Congressional Briefing: “The Assassination of Berta Cáceres and Ongoing Killings and Attacks Targeting Social Activists in Honduras”

March 30, 2016

“Berta Cáceres, my mother, is not dead. She multiplied. So it is our job, everyone whose lives she touched in some way, to continue multiplying her. From now on, we are committed to carrying on this work.” -Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, indigenous activist and daughter of Berta Cáceres

Berta Cáceres, co-founder of the Civic Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and recipient of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize, was killed by gunmen in her home on March 3rd. Less than two weeks later, one of Cáceres’ colleagues, a COPINH member named Nelson García, was also assassinated following the violent eviction of a Lenca community at Rio Chiquito.

On Wednesday, March 23, Cáceres’ daughter and a COPINH activist were joined by experts on international law and megaprojects to brief U.S. congressional staff and the general public on the events surrounding Cáceres’ assassination and the efforts of Cáceres’ family members and COPINH to seek justice. The congressional briefing, “The Assassination of Berta Cáceres and Ongoing Killings and Attacks Targeting Social Activists in Honduras” was hosted by Representative Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) and moderated by Timi Gerson, Director of Advocacy with American Jewish World Service.

Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, indigenous activist and daughter of Berta Cáceres, gave an overview of the events leading up to and following her mother’s assassination. Gaspar Sánchez, Member of the General Coordination of COPINH and the Coordinator for LGBTQ Rights, talked about COPINH’s work and what has led to the repression by both state and private security forces. Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director of the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL), talked about the importance of an independent investigation. Annie Bird, a human rights activist and Director of Rights and Ecology who has long worked closely with Cáceres and COPINH, provided context behind the megaprojects that are at the root of many of the security concerns in Honduras.

The event, in its entirety, can be viewed here and below (Zúñiga Cáceres and Sánchez’s remarks are in untranslated Spanish). The following are summaries and excerpts from the panelists’ remarks (Zúñiga Cáceres and Sánchez’s remarks have been translated).

Laura Zúñiga Cáceres, indigenous activist, daughter of Berta Cáceres

Zúñiga Cáceres opened by saying:

My mother fought for the rights of indigenous people, their right to their land, and the defense of their culture. She fought for life because she loved life. That’s the reason — for her life, her history, her legacy — that drives me and drives us to continue this and to live this, despite the pain.

She explained that, between 2013 and 2016, her mother had received 33 threats related to her fight against the DESA company’s Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, none of which were investigated by Honduran authorities. Berta received threats the week before her assassination and urged her children to leave the country for their safety. Zúñiga Cáceres shared:

My mother’s last words to me were that if I heard that something had happened to her, that I shouldn’t be afraid. […] So with all of this, with her bravery, and in spite of everything, in spite of her high profile — she won the Goldman Prize in 2015, she visited the Pope, she was internationally recognized for her work — and even so she was assassinated. This shows that they can assassinate any of us in Honduras.

Due to her work, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had requested precautionary measures for Cáceres since 2009, which the Honduran government only began to partially implement starting in 2013. However, these measures were insufficient, explained Zúñiga Cáceres:

She asked for private security, but they didn’t give it to her because they said it was excessive for her situation. She asked for cameras and they gave her two, but they didn’t even work because when it came time to investigate her assassination, they didn’t record. They gave her police — escorts for when she traveled long distances — and the police were the same that DESA had. […] These were the insufficient, inefficient security measures that the state provided her. And that’s why today I have to be here talking about my mother’s assassination.

Zúñiga Cáceres said that the family has yet to be given access to information regarding the investigation and was denied the right to ask for an expert to be present at the autopsy. She also expressed concern for Gustavo Castro Soto, the only witness to the assassination:

[Gustavo] has been subjected to psychological torture because they left him in the same bloody clothes for 24 hours, they didn’t let him sleep, they haven’t let him return to his country or see anybody, including us. He hasn’t received psychological attention. They even made him travel long distances from my town to the capital several times. So we are worried about the health of the witness. Aside from being a witness, we value his life, because he also fights for life.

Zúñiga Cáceres said that the murder investigation was originally focused on a hypothetical internal conflict within COPINH, ignoring the multiple threats Cáceres had received. The minister of security initially said it was a crime of passion.

So we see the unwillingness the state of Honduras has had in giving us access to and allowing us to participate in the investigation. Because of our distrust, we have asked for a trustworthy independent commission of experts that can investigate and find something out, in order to have some justice in the midst of all of this pain and loss, which is a loss to humanity as well.

