Written by MARK RIFKIN
Published: 29 November -0001
The following letter was sent by NAISA Council to President Hernández of Honduras in response to the assassination of Berta Cáceres:
President Juan Orlando Hernández
Casa Presidencial Bulevar Juan Pablo II
FAX: 504 2221 4570
March 10, 2016
As the Council of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA), the world’s largest professional association for scholars dedicated to research and knowledge production for and by Indigenous peoples, we write to express our outrage at the assassination of Lenca environmental and Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres. We call on the government of Honduras to carry out a transparent and effective investigation into this crime and bring to justice the persons and entities responsible for killing Ms. Cáceres. We also call for immediate steps to protect other environmental and Indigenous rights activists in Honduras, and to ensure the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples to any government concessions on their lands.
The targeting and killing of Indigenous activists is deplorable in any situation. It is particularly notable in this case, as the work of Ms. Cáceres was highly valued in the international community, as well as in Honduras. Ms. Cáceres’ murder is a high-profile case, but we are aware that hundreds of other Indigenous activists have been subject to murder, violence and intimidation because they are defending their rights in Honduras. Since the 2009 coup, following which the regime of Roberto Micheletti passed legislation facilitating development concessions that affected 30% of the land in the country, more than 100 environmental activists have been killed. Indeed, Honduras has been declared the world’s deadliest country for environmental activists.
The development concessions were made by the Honduran government without consulting the Indigenous communities affected, a violation of Honduras’ commitments under international treaties governing Indigenous peoples’ rights. Ms. Cáceres and the organization she co-founded in 1993, COPINH (Civic Council of Popular Indigenous Organizations of Honduras), mobilized grassroots resistance to the development mega projects, which endangered the lives and livelihoods of the Lenca and other Indigenous groups.
Ms. Cáceres has long been threatened for her organizing work, but she continued to speak out and protest the violations of Indigenous peoples’ rights. In recognition of her bravery and her commitment to environmental justice, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Award in 2015. Because the threats to Cáceres’ life were so serious, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights granted amplified
precautionary measures for her, specifically in response to reports that military forces of the Honduran government had been surrounding her home. This obligated the government of Honduras to protect Ms. Cáceres life and well-being. Although it knew of these precautionary measures, the Honduran government did not protect Ms. Cáceres from ongoing threats on her life. In recent weeks, the threats had escalated. On February 20, 2016, Ms. Cáceres, COPINH, and the community of Rio Blanco faced threats and violent repression as they carried out a peaceful action to protect the River Gualcarque against the construction of a hydroelectric dam by the internationally-financed Honduran company DESA. On March 3, she was murdered by gunmen in her home.
Given the dramatic and clear context of threats to her life by military and paramilitary forces, we find the premature suggestion by Honduras’ government that her death was the result of a botched robbery or a crime of passion non-credible and unacceptable. Statements by the only eyewitness to the crime have already made public that police altered the crime scene, which suggests that the real facts of the case are not their main concern. A thorough, transparent, and effective investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres must be conducted and the responsible parties brought to justice for this crime.
We hold the government of Honduras responsible for ensuring the safety of witnesses to this crime. In particular, we will be following closely the treatment of Mr. Gustavo Castro Soto of Otros Mundos Chiapas and Friends of the Earth-Mexico, a Mexican citizen who was shot and left for dead in the attack. Mr. Castro has been prohibited from leaving the country despite having already given sworn testimony as to the events he witnessed. He should be allowed to leave Honduras and return safely to Mexico immediately.
On March 6, 2016, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights issued precautionary measures for Gustavo Castro, all members of Berta Cáceres family, and all members of COPINH because the Commission believes that they are in imminent danger. We hold the Honduran government responsible for ensuring the safety of Cáceres’ family members and of her organization.
Finally, we call on the government of Honduras to respect international law on the rights of Indigenous people by engaging in real and effective consultation with Indigenous peoples affected by mega-development projects in Honduras. Failure to do so will necessitate on-going and justified Indigenous protests, and such failure also generates the potential for more deplorable violence such as that suffered by Berta Cáceres.
As scholars dedicated to the rights of Indigenous peoples, we will continue to watch the situation in Honduras with concern for the outcome of the investigation, the health and safety of the witnesses, and the rights of Indigenous peoples struggling to maintain their lives and livelihoods free of violence and intimidation.