A new report from the human rights NGO Global Witness outlines the role of US foreign policy and commercial investment in widespread and systematic abuses of human rights in Honduras. The report, entitled Honduras: The Deadliest Place to Defend the Planet, is the result of two years of on-the-ground research by the team at Global Witness. It documents the threats, intimidation, criminalization, and murder faced by environmental and land rights activists in Honduras. In the wake of its publication, Global Witness staff and the Hondurans who have publicly supported the report have been targeted with defamation campaigns and threats from leaders of Honduran government and industry.
Global Witness launched the report with two events in Honduras in January, organizing a press conference in Tegucigalpa that was attended by representatives from a broad swath of national and international organizations, including several local Witness for Peace partners and other members of Honduran civil society, representatives from the US and EU embassies, the United Nations, the OAS’ anti-corruption initiative MACCIH, and members of the national and international press. Berta Zúñiga Cáceres, the daughter of Berta Cáceres, represented the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), on the panel.
There was also a second event in San Pedro Sula that was hosted by Witness for Peace partners The Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice (or MADJ for their Spanish initials). MADJ and COPINH were among a number of WfP partners to publicly support the report, along with Radio Progreso/The Reflection, Investigation, and Communication Team (ERIC), The Committee for the Families of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), the Center for Women’s Rights (CDR), and independent journalist Dina Meza. The Garífuna organization OFRANEH, whose tireless work defending an ancestral community against a mega tourism project in Barra Vieja goes unmentioned in the section of the report addressing that situation, was noticeably absent from those events.
“US Aiding and Abetting”
Global Witness identifies a variety of areas in which United States policies in Honduras contribute directly to human rights abuses. Generally, the report sees “aiding and abetting” from the United States in terms of: a) development aid to the Honduran government, especially via the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, b) military and police aid, c) financial support for International Financial Institutions (IFIs) that are complicit in human rights abuses, and d) encouragement given to North American investment in the same extractive projects that have been tied to widespread and systematic human rights abuses against their opponents, including land, water, and environmental defenders and grassroots human rights organizations.
The report’s policy recommendations, while mostly aimed at Honduran authorities, also include some for the US government, foreign governments generally, and international investors and financial institutions. Among the recommendations is a call for the US Congress to pass the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, calling for complete divestment of US military aid from Honduras. Witness for Peace has campaigned with Honduran grassroots partners and other solidarity organizations in the US and Canada since the bill’s introduction last year.
The United States is the biggest foreign aid donor to the Honduran government, with planned aid of $250 million in 2017. Much of the report’s criticism stems from the decision taken by the State Department in September 2016 to certify that the Honduran government has taken “effective steps” to address impunity, corruption, and human rights abuses. The appropriations law regarding funding for the Alliance for Prosperity mandates that half of the aid earmarked for Honduras under the Alliance for Prosperity is tied to this certification. (Outside the scope of Global Witness’s recommendations, but nevertheless important, is that a further 25 percent of aid is tied to certification that the Honduran government is taking steps to prevent the flow of migration to the United States and repatriate deportees.) According to Global Witness, “Incredibly, after a year in which 14 land and environmental activists were killed and numerous others threatened, the US State Department still approved the disbursement of funds.”
The law as written allows the State Department an incredible amount of leeway in determining whether Honduras is complying with its obligations. A number of vague clauses allow for certification even in the face of such obvious disregard for human rights and human rights defenders. As a representative example, the law requires the State Department to certify that the Honduran government is “taking effective steps to protect the right of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference.” Global Witness is absolutely correct that the Government of Honduras has done very little in the way of actually protecting those rights, but the State Department needs only verify that they’re “taking effective steps,” which doesn’t require tangible results.
Among the Global Witness recommendations to address this problem are the following:
- Given that Honduras has clearly not taken effective steps to meet aid conditions pertaining to the right of human rights defenders and civil society activists to operate without interference, 50 per cent of funds appropriated for the central government of Honduras should be withheld.
- The State Department must establish effective criteria through which to measure compliance with aid conditions pertaining to civil society space in Honduras. Criteria should be developed and assessed together with local human rights defenders and should include: an increase in prosecutions of the intellectual authors of attacks against defenders, effective implementation of IACHR precautionary measures, and a marked decrease in the killings of local activists.
- Congress should use the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2017 to add an additional condition on aid, requiring that Honduras take effective steps to guarantee the free and informed consultation of all communities – and consent of indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities – prior to the granting of concessions for development projects.