The family and COPINH were granted precautionary measures by the IAHCR and personally presented a security plan to the minister of security and minister of governance. Their requests included private security, cameras, a panic button, police escorts for long-distance travel, and an end to the Agua Zarca project, the source of threats against Cáceres, COPINH, and the community. They have yet to receive a response. Likewise, they have not received a response to their request to meet with the president and the attorney general. Additionally, the person making official statements about the case is the chancellor, in charge of foreign affairs, who updates the international community, not the family.

Zúñiga Cáceres closed by stating:

It’s important that it is clear that they are still coming after us, still harassing us, still intimidating us, and that the state of Honduras has done absolutely nothing to protect us, in the same way that they did nothing to protect my mother’s life, who was a caregiver to the world. Today, we have one fewer person protecting life. The world lost Berta Cáceres, and that has to hurt everybody.

Gaspar Sánchez, Member of the General Coordination of COPINH, and the Coordinator for LGBTQ Rights

Sánchez explained that repression of indigenous people and of Honduran social movements has increased since the 2009 coup d’état. In 2010, the Honduran Congress issued concessions for development on rivers, lands for mining, and privatized forests. They did so without a previous free and informed consultation with indigenous communities, violating ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and resulting in illegal and illegitimate acquisitions of land.

COPINH is currently working on 49 of these projects in Lenca territories, Sánchez said, including their fight against the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, which began in 2013 and is an example of “development for companies, not for communities.” COPINH has filed complaints against all of these projects, but the Honduran government has not followed-up on the cases nor given a response. Their work has resulted in death threats against Cáceres and other community leaders.

Additionally, Sánchez said the Lenca communities face increased militarization, with police and military forces protecting the interests of companies, not the community, even resulting in deaths. “The state of Honduras lacks the political will to help us or to pay attention to our demands as an organization. Instead, they criminalize us.”

Sánchez explained:

In Honduras, to assassinate or to kill someone, especially if [the killer] is a soldier or police officer, for them it’s a privilege. For soldiers who assassinate human rights defenders, it’s a privilege, they don’t even punish them. That’s another reason why we are here today, so that all of you that live here know that the U.S. also gives a lot of financial support to Honduras for security and strengthening the military. In other words, all the money that has been given for that, there in Honduras it’s converted into repression, it’s converted into assassinations.

Viviana Krsticevic, Executive Director, CEJIL

Krsticevic explained that violence and impunity are the norm in Honduras. The threats against Cáceres provided ample warning, and the family and COPINH did what they could, but the local authorities did not protect her. “We don’t want it to be business as usual. We want the deaths of environmental human rights defenders and indigenous leaders to stop here,” she said.

The investigation has been very problematic, Krsticevic said: The crime scene was not secured, there is concern over how Cáceres’ body was moved, the sole witness has been harassed, the lawyer and the family have not had access to the investigation as guaranteed under Honduran law, they didn’t allow a forensic doctor to be present at the autopsy, and they are investigating the assassination as an internal fight within COPINH despite the many documented threats.

“Given the broader context of impunity and the specific problems that are happening with the case of Berta, we think we need something different in order to secure truth and justice and the protection of the family members of Berta and others in COPINH,” Krsticevic said. She explained that several ideas have been floated, including the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, which is backed by the OAS) or the new Honduran office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, but these “do not have the powers that are needed to pursue a thorough investigation. They cannot actively participate within the criminal process.”

Instead, she continued:

We are asking, and the family members are asking, for a group of experts to be involved and actively participate in the investigation of Berta’s murder. We are thinking of and proposing a group that is similar to what the Mexican government and the family members of the students that disappeared in Ayotzinapa asked from the IAHCR. […] We want something similar for Honduras: a group of international experts that have the credibility, the expertise that is necessary to pursue a reasonable, thorough investigation. What we want is nothing but the truth and nothing but justice.

Annie Bird, Director, Rights and Ecology

Bird explained that, in the 1990s, COPINH worked to successfully pressure the Honduran government to ratify ILO Convention 169 (the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention). But, at the same time, “the international community, the multilateral development banks and USAID, and other development policymakers were advancing changes in land administration policy, which fundamentally undercut any ability to defend the land rights and the rights that were enshrined in ILO 169.”

Bird said that in the early 1990s the system of ejidos — the traditional communal system of land tenure — was changed, giving power to municipal governments to create private land titles and resulting in extreme conflict and many indigenous communities losing land due to theft and the laundering of land titles. This is the case of the land surrounding the Agua Zarca dam: The municipal government extended land titles to people who did not have a right to that land.

For example, when Berta was accused of land usurpation, because of these illegal land titles that had been extended by the municipal government, at the same time COPINH denounced those property owners as having illegally usurped the land. But COPINH’s denouncements were not investigated, whereas there was a forceful criminalization of the land rights defenders.

