FRIDAY FILE - Since the coup d’état in Honduras in June 2009, there has been an on-going and worsening situation of systemic violence and assassinations of human rights defenders. This is particularly serious for women human rights defenders (WHRDs).
By Rochelle Jones
Described as “one of the least developed and least secure countries in Central America”, Honduras suffers from huge wealth inequalities, corruption and systemic violence. Since the coup d’état in June 2009 which saw a military-backed ouster of then President Manuel Zelaya Rosales, impunity has been a serious problem, there has been an excessive use of force against civil dissent, and threats and attacks against human rights defenders and journalists.
Large-scale ‘development’ projects violating human rights
At the centre of state priorities in Honduras are so-called ‘Mega Projects’. These include the expansion of mining and other extractive industries and the conversion of peasant and natural lands to monoculture plantations. Resort tourism projects are also supported by the Government, such as “Los Micos Beach and Golf Resort” located in a National Park in Tela bay. Marketed as “The undiscovered Caribbean coast” the project is unwanted by local communities. According to Bertha Cáceres, national coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) "It is a concept of development we do not agree with because it threatens our lives, our rights and our indigenous and black communities." The recently rejected ‘model cities’ projects have also caused a significant amount of controversy and reflect on a government that sadly prioritizes the interests of private enterprise and multinational corporations over the rights of the local population. Mega projects violate a community’s right to consultation, threaten the cultural identity of their peoples and result in forced evictions and multiple forms of violence against its inhabitants. The State of Honduras is demonstrating a systematic policy of silencing the legitimate claims of those who struggle for democracy, freedom of expression, land and natural resources.
Peasant and indigenous communities who speak up for their rights and oppose mega projects and model cities have been confronted daily with the arbitrary use of State security forces in evictions, threats, defamation and assassinations. One example of this is in the Bajo Aguan, a farming area plagued by violent conflicts between agrarian organizations and land owners such as Miguel Facusse, one of Honduras' richest men. Over 60 people linked to peasant organizations in this region have allegedly been murdered over the past four years, including the recent murder of prominent Honduran human rights lawyer Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who had complained about death threats, including in documents filed last year seeking protection from the billionaire landowner Facusse. Trejo was a lawyer for three peasant cooperatives in Bajo Aguan. These recent acts of repression are yet another demonstration of the Honduran State’s policy against community protest. This has been denounced by well-known human rights organizations like Committee of Families of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), the National Network of WHRDs, and the Women’s Movement for Peace “Visitación Padilla”.
Violence against women and WHRDs in particular has increased
Honduras is considered to be one of the world's most dangerous countries, plagued by assassinations of journalists, lawyers and activists, very few of which are ever prosecuted. Since the coup d’état in June 2009, there has been an on-going and worsening situation in Honduras of systemic violence and assassinations of human rights defenders. This is particularly serious for women human rights defenders (WHRDs). Numerous cases of sexual violence have been documented during forced evictions, which are rarely reported for fear of retaliation and because of the rampant impunity in situations of violence against women throughout the country. The violence is more serious against WHRDs who also face public accusations that they are going against the traditional role assigned to women. WHRDs are threatened with death and sexual violence and are criminalized. In October, for example, Karla Zelaya, a journalist of the Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán (MUCA), was kidnapped for some three hours by three men after a month of threats. She was terrorized, threatened, interrogated and even tortured by these unknown men who told her that they knew all her movements and could kill her at any time.
A case study by AWID about post-coup Honduras, part of a publication from the WHRD International Coalition, revealed how repression and denial of rights are not isolated cases, but rather demonstrate a general policy of terror and abuse enacted with impunity – particularly towards women. Since the current President took office, authorities have increased the persecution and threats against feminist and women’s organizations.
Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú Tum organized a delegation to Honduras in January this year which confirmed reports coming from WHRDs and their organizations. In their report: "From Survivors to Defenders: Women confronting violence in Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala" the delegation found that violence against women is reaching crisis dimensions and in the last decade, femicides have risen by alarming rates – as much as 257% in Honduras. The report concurred that indigenous women and WHRDs are particularly vulnerable to attacks, which include rape, torture, murder, and forced disappearances. Alarmingly, more than 95% of crimes go without punishment. Most are never even investigated by authorities. Martha Velazquez, member of the Movimiento de Mujeres in Honduras is quoted in the report as saying “Since the [2009 government] coup we’ve gone back some 40 years in the rights women had gained”.
Women’s rights organizations fighting back
Calling for an end to the repression and violence that has been systematically directed against WHRDs and communities fighting for their rights, several actions have been staged. One of the largest and most recent actions for example, was the 11 October Day in Solidarity with Honduras, organized by the Meso-American Initiative of WHRDs (convened by Just Associates (JASS), Consorcio Oaxaca (Mexico), UDEFEGUA (Guatemala), Colectiva Feminista (El Salvador), Central American Women’s Fund (FCAM), and AWID). One hundred and twenty one human rights defenders, networks and international organizations, as well as activists from ten countries demanded an end to repression and violence in Honduras. At the Honduran embassies in the United Kingdom, Colombia, Mexico, United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Panama, for example, letters were delivered and protest actions occurred. In further acts of defiance, more than 100 people from at least ten organizations in Honduras held demonstrations in front of the Dinant Corporation - owned by Miguel Facusse.
More recently on November 25, which was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, women’s organizations in Honduras, with the support of UN Women, marched in the streets to protest against violent deaths of women. According to the website ‘Say No’ “thousands of women of all ages took to the streets in order to demand that those responsible for the deaths of women be brought to justice.” To the accompaniment of Batucada music, individuals and representatives from organizations marched to Merced square in Tegucigalpa, then on to the National Congress to protest against the violence.
These actions have been described by Karla Lara from The National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders of Honduras (La Red Nacional de Defensoras de DDHH de Honduras) as “one of many actions organized by the people since the coup d'état”. She told AWID that despite actions such as these “The ‘regime’ does not say anything, [it] never makes pronunciations about [the] human rights situation”. When asked how the international community can best help, Lara emphasizes is it important for those outside Honduras to keep up to date with what is happening in Honduras and to highlight the situation globally - particularly denouncing rights violations. She says if this doesn’t happen “people believe what [the] media says, [thinking] everything is fine in the ‘democratic’ Honduras, that there are democratic elections, there is peace, [and] there are just common cases of delinquency, narco-trafficking wars and murders of ‘passion’…”, while in reality “what we have here [in Honduras] and survive is a military, fundamentalist, capitalist, racist, homophobic regime - this is not democracy”.