The United Nations Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Andrew Gilmour, visited Honduras last week to assess the human rights situation in the country – particularly regarding the protection of human rights defenders and indigenous peoples – a visit that took place in the context of continued threats to human rights defenders in the country. [OHCHR Press Release: Honduras; IACHR Press Release] Also last week, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reported that three members of Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, COPINH) were attacked when last month they came across a blockade and were chased until they were able to get away. [IACHR Press Release] The IACHR has noted a pattern of attacks against human rights defenders in the country; in August 2016, independent experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) warned that Honduras was “one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders,” especially for defenders of the environment and of the right of indigenous peoples to land and territory. [IACHR Press Release] United Nations human rights experts and the IACHR have called on the State to end impunity for attacks against human rights defenders through improved investigations and prosecutions. [IACHR Press Release] See, e.g., Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on her visit to Honduras, UN Doc. A/HRC/33/42/Add.2, 21 July 2016, paras. 86-93. Honduras is obligated to protect the rights to life and to humane treatment under several international human rights treaties to which it is a party. See, e.g., American Convention on Human Rights, arts. 4, 5; International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, arts. 6, 7. This is the second visit to Honduras by a United Nations senior official since the country agreed to open a United Nations Human Rights Office in May 2015. [OHCHR Press Release: Honduras]
United Nations Assistant Secretary General Visit to Honduras
Gilmour emphasized the need to increase protections for human rights defenders in Honduras after his first visit to the country. In a statement released at the end of last week, Gilmour conveyed his appreciation that Honduras created its National Protection Mechanism for Human Rights Defenders, but he remains troubled by the violence faced by human rights defenders, especially against women; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; land defenders; and indigenous peoples. Gilmour recommended to State officials to work with human rights defenders as allies and to pursue the root causes of violence in Honduras through social investment and rehabilitative programs. [OHCHR Press Release: Gilmour]
During his visit from July 25 to July 27, 2017, Gilmour met with a range of stakeholders, including the National Human Rights Institution, human rights defenders, civil society representatives, the United Nations team in Honduras, and members of the international community in Honduras. [OHCHR Press Release: Honduras] During the visit, Gilmour discussed issues related to widespread impunity, militarization of public security, restricted access to family planning, and femicide, among issues. In meetings with stakeholders Gilmour stressed that a democratic society requires a space for dialogue, access to information, and meaningful participation in policy-making decisions. [OHCHR Press Release: Gilmour]
Situation of Indigenous Human Rights Defenders in Honduras
Domestic legislation in Honduras largely lacks protection for the rights of indigenous peoples in practice, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli Corpuz, reported in 2016, and the State has failed to ensure the rights enshrined in the international human rights instruments it has ratified. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on her visit to Honduras, paras. 7-9. Honduras has established entities like the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Groups and Cultural Heritage, and the Directorate of Indigenous and Afro-Honduran Peoples, to address complaints of murder, appropriation of lands, the approval of development projects without prior consultation, and the economic and social development of indigenous peoples. See id. at paras. 12-14. According to the Special Rapporteur these reforms have had little impact on the recognition of the rights of indigenous peoples; in particular, the Special Rapporteur identified the lack of protection of indigenous land and natural resources; impunity and inadequate access to justice; multidimensional poverty; and a lack of basic health and social services as problems for indigenous peoples in Honduras. See id. at paras. 17-19, 30, 43-45, 71.
Additionally, human rights defenders in the country, according to the Special Rapporteur, are at a greater risk of experiencing violence, and many of the complaints lodged to the State Office of the Special Prosecutor for Ethnic Groups and Cultural Heritage concern the murder of indigenous leaders defending their lands, such as the murder of Berta Cáceres who led demonstrations against hydroelectric projects. See id. at paras. 19-20.
The Special Rapporteur emphasized the “enormous concern” that murders are taking place despite leaders being granted protective measures by the IACHR and despite laws protecting human rights defenders. See id. at para. 21. The IACHR issued precautionary measures in the case of Berta Cáceres and several other human rights defenders who were later killed. [IACHR Press Release]
Since the Special Rapporteur’s report in July 2016, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights released a report in early 2017 that confirmed the dangerous situation in which human rights defenders, particularly indigenous leaders, find themselves. See Annual report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the human rights situation in Honduras, UN Doc. A/HRC/34/3/Add.2, 9 February 2017, para. 4. According to the report, violence is facilitated by weak institutions, low technical capacity, corruption, impunity, and social inequality within Honduras. See id. at para. 9.
The Special Rapporteur, the High Commissioner, and the IACHR have all issued recommendations to Honduras to eliminate impunity for attacks on human rights defenders. The High Commissioner cautioned that failing to determine accountability for crimes against human rights defenders would threaten efforts to prevent future attacks, and the IACHR recommended that Honduras implement a policy to prevent and investigate all acts of violence against human rights defenders, especially defenders of the environment and of the right of indigenous peoples to land and territory. See id. at paras. 32-34, 61. [IACHR Press Release] The Special Rapporteur recommended specifically strengthening the justice system’s investigation, prosecution, and punishment of those responsible for violence against indigenous peoples, including, where appropriate, imposing criminal sanctions, extending mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders, facilitating the appointment of justice officials from indigenous communities, and increasing recognition for indigenous systems of justice and courts. See Report of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples on her visit to Honduras, paras. 86-93.
The Special Rapporteur further recommended strengthening all State agencies with the resources necessary to address access to justice, protection of indigenous peoples’ lands, and protection of their natural resources, among others; educating and training public officials and the private sector on relevant international standards; increasing consultations with indigenous peoples; and ensuring that all current legislation is compatible with the rights of indigenous peoples. See id. at paras. 82-85.
Human Rights Obligations of Honduras
Honduras is a Member State of the Organization of American States (OAS) and of the United Nations, and has human rights obligations at both the regional and universal levels. At the regional level, Honduras has ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, which protects the right to life and the right to humane treatment under articles 4 and 5, respectively, and the Additional Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which protects the right to a healthy environment under Article 11. Additionally, Honduras has ratified the Inter-American Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Persons with Disabilities; the Inter-American Convention on the Forced Disappearance of Persons; and the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women. Honduras is subject to monitoring by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and has accepted the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which can issue binding judgments related to alleged human rights abuses.
At the universal level, Honduras has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which also protects the rights to life and to humane treatment under articles 6 and 7, respectively; the Second Optional Protocol to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (ICRPD); the Convention on the Rights of the Child; the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography; the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict; the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance; the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
Honduras must submit State reports to each United Nations committee tasked with monitoring the implementation of each of the above treaties. Honduras has taken the necessary steps to allow individuals to submit complaints against Honduras to the Human Rights Committee, the treaty body tasked with monitoring the implementation of the ICCPR, and to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the treaty body tasked with monitoring the implementation of the ICRPD. Honduras is also subject to the oversight of the UN Human Rights Council and its Universal Periodic Review, and thematic special procedures. Honduras extended a standing invitation to United Nations special procedures in 2010 so that United Nations independent experts are able to conduct visits in the country.
Last year, Gilmour took on the additional mandate to lead UN work on ending intimidation and reprisals against human rights defenders. Under the mandate, Gilmour is expected to receive, assess, and respond to allegations of reprisals. [IJRC] The Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights has, since 2010, led the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ New York office and represents the High Commissioner in activities taking place at the New York headquarters of the UN. See OHCHR, Human Rights New York: About the NY Office.