Editor’s Note: Please join over 220 environmental, Indigenous, social justice and human rights groups and thousands of activists worldwide by adding your name to this open letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The tragic assassination of Berta Cáceres, a leading voice for Honduran Indigenous rights and tireless advocate for justice, has resulted from the inability of governments to provide security to environmentalists and makes it increasingly dangerous and difficult for communities to protect their rights and environments. The letter clarifies the details.
Dear Secretary of State Kerry,
We write in shock and deep sorrow regarding the murder of Honduran human rights and environmental defender Berta Cáceres, founder and general secretary of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). We urge a response from the State Department that is not business as usual but a profound change of direction towards improving the abysmal situation of human rights in Honduras.
Berta Cáceres, winner of the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was a visionary indigenous and environmental rights leader. She championed efforts to protect indigenous peoples from large-scale development projects that are being advanced in Honduras without consultation of communities and without concern for the environment. She organized communities in Honduras and across the world against the unconsented extraction of natural resources and in defense of the Gualcarque River, a sacred site of the Lenca people and an essential water source, against the construction of the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam. Berta Cáceres was a much-loved leader of the diverse social movements in her country. Members of Honduran civil society are united in sorrow and anger about her death—as are so many in the international community.
Berta Cáceres was killed on March 3, 2016 by armed men who broke into her home in La Esperanza, department of Intibucá, Honduras. Mexican environmentalist and journalist Gustavo Castro Soto of Otros Mundos Chiapas/Friends of the Earth Mexico and the Mesoamerican Movement against the Extractive Mining Movement was also wounded in the attack. We urge that Mr. Castro immediately be permitted to return safely to his country.
In the course of her work, Berta Cáceres suffered constant death threats against herself and her family, threats of sexual violence and assault, attacks and harassment. She was also the subject of continual legal harassment by judicial authorities and intimidation by security forces and local government officials for her work. In the six months before her murder, according to COPINH, the threats against her escalated and included shots fired at her car and verbal threats and messages, by members of the military, police, local authorities and representatives of the hydroelectric company.
Ms. Cáceres had precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) since 2009 but never received the full protection she needed. We are outraged by statements from Security Minister Julián Pacheco that in effect blame Cáceres for the failure of the Honduran government to comply with its obligation to protect her. She is one of 15 human rights defenders who have been killed in Honduras while beneficiaries of IACHR precautionary measures, as reported by the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). On March 5, 2016, the IACHR granted precautionary measures for COPINH, Berta Cáceres’ family and Gustavo Castro Soto, given the risk to their safety.
Berta Cáceres’ death confirms what a 2015 report by Global Witness has shown: Honduras is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for environmental activists. At least 109 environmental activists were murdered between 2010 and 2015. Since the 2009 coup, Honduras has become one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a human rights defender of any kind. Indigenous and Garifuna leaders, LGBTI activists, union leaders, women’s rights activists, human rights activists, justice operators, and journalists reporting on human rights and corruption issues are among those who, like environmental activists, are at risk. The murder of Berta Cáceres sends a devastating message to all Hondurans trying to exercise their rights.
We urge you:
To support an independent international investigation led by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights into Ms. Cáceres’ murder and to urge that the Honduran government invite and fully cooperate with such an investigation. Such an independent investigation is essential given the lack of confidence in the judicial system; reigning impunity, including for cases involving human rights defenders; and the emblematic nature of this case.
To insist that Honduran judicial authorities carry out their duties to effectively and promptly investigate Cáceres’ murder, in cooperation with the international investigation, and following lines of inquiry that take into account the context of Cáceres’ work and situation of risk and pursue the intellectual as well as material authors, guaranteeing due process and access to justice.
To press the Honduran government to comply with the precautionary measures granted by the IACHR on March 5 and provide immediate, effective, and carefully consulted protection to members of COPINH, members of Ms. Cáceres’ family, Mr. Castro and all witnesses in the case.
With this tragic loss, we join together to call for more systemic change. We ask that the State Department make clear to the Honduran government that future partnership and funding depends on demonstrating the political will to investigate and prosecute this crime and all crimes against human rights defenders. The Honduran government must make the mechanism for protection of human rights defenders, journalists, media workers and justice operators fully operational and adequately funded, with protection measures consulted with beneficiaries. It must guarantee freedom of expression, including by ending harsh, constant repression of social protests, ensuring an immediate end to intimidating public statements by government officials and members of the military and police that place human rights defenders and journalists in danger, and ending specious prosecution of human rights defenders.
It is crucial that the Honduran government meet, as the IACHR has said, its “obligation of carrying out the prior, free, and informed consultation of indigenous people regarding projects underway on their land and territories and that affect their natural resources.” We support Senator Patrick Leahy’s call to abandon the Agua Zarca dam project and to protect the territory that Berta devoted her life to defending. The Honduran government should recognize that the pace and process by which it is facilitating the extraction and trade of natural resources by national and international investors is contributing to social conflict and human rights violations.
We ask the U.S. government:
To urge the Honduran government to meet its obligation to ensure prior, free, and informed consent of indigenous communities and to greatly improve transparency regarding existing and proposed concessions of natural resources. This should include making public project information regarding the nearly 50 hydropower concessions granted since the start of 2010.
To ensure that no U.S. assistance and support for multilateral bank projects promote or permit development projects without meeting the obligation for ensuring prior, free and informed consent of indigenous communities, nor without ensuring meaningful consultation of all affected communities and that strong human rights, labor rights and environmental safeguards are in place.
Finally, we urge the State Department to suspend all assistance and training to Honduran security forces, with the exception of investigatory and forensic assistance to the police, so long as the murders of Berta Cáceres and scores of other Honduran activists remain in impunity. In addition, we urge the State Department to implement transparently and fully the conditions in the FY2016 State, Foreign Operations bill which link 50 percent of aid to the central government of Honduras to progress on addressing human rights abuses and corruption.
The U.S. government must stand with those who are putting their lives on the line for the protection of human rights and the environment in Honduras.