BERTA CÁCERES, one of Honduras’ most vocal activists for indigenous people and environmental rights, was assassinated on March 3 in the most terrifying escalation in the targeting of human rights defenders and dissidents in Honduras this year.
An unyielding activist, Cáceres was the leader of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (COPINH), and received international recognition for her work to defend indigenous rights and the environment. She was a prominent opponent of the coup d’état that overthrew the democratically-elected government of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 — a move which led to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordering special protection measures for her immediately after Zelaya’s government fell. And still, for reasons unknown, those measures were not followed by the Honduras government.
Days before the gunmen stormed her home, killing her and wounding her brother, Cáceres accompanied the Rio Blanco Lenca community in opposing the Agua Zarca hydroelectric dam project that threatened indigenous Lenca peoples’ survival. It was a project for which she spent over a decade of her life in fierce opposition.
The dam, projected for construction on Lenca land, was approved without consultation with the indigenous community, a move that both violated international law, and one that would ultimately deprive the community of the right to water, land and livelihood. Then, as she stood in peaceful opposition to the project, she and members of the community were reportedly subject to threats and harassment from local officials and public and private security forces.
Hers was the second murder in COPINH since that of her colleague, Tomás García, who was shot and killed by a Honduran soldier in July 2013 as he peacefully demonstrated against the Agua Zarca dam. A third assassination followed less than two weeks after Cáceres’ with the murder of Nelson García, another member of COPINH.
The Center for Economic Policy and Research (CEPR) in Washington D.C., with whom Cáceres had a strong working relationship, called her assassination a tragic and disturbing development that shows up the vulnerability of everyone in Honduras. Alexander Main, CEPR Senior Associate for International Policy said “the Honduran government repeatedly and consistently failed to protect Berta Cáceres, and instead enabled her persecution and now, her murder.”
The failure of the Honduras government to protect indigenous communities who advocate for protection of their land, or to prosecute perpetrators of violence, is a direct existential threat to the indigenous communities that are endangered by the increased industrialization and exploitation of natural resources.
“The Honduran government repeatedly and consistently failed to protect Berta Cáceres, and instead enabled her persecution and now, her murder.”– Alexander Mains – Center for Economic Policy and Research
At least 116 Honduran environmental activists were murdered in 2014, 40% of whom were indigenous. Political repression, including targeted killings of activists, had increased drastically after the 2009 military coup, as Honduras’ post-coup governments and the U.S. government looked the other way. And as the struggle for environmental protection of indigenous land becomes more critical in Honduras, human rights advocates and leaders are increasingly at risk.
Mark Weisbrot, CEPR Co-Director, notes that Hillary Clinton — then Secretary of State during the 2009 Honduras coup — did her best to help the coup government succeed and legitimate itself. In her book, “Hard Choices,” Clinton describes how she made sure that the democratically-elected president, Manuel Zelaya, would not return to office; and her recently de-classified emails provide more detail of how the U.S. State Department was isolated in the hemisphere in its opposition to restoring the elected government.
One of the recent Democratic debates left Clinton critics and supporters alike dubious about her Central American foreign policy decisions while she was Secretary of State. Critics point to the way in which Clinton and other U.S. executive officers handled the coup, and the subsequent political climate in Honduras, as being typical of the United States’ lackluster responses to Central American civil and political crises.
The United States’ role in fighting Honduran impunity has been heavily criticized by Honduran citizens and United States Congressmen alike. Last summer, after a local journalist revealed that millions of dollars in public funds were diverted from healthcare to the election campaign of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, protestors called for an independent investigation mirroring that of the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity enacted in Guatemala. However, the demands for an independent investigation were ignored.
The Organization of American States instituted a hands-off Support Mission to investigate Hernandez’s campaign financing, but — unlike the Guatemala mission — it would not participate in investigations or prosecutions. Instead, its international team of judges and lawyers merely provide technical support to local investigators and prosecutors who are part of the judiciary, and susceptible to political pressure. The mission was free to make recommendations for reforming Honduras’ broken system, but the Honduran government was also free to ignore them. Critics claim the Mission was merely a façade of respectability and United States support — something organizations hope to avoid in the investigation of Cáceres’ murder.
The assassination of Berta Cáceres, while undoubtedly a tragic loss to the international community, provides an opportunity for effective, remedial action in Honduras. Senator Patrick Leahy, the main proponent behind the Leahy Law that prohibits the U.S from providing assistance to militaries that violate human rights with impunity, highlighted the powerful opportunity before the global community: “Berta represented a larger struggle for justice for all the people of Honduras, and her death can and should be a turning point for that struggle.”
Global organizations have called for an independent, international investigation of the assassination in an effort to eliminate the human cost of advocacy in Central America. According to Alexander Main, “the heartless murder of Berta Cáceres shows once again why an independent commission . . . is needed to investigate terrible crimes. . . . Instead, the U.S. State Department has supported the toothless Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, a body that has no independent investigative and prosecutorial mandate, and is favored by the government of President Hernández in Honduras.”
“All U.S. support for Honduran security forces should also be suspended as long as brave human rights defenders, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Hondurans, members of the LGBT community, and other minorities continue to be killed with impunity.”
– Alexander Main, Center for Economic Policy and Research
As murders of advocates continue to increase in Central America, immediate international action can help decrease the impunity within which governments and political forces act. For their part, two of the major development banks — Netherlands Development Finance Co. and FinnFund — have suspended their funding to the dam project, under the weight of the Cáceres and García killings.
Two hundred and twenty organizations have also signed on to a letter sent to Secretary John Kerry, requesting immediate action, including increased security and protection for members of Cáceres’ family, witnesses of the assassination and members of COPINH’s National Council.
Her murder has also been denounced by numerous organizations, including Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth International, Front Line Defenders, School of the Americas Watch, Honduras’ Platform of the Social and Popular Movement, Honduras’ Coalition Against Impunity, and by members of Congress including Representative Nancy Pelosi.
Yet the assassination of Berta Cáceres’ and Nelson García are not isolated; human rights defenders, indigenous protestors and environmental activists are systematically targeted – with the perpetrators largely unpunished – each year. In the absence of accountability, social justice activism remains a matter of life or death.
• Additional reporting by Jovan Reid and the Center for Economic Policy & Research