Francisco Javier, member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), talks about the role of UN mechanisms in combatting the ongoing impunity in investigations into the murder of Berta Cáceres, and emphasises that risks for her colleagues are only increasing.
In response to the ongoing threats against human rights defenders in Honduras, ISHR, along with 169 organizations and 16 academics, recently sent a letter to the Attorney General Office and the Ministry of Human Rights, Justice, Interior and Decentralisation in Honduras calling on them to comply with their international human rights commitments.
You are a human rights defender in Honduras, advocating for environmental and land rights, can you tell us a bit about the human rights work you do?
We speak for indigenous populations about protecting our common goods. We want to protect the forests, river and air, and also our territories. COPINH has built capacity among indigenous populations to help them understand that we are here to take care of the gifts of nature – that we must defend the little that we have, otherwise the nature will become a desert. As human rights defenders we have this obligation and commitment to give support to other communities and indigenous peoples in Honduras and in other countries. For example, we have colleagues in Panama who are suffering the same challenges that we are. We’ve come here to talk about these things, and to fight – not just for today
and tomorrow, but for the generations to come, so that they may also be defenders of natural resources.
What motivated you to become involved in human rights work?
I am only beginning; I started in 2013. COPINH was working with us and helping us to see our shared objective: to defend nature. In each community, you will hear the same concerns: that the rivers and forests – which are life for us – are being destroyed when they come to construct mines, dams, and other deadly projects. In COPINH, we share this information with communities, helping them to understand, so that all indigenous peoples in Honduras can unite.
What challenges or risks do you face as a human rights defender in Honduras?
Because we speak the truth, they want to shut us up. They threaten to kill us because we tell the truth. It is companies and the State that threaten and attack us; they don’t like that we defend Mother Earth. When we denounce what seems wrong or unjust, about when our decisions are not respected, that’s when we face risks. That’s when they could kill us. But they won’t silence us. Even though they killed Berta and other colleagues, we – and anyone else who joins us – raise our voices so that we continue to grow. The spirit of Berta and our other comrades accompany us. Because we are defending life
itself. It may bring more threats, but they won’t silence us. We will continue, and those who remain, and the generations that come, we will teach them to do the same as us – to speak out for our rights.
Do you work a lot with other organisations working to protect human rights defenders – national, regional or international?
Yes, we’re very proud because many organisations have given us support nationally and internationally. We are very happy that we are not alone, that there are people of goodwill who provide such support. When we come to Geneva, we feel at home; we’re looked after.
What is the legislative framework like for human rights defenders in Honduras– are there laws that are applied abusively?
Human rights defenders are prevented from speaking. The laws on free, informed and priorconsultation aren’t being complied with in Honduras. Criminal laws are used against indigenous peoples unjustly to criminalise us, and the judicial system supports the companies, like DESA. Neither our autonomy nor our rights are respected. When we speak the truth, the police and the military are set on us, and sometimes they beat us. We want the military and police to leave our territories. It’s not easy for us to speak out because it makes our lives very challenging. They criminalise members of the indigenous peoples for saying the truth, they even wanted to imprison Berta in 2013. Yet the architects
of Berta’s assassination are at liberty.
What are your international advocacy goals? What do you hope to achieve here?
We hope that the actors within the UN will meet with us and consider all our requests. We want to speak the truth, and we want it to receive the attention it deserves. We want our decisions as indigenous peoples to be respected. We want Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on Indigenous Peoples to be respected. In Honduras, they are not complied with, and so we have to seek international support to pressure the State of Honduras to respect the conventions and our rights. We await the cancellation of the Agua Zarca Project and all the other projects authorised in the Lenca territory without free, prior
and informed consultation. We have to travel to ask leaders and officials to open the door to us and to support us in demanding respect of our rights.
Do you think that this advocacy at the international level can help you in your work? Can it be useful?
Yes, we are very happy because it has helped us a lot. We feel that we are not alone. At the beginning, the Government of Honduras tried to hide the truth about Berta Caceres’s murder, saying that it was a crime of passion, which is a lie. Thanks to international pressure, they had to admit that it was a political crime. But the State of Honduras continues to refuse to allow an independent international Commission to participate in the investigations. The State is keeping the investigations secret. We continue to call
for an independent international Commission so that the powerful persons who ordered the murder of Berta be properly investigated. We hope that the international community will continue to demand it too. We are persecuted in Honduras. The Inter-American Commission of Human Rights granted us Precautionary Measures, but the police and military persecute and threaten us; we cannot trust them.
We hope to continue receiving international support to denounce the threats and killings that we experience and that it extends to all indigenous leaders and social movements that are threatened and attacked.
We want the Agua Zarca Project to leave our Gualcarque River, which is sacred to us. There are international banks that have financed this project, and we ask them to pull out definitively.
Do you have any thoughts on ways to make the UN more accessible and safe? Have the threats and attacks increased as a result of your work within the UN?
It is important that the UN listen to the voices of those of us who are being attacked and killed for defending human rights. We are grateful that the report of the Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples exposes to the world what we suffer. We need to have a secure space because we run risks.
Recently we have been receiving more threats and much persecution, and that’s why we feel unsafe. There is still impunity for Berta’s murder, and there continue to be threats against COPINH members for defending the Gualarque River and Lenca territory. There are people who want to kill us so that we cannot speak the truth. But we will continue to demand our rights, our autonomy as an Indigenous people and our right to free, prior and informed consultation. We hope that the UN will support us.