Witness for Peace certainly agrees with the spirit of these recommendations, but, based upon previous experience, we have doubts about the efficacy of adding yet another “take effective steps” clause as a meaningful remedy to the problem with certification. We do fully agree with the recommendations for concrete, measurable criteria listed in the recommendation to the State Department, but believe those recommendations are better directed to Congress. It’s our position that the principal issues with State Department certification stem from the vaguely written law. Adding concrete and measurable outcomes to the law, rather than tenuous demands about “effective steps,” would rightly prevent certification in the face of wanton abuses. Rather than addressing the questions of whether the Honduran government is taking steps, or whether those steps are effective, we believe it’s better to raise the burden of proof by clarifying specific objectives the Honduran government must achieve. The objectives outlined in Global Witness’s second recommendation listed above would be a good start.
Regarding the first recommendation, in fact, Alliance for Prosperity aid is automatically reduced by 50% until certification. So, this makes the process of certification all the more important, and demonstrates the importance of a more strictly defined set of criteria in the appropriations law itself.
Military and Police Aid
As the Global Witness report notes, “In 2016, the Honduran military and police received US $18 million in US aid, in spite of their abuses against activists.” It also references the revelation in June that Berta Cáceres was on a military hitlist, and points out that two of the eight arrested for her murder had direct ties to Honduran security forces. The continued murder, harassment, and criminalization of resistance that have occurred in the last twelve months, show a Honduran government that has, with US backing, continued to use violent state power to repress movements like Berta’s. Moreover, the Honduran armed forces have continued to brutalize Indigenous Lenca communities in the name of an exploitative model of extractive industry.
The report goes on to say, “In response to military and police abuses, the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act has been tabled in the US Congress, calling for the suspension of US security aid to Honduras until abuses by security forces cease and perpetrators are brought to justice. The law, if passed, could represent a milestone in conditions on US aid that could force countries to clean up their act.”
While the bill’s reintroduction into the current Congress is still pending, Witness for Peace remains optimistic that it will be reintroduced soon, and we will continue to campaign for co-sponsors and the bill’s eventual passage. We commend Global Witness for identifying the Act as a key component of the necessary changes to US policy in Honduras.
The Global Witness report emphasizes a critical issue when it comes to US investment in Honduras – besides direct State Department aid, the US invests in Honduras indirectly through encouraging investment from private US entities and in funding International Financial Institutions (IFIs). The amount of funding given to IFIs is deliberately obscure – Witness for Peace joins Global Witness in calling for greater transparency, which is of particular urgency given that IFIs have been found to be complicit in some of the human rights abuses committed against land rights defenders in Honduras.
Moreover, the United States government should hold both IFIs to which it is a contributor and private US capital to the same human rights standards as it holds itself. And those standards, as discussed above, must improve.
We echo both of Global Witness’s recommendations on this topic:
- The US should use its leverage over IFIs to ensure that they are not complicit in funding industries causing attacks against defenders.
- The US embassy in Honduras should desist from promoting US investment in those industries associated with human rights abuses, until the rights of local communities are protected.
Regarding the first recommendation, we specifically believe that, whether the entity in question is Honduran security forces or an IFI, the United States should absolutely not provide funds to anyone who is contributing to the horrific human rights situation in Honduras. This is in addition to our wholehearted agreement with Global Witness that the US should use its substantial political muscle to ensure that IFIs in which it invests are compliant with human rights standards in the first place.
The United States should also insist that all US-based private companies working in Honduras abide by Global Witness’s recommendations for investors and business:
- All companies and investors should refrain from doing business in the mining, hydroelectric, logging, agribusiness and tourism industries until the rights of local communities are protected, activists are safe to participate in decisions regarding their natural resources, and perpetrators of abuses are held to account.
- All companies and investors should abide by the UN guiding principles on business and human rights, refrain from interfering in the work of land and environmental defenders, and contribute to creating a safe and enabling environment for their work.
- All companies and investors should guarantee the informed participation of local communities and human rights defenders in decision-making, including on environmental and human rights impact assessments.
- No phase of any development project should be implemented without the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) of any potentially affected indigenous or Afro-Honduran community. Where claims of lack of FPIC are alleged, projects should be suspended immediately until FPIC is obtained.
- Wherever a human rights defender is threatened or attacked, having raised concerns regarding a business project, all companies and investors associated with the project should condemn the threat and the project should be suspended until the activist’s safety has been guaranteed.
Witness for Peace applauds the Global Witness report and the work it has done to unravel the intentionally convoluted sources of US funding and aid. We have reservations about the effectiveness of some of the report’s recommendations, and we echo our partners’ calls for the Berta Cáceres Act and the immediate suspension of all US security aid to Honduras.
-Witness for Peace