Tegucigalpa, Honduras – The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today concluded an onsite visit to Honduras, which took place December 1-5, 2014, for the purpose of monitoring the general human rights situation in the country. The delegation was led by the Chair of the IACHR, Tracy Robinson; the First Vice-Chair, Rose-Marie Belle Antoine; and Commissioners José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Rosa María Ortiz, Paulo Vannuchi, and James Cavallaro. Other members of the delegation included the IACHR Executive Secretary, Emilio Álvarez Icaza; the Assistant Executive Secretary, Elizabeth Abi Mershed; and the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza, as well as specialists from the Executive Secretariat.
The Commission held meetings with State authorities from the three branches of government, civil society organizations, and others who came forward to present information concerning the human rights situation in Honduras. The Commission traveled, without restrictions, to several different regions – including La Ceiba, Tocoa, El Progreso, San Pedro Sula, and Bajo Aguán – and visited care centers for migrant children; Garifuna communities and peasant communities; and several prisons in the country.
The Commission thanks President Juan Orlando Hernández and his government for the invitation to conduct this visit, and appreciates all the logistical support and assistance provided for the visit to be carried out in a satisfactory manner. The Commission recognizes and values the information provided by the government, and its openness to establish a constructive dialogue with the IACHR. The Commission also appreciates the hospitality with which the government and people of Honduras welcomed the delegation.
During its visit, the Commission verified that Honduras has alarming rates of violence, among the highest in the world. In addition to one of the highest homicide rates per capita worldwide, in Honduras there are disappearances, high levels of gender-based violence, and agrarian conflicts that also produce acts of violence, among other serious crimes. These incidents are taking place in a context of extensive impunity, a result of institutional weakness, corruption, and the lack of independence of the judiciary, among other factors. Impunity characterizes both acts of violence and a wide range of human rights violations, such as the illegal occupation of lands that belong to indigenous, rural, and Afro-descendant communities; the violation of labor rights; and acts of discrimination, among others. The lack of investigation and the impunity in which the vast majority of human rights violations remain feed a growing spiral of violence. Besides leaving victims with no access to justice, impunity negatively affects all of Honduran society, which receives the message that violence is inevitable.
Those who seek justice, those who lodge complaints and present information, and those who defend their rights or those of others are often threatened or even killed, and sometimes their family members are also threatened, kidnapped, beaten, or killed. The Commission heard alarming testimony regarding the killings and harassment of human rights defenders, justice sector operators, and journalists, among others. The IACHR urges the State to adopt urgent measures to attack the structural causes of this violence and impunity, and to protect the people from this situation. In this regard, the Commission believes that the authorities should ensure that the bill currently before Congress for the protection of journalists, human rights defenders, and justice operators meets all human rights standards and is urgently approved.
The process to reestablish a democratic institutional framework following the 2009 coup d’état requires a significant and constant effort by all authorities in the country. In the meetings held during the Commission’s visit, the State of Honduras reaffirmed its commitment to create strategies to recover the credibility of institutions in the eyes of society. In this regard, the IACHR welcomes the designation of the National Human Rights Commission, and trusts that the State will provide it with the resources and conditions that enable it to work independently and effectively. The IACHR also welcomes the efforts of the Access to Public Information Institute, and the signing of an agreement with Transparency International to combat corruption and strengthen national institutions toward that end. In addition, the IACHR applauds the government’s decision to invite the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to have a greater presence in the country.
The Commission also notes that one of the central pillars of the State’s response to the serious structural problems of violence, impunity, corruption, and organized crime in the country is the intervention of the Armed Forces in many different spheres and functions. The Army actively participates in citizen security responsibilities through specialized forces such as “military police,” despite international standards indicating that citizen security should be the exclusive jurisdiction of a civilian police force, one that is respectful of human rights. The Honduran Army is also said to have an influence in the investigation and punishment of crimes related to organized crime, through the National Defense and Security Council. This has led to the creation, in point of fact, of a proceeding with characteristics that resemble a special jurisdiction for members of the military police.
