The murder of Berta Caceres, coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras
- COPINH), which occurred on March 3; has not only caused concern and outrage among human rights defenders around the world, it has also led to expressions of protest from various governments and international organisations. These include European member states and the European Parliament; who, since the time of Berta’s murder, have continuously called for justice and for the Honduran government to assume its responsibility in the investigation of this serious transgression against those who defend human rights and freedoms. What happened to Berta Cáceres, confirms the danger and risk faced by human rights defenders in this Central American country, which has been identified by the British NGO Global Witness
in its most recent report (April 2015) as one of the most dangerous countries in the region for environmental and land activists, with more than 116 murders recorded in 2014 alone, linked to land conflicts in the country.
The implications of this crime have also opened up a debate about the responsibility of states as duty bound to prevent this kind of political violence, guaranteeing life and support for the work of those who defend the rights of individuals and peoples, which are affected by foreign investments exploiting natural resources in developing countries. In the case of Honduras, environmental, indigenous and human rights organisations have reported on the illegal and illegitimate concession of approximately 30% of the national territory to 840 hydroelectric, mining, forestry and agribusiness projects. In the territory of the Lenca people alone, COPINH has reported the existence of 34 illegal concessions; and affirms the outbreak of further conflicts that could continue to claim the lives of other defenders from their organisation and those who represent indigenous and afro-Honduran peoples in the country.
All nations have the responsibility of complying with the commitments and legal instruments that they themselves have ratified for the respect of human rights, especially those linked to prioritising life, culture and the right to the self-determination of indigenous peoples. These must be respected above and beyond any financial obligations incurred under trade agreements or investment concessions for the exploitation of natural resources. This primary right is clearly defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ILO Convention 169, which guarantees indigenous peoples and communities free, prior, and informed consultation before decisions can be made about any development projects involving the use of their territories and community assets. This responsibility not only refers to those states that are recipients of transnational investments, but also to countries and governments that promote capital investment in other territories.
For all the above reasons, a number of questions related to the implications of the Association Agreement (AA) signed between the six Central American countries and the European Union in June 2012 will be placed on the discussion table during the summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA), to be held in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The EU-Central America Association Agreement is composed of a contractual, stable and long-term legal framework covering three pillars: trade, political dialogue and cooperation. However, to date, only the cooperation and trade pillars are in force, the latter focused on fostering regional integration, reducing barriers to trade between regions (free trade) and strengthening Central American competitiveness and the capacity to attract European investments. Meanwhile, the pillar on political dialogue which regulates bilateral, regional and global issues of common concern including governance, democracy and human rights, gender equality, conflict prevention, the fight against corruption, sustainable development and climate change, is still pending ratification by the parliaments of the different European Union member states.
The pillar on political dialogue and the regulations that this would impose on European investment in Central America, by ensuring that investment adheres to respect for human rights and legality, specifically in the case of renewable energy investment projects, could have meant the difference between life and death for human rights defender Berta Cáceres. The Agua Zarca hydroelectric project is currently funded by the Honduran company Desarrollos Energéticos S.A. (DESA), as well as with $15 million from the Netherlands Development Bank (FMO), $5 million from the Finn Fund Bank from Finland and $24.4 million from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI). In line with provisions of the human rights clause in the Association Agreement’s pillar of political dialogue, funders should be taking the necessary steps to cease participation in this investment and prevent the revival of conflict in the area, considering that COPINH and Berta Caceres constantly reported the violation of Convention 169, as well as harassment and death threats from DESA. European investors should take seriously the issues that led to the withdrawal of the first financial entities from the hydroelectric project; the Chinese company Sinohydro terminated its contract with DESA citing the resistance of the indigenous community and later, the World Bank did the same, due to concerns about human rights violations related to the project.
Time and again in different community assemblies, the indigenous population in the area has rejected the privatisation of the Gualcarque River, which led to a conflict scenario, the judicial persecution of Berta Caceres and violent attacks by the Honduran Army and National Police, whom the State of Honduras entrusted with the protection of the hydroelectric plant. Conflicts with DESA and Sinohydro, in June 2013, claimed the lives of Tomás García, an indigenous leader, who was killed by gunshot fired by a member of the Honduran army during a peaceful COPINH protest in the community of Río Blanco, which caused the closure of the first phase of project financing.
Berta Caceres’ example of struggle, peaceful resistance and commitment to the defence of human rights, including the rights of the Lenca indigenous people against the Agua Zarca dam, led her to be awarded the Goldman Prize (the Environmental Nobel) in 2015, the highest recognition in the world that an environmental advocate can receive; this represented massive support for the struggle against the privatisation of the Gualcarque river. However, this international call to protect the river was not sufficient evidence for European investors to take the decision to cancel their participation in the project, which could have prevented the crime against Berta Caceres and against Nelson García, who was murdered a few days after the indigenous leader. Even now, these crimes have led to nothing more than the temporary suspension of the financial investment by the FMO, CABEI and Finn Fund. The arrest on May 2 of four alleged perpetrators of the crime; one of them a soldier active in the Honduran Armed Forces, two retired soldiers responsible for DESA private security, and one more, the environmental manager of the hydroelectric plant, reveals a pattern that directly involves not only the company but the State of Honduras. This should be sufficient reason to cancel European funding, but also for the EU and its institutions to call upon the Honduran State to review all its concessions, and to respect Convention 169.
This case should be used by the European Union and its institutions, to consider the need to review their trade relations, the regulations that must be ensured for their investments and the need for political dialogue with Central America, in order to avoid and prevent such situations from occurring in the future. Furthermore, it should be noted that as the EU is the main donor for citizen security and justice in Honduras, this case raises the need to revise this cooperation, which, to date, has not provided positive results, but has instead been used against human rights defenders. The European Union should move beyond resolutions and demands for justice, and begin to contribute to the prevention of crimes like this. The decision must be taken to enforce the extremely important political dialogue pillar, for Berta, Tomás and Nelson, who lost their lives defending the Gualcarque River and the right to indigenous autonomy.