These changes in the land system, Bird said, coupled with corruption and lack of access to justice have resulted in conflict and violence. This has been further aggravated by massive concessions of hydroelectric and mineral rights and the use of paramilitaries and the military to enforce control of land.

Bird emphasized the need to reexamine land policies that have fueled violence and led to the assassinations of Cáceres, Nelson García, and others, as well as multilateral development banks that fund companies that use paramilitaries to control their land. “This is not in the mandate of these banks; the mandate is to end poverty. But instead it’s fueling violence and fueling poverty.”

Timi Gerson, Director of Advocacy, American Jewish World Service

Gerson summarized the panelists’ concerns and demands:

I think what’s really obvious from all of the presenters is that the Honduran government has shown neither the willingness nor [the] capacity to bring justice, in these cases or in general. And there really are four demands that I want people here to walk away [with]. I think it’s clear that they’re not listening to the voices of indigenous communities in Honduras; they’re certainly not listening to the family of Berta Cáceres, and that’s why we need to add our voices and the voice of the U.S. government to make the Honduran government listen. So really there are four key demands.

One is that there is an independent investigation based on the Mexican model, with the Inter-American Commission hopefully playing a key role as really the only international organization that has the capacity, the expertise, and the mandate to do so. In addition to that is the access of the family to propose these independent experts and to have the access that they should have under Honduran law.

There is the question of protection, that we need to fully fund. The Honduran government needs to fully fund the security plan for the family and the witness, allowing Gustavo to leave, to go back to Mexico. His life is in danger in Honduras right now. He has done his duty in giving his statement and he should be allowed to leave.

Obviously there are questions also of U.S. policy and U.S. aid. The U.S does give security and military aid to Honduras and I think that needs to be questioned, and my organization believes it needs to be suspended, as do about 250 other organizations that signed the letter on this that many of you have seen. In light of these recent human rights abuses I think that there also should be a full review of all bilateral aid to Honduras to see: Is it really responding to the needs or is it, as Annie said, promoting some of these policies that are leading to these deaths?

And the last [demand] really is related to that, which is we really do need to do our part in the U.S. to ensure that we are not funding these projects or supporting them in any way, both in our context as the U.S. government as an aid donor, but also in the multilateral context.

Question and answer session

Even if there is third party pressure, what are the chances of the Honduran government allowing access to the investigation?

Zúñiga Cáceres said that the Honduran government should allow access, but they will need to be pressured because there’s currently no political will to do so.

Krsticevic expressed that political will is constructed over time and they are still hopeful that the Honduran government will do the right thing. She noted that the Mexican government agreed to the group of independent experts and designated over a million dollars to fund the investigation. She stressed again the necessity of an independent investigation in Honduras.

Bird said that the Honduran government has shown no political will to investigate the assassinations of other land rights activists or to reform the justice system. She emphasized the responsibility of the international community to pressure the Honduran government to reform its justice system:

We cannot continue to separate development from justice. There will never be development; there will never be an end to poverty when the justice systems do not work. Any land tenancy reform or administration process that we’re promoting will be fundamentally flawed if the justice system is not functional. And so it’s absolutely important that the Honduran government — and not just the government, but the business community here — that [if] they do not allow the international community to help them fix what is the most broken system in the continent, then they cannot continue to receive international investment. That’s the message that needs to be heard.

What can the international community, specifically the U.S., do to try to correct the issues with Honduran security forces?

Zúñiga Cáceres said that the first step is to clean up the corrupt security forces, though this is further complicated by the fact that the state is also corrupt. She said that the police and military should leave the indigenous territories, where they are doing more harm than good:

We take care of ourselves. We respect our rights and we have a worldview relating to justice. And what they’re doing now, by positioning themselves within our territories, is attacking us. That’s why we don’t want the police and soldiers to come [to our territory]. They are the ones affecting us. We, as an indigenous community, have our ways of ensuring justice and security within our territories. We don’t need outsiders coming in, as they have always done, to tell us how to do things.

She continued that the police and soldiers are also a threat to women in the community:

As women, the police are a danger to us. I’m not saying this because they told me about it, I am telling you because I am a woman and I live in Honduras. We experience harassment walking down the street, by the police themselves. […] We are afraid of the police and soldiers.

She argued that what would help would be to cut off U.S. aid to security forces, which she characterized as “a lack of respect” by the U.S. by funding human rights violations.

Sánchez added:

One of the things that we also think is important is for the international community to demand that the [Honduran] government punish the people responsible for the assassinations, especially the police and soldiers that have assassinated environmental human rights defenders. Because they aren’t being punished, they’re free and they haven’t been imprisoned or prosecuted.

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