their lives.

Alejandra Ancheita is the founder and executive director of ProDESC, the Project on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, in Mexico.

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