Defending Defenders: Advocating for the Duty to Protect Human Rights and Environmental Defenders

By Gregory Berry, Legal Intern
By Gregory Berry, Legal Intern

One month has passed since the assassination of Berta Cáceres. Over the course of that month, the Honduran Government has engaged in a questionable and clandestine investigation into the tragedy, diverting attention away from those with the most likely motive to kill an advocate for indigenous land rights and who sent her death threats, and instead focusing on her own compatriots and the surviving witness to her assassination, Gustavo Castro Soto, a fellow activist, friend of Berta.

On March 3, 2016, John Knox, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, presented an implementation report on human rights obligations relating to the environment to the UN Human Rights Council. The report specifically emphasized a “recurring theme” that human rights defenders, working on the front lines of environmental protection are most at risk of threats, violence, and murder. The report referenced a 2015 report by Global Witness, How Many More?, which found Honduras to be the most dangerous place in the world for environmental human rights defenders.

The very same day that John Knox delivered his findings to the Human Rights Council, in the early hours of March 3, 2016, Berta Cáceres, an outspoken indigenous coordinator of Lenca communities and founder of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, or COPINH), was assassinated in her home in La Esperanza, Intibucá, Honduras. Berta was a 2015 recipient of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. Her advocacy was heralded because, as the Goldman prize committee explained, “In a country with growing socioeconomic inequality and human rights violations, Berta Cáceres rallied the indigenous Lenca people of Honduras and waged a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.”

One day before her death, Berta urged her daughter, Laura Zuniga Cáceres, to leave Honduras temporarily for her own security. She assured Laura that if anything were to happen to her mother, she should not be afraid. Laura, articulate, confident and passionate, spoke at a recent Congressional hearing to explain the tumultuous political situation in Honduras that led to the murder of her mother, and the Honduran Government’s insufficient investigation into the matter.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted Berta Cáceres “precautionary measures” in June of 2009, to protect her from intimidation from military forces that had taken to surrounding her house because of her involvement with COPINH. Precautionary measures are a frequently used mechanisms in international law to prevent irreparable harm to persons, in concurrence with Article 3 (the right to life, liberty and the security of person), Article 19 (the right to freedom of opinion), and Article 20 (the right to freedom of association) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

But Berta’s precautionary measures were never fully implemented by the Honduran police forces assigned to protect her. Laura accounted that police guards vocalized that they did not care about Berta’s human rights, and often would not accompany her to high-risk public areas, as required by the precautionary measures. After Berta’s assassination, Honduran police investigators narrowly and wrongly investigated those within COPINH, the organization she co-founded. This, despite the fact that Berta received frequent and explicit death threats from identified proponents of the Agua Zarca dam project.

The only witness to Berta’s murder was Gustavo Castro Soto, a Mexican activist and founder of the human rights organization Otros Mundos Chiapas. Despite fully cooperating with the investigation, Gustavo was prevented from returning to Mexico and spent a tense month sheltered at the Mexican Embassy for his safety. After a month of detention, Gustavo has finally been allowed to return to Mexico on Friday. CIEL is relieved that he made it home safely.

But where has this left the investigation into Berta’s assassins?

It appears that the Honduran Government – like its absent political will to respect the land rights of the indigenous Lenca people – does not have the political will to impartially and thoroughly investigate the murder of Berta Cáceres, who dedicated her life to indigenous land rights. These rights are protected by ILO 169 and UNDRIP, which require free, prior and informed consent of indigenous people when indigenous land will be impacted by development.

Does the US Government have the political will to denounce the Honduran Government’s illegal privatization of indigenous land? Do development banks have the political will to suspend investments in Honduras until there is a marked change away from human rights abuses that propagate from such development projects? The Honduran government’s aggressive and reckless prioritization of financial investment and corporate profit is a real and constant threat to the life and physical integrity of environmental and human rights defenders.

The danger to human rights and environmental defenders extends beyond Honduras, and the death of Berta has catalyzed a global movement to stop the violence. CIEL works to protect defenders and build the legal tools to be able to know and exercise their rights. In Latin America and the Caribbean, we are working on the creation of a legally binding instrument to protect the access to rights enshrined in Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development. The three fundamental “access rights” set out in Principle 10 are: access to information, access to public participation, and access to justice.

Just last week, the Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that requires States to protect defenders of economic, social and cultural rights. In an Op-Ed to the Guardian, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called not only on the State of Honduras to break the cycle of violence and impunity, but also international financers of development projects that also have human rights duties. In response to intense the international outcry after Berta’s death, two of the development backs funding the Agua Zarca dam project that Berta gave her life to halt – Finnfund and FMO – announced that they would suspend all activities in Honduras.

Civil society and activist communities continue to grieve the death of Berta Cáceres. But her fearless advocacy should inspire us all to continue to support and demand protection for those that persist in her footsteps. Berta didn’t die – SHE MULTIPLIED.

Berta Cáceres Presente.


Take action: Echo the demands of Berta’s family and COPINH by calling on Honduran authorities to undertake an investigation with international independent experts.