The 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres, a prominent Honduran environmentalist, an exceptional working woman, leader of the Lenca Indigenous community and defender of human rights and peasant movements, has shocked the world.
Berta’s death has left us with a bitter taste of defenselessness and deep concern. Her murder occurred despite precautionary security measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, in response to regular threats on her life since 2009.
The Honduran State was given ample warning regarding the need to protect Berta. On Oct. 21, 2015, the IACHR drew special attention to Berta’s case and the shortcomings in the implementation of protection measures in her favor. This notice was then followed by a letter sent to the Honduran government on Dec. 8, 2015, requesting further information on the protection and investigation measures to be adopted in her case.
The extensive national and international public recognition she achieved in winning the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize after over 20 years working side by side with communities as the co-founder and coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras was not enough to stop the interests that saw her as nothing but an obstacle to be removed from their path to profit. Her murder fills us once again with anger, also because this atrocity took place just a week after she had publicly denounced the murder of four leaders and death threats against many Lenca people.
She was killed soon after the killings of Duron Moses Sanchez, William James Rodriguez, Maycol Rodriguez and Tomas Garcia, all comrades who opposed the Agua Zarca dam.
The context in which Berta lived was extremely violent. After the 2009 coup d’etat against the democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya, the homicide rate in Honduras, already among the highest in the world, increased by 50 percent. The current situation of weak security and weak public institutions has made this Central American country one of the most dangerous in the world for human rights and environmental activists.
Since 2009, Honduras has deepened its neoliberal extractivist policies, resulting in an acceleration of the exploitation of natural resources. There is an ongoing process of dispossession of Indigenous peoples and peasants from the land to make room for a proliferation of large estates of agribusiness and monocultures, massive mining concession grants and energy projects. In fact, currently 30 percent of the Honduran national territory has been allocated to mining concessions that need high volumes of electricity and water.
The implementation of this model has been accompanied by growing political violence against the social opposition represented by Indigenous people and Afro-descendants, peasant and human rights organizations, journalists, artists and social movement activists in general.
Berta said it well: “This is all part of what they’ve done to create a climate of fear. Here, there’s a policy of the state to instill terror and political persecution. This is to punish the Honduran people so that people don’t opt for the other way and look for changes to the political, economic situation and militarization.”
Unfortunately, the situation in Honduras is being repeated in many other parts of Latin America and the world, and Berta’s murder is not an isolated case. Indeed, according to the report by Global Witness, in 2014, at least 116 environmental defenders were killed — the most in Brazil, 29; followed by Colombia, 25; the Philippines, 15; and Honduras, 12.
This situation not only violates the basic rights of each of these human beings, but also disrupts the fundamental role that these leaders play in society, which is essential for building strong democracies and strengthening the rule of law.
In this context, it is urgent to reiterate the need to strengthen the currently weakened Inter-American Human Rights System, conformed by a set of international instruments adopted by the Organization of American States, which is the basis of the regional human rights protection system. Countless are the achievements of the Inter-American System, however there are critical challenges that must be overcome in order to be more effective on ensuring respect for human rights.
The absence of suitable judicial and political mechanisms to follow up and to enforce its own decisions on a state level providing effective access to justice has been pointed out by experts as the main challenge of the system.
In this vein, reforms on the national level, as well as within the OAS are still pending while the debate about them has been held up because of lack of political will, mistrust, and government’s perception of the Inter-American System as an obstacle that keeps them from achieving their goals instead of perceiving it as a tool for justice and empowerment.
At another level, there is also a need to create and implement specific policies and regional strategies for the protection of human rights addressing private institutions that play a role in international development.
During more than 20 years of work, Berta Cáceres committed her life to the protection of her habitat, struggling for justice and the well-being of humanity. May her bravery encourage us to overcome fear and despair, and follow her path of dignity and respect for Mother Earth.
Andrea Reyes Blanco (@anreblan) is a Humphrey Fellow at Cornell University.