The Armed Forces are also involved in matters related to the civic education and training of children at “social risk,” through the “Guardians of the Fatherland” program. The Commission expresses its concern regarding the risks involved in the fact that children and young people between 5 and 23 years of age are being trained at military installations and are using militarized plazas, parks, and soccer fields. The Army also plays a role in the prison system, and is sent to carry out security duties in areas where there are agrarian and land conflicts, such as in Bajo Aguán. In this context, the IACHR expresses concern over the fact that a very broad Secrecy Law on national security matters was approved and is in force. The IACHR believes that the involvement of the Armed Forces in this broad range of State functions presents a risk to the rule of law.
The Commission understands that the State has the duty to adopt effective measures to combat organize crime and safeguard Honduran society from the prevailing atmosphere of violence and impunity. However, a human rights approach must inform every public policy adopted by the State to meet a particular objective, whether it relates to education, citizen security, prison control, conflict resolution over land, or the strengthening of institutions that participate in the administration of justice. The IACHR is concerned about the excessively punitive focus of the criminal justice system, and identifies as a priority the need for it to change. Along these lines, the Commission notes that to ensure an efficient and effective justice system, it is necessary to strengthen safeguards to ensure the independence of judges. The Commission also believes it is essential to strengthen the juvenile justice system, in line with international human rights standards. The Commission deems that the strategy chosen by the State of Honduras to address these concerns raises grave concerns when it is evaluated from a human rights standpoint.
The Inter-American Commission also observed during its visit that Honduras continues to have high levels of poverty and social inequality, with serious consequences of social and economic exclusion and structural discrimination. Poverty and a lack of access to basic nutrition affect large segments of the population, with especially high rates among children, indigenous peoples, and Afro-descendant and rural communities, where there are troubling malnutrition rates. These groups and others, such as women and trans persons, face major obstacles in accessing basic services such as health and education, and are affected disproportionately by the lack of employment or by low-wage employment and serious risks of negative health effects. Miskito deep-sea divers, for example, are victims of such precarious working conditions that they end up with significant physical disabilities, without any type of social security coverage and no longer capable of working and providing a minimal income for themselves and their families. In Bajo Aguán, the IACHR observed that the majority of people not only live in poverty and exclusion, but feel absolutely hopeless, due to the lack of opportunities and lack of access to justice to resolve conflicts related to land disputes. On the Atlantic Coast, inroads made by national, foreign, and multinational private companies in the development of natural resources and the construction of mega-projects without prior consultation with the Garifuna communities that live on these lands and territories have generated a situation of poverty and dispossession in these communities. In assembly plants or maquilas, women workers are subject to labor exploitation. The lack of hope that the situation will get better acts as one of the “push” factors leading many Hondurans to decide to emigrate, faced with the prospect of a life of poverty or extreme poverty, combined with the violence and impunity that prevail.
The IACHR’s preliminary observations on the human rights situation in Honduras are being published today as an Annex to this press release. In addition, using the information it received during this visit and other material, in the coming months the IACHR will prepare a country report on the human rights situation. In that report, the IACHR will offer recommendations designed to support the State in its efforts to comply with its obligations under the American Convention on Human Rights.
Finally, the Commission calls to mind that it is unacceptable for a State to take any type of reprisal or stigmatize anyone because of the participation or actions of individuals or organizations before the bodies of the inter-American human rights system, in exercise of their treaty rights. Article 63 of the IACHR Rules of Procedure establishes that States “shall grant the necessary guarantees to all the persons who attend a hearing or who in the course of a hearing provide information, testimony or evidence of any type,” and that States “may not prosecute the witnesses or experts, or carry out reprisals against them or their family members because of their statements or expert opinions given before the Commission.”
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.
Photos curtesy of IACHR/Daniel Cima.