Killing of two land defenders in Honduras right after UN delegation visit shows country’s challenges on business & human rights
In late August, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights visited Honduras to meet with authorities, civil society and the private sector to assess the country’s progress on business and human rights, as well as the challenges and obstacles that remain.
The delegation focused on the situation of human rights defenders and indigenous communities in the context of projects related to the extraction of natural resources, agriculture and the energy sector.
On the day the delegation left the country (28th August), two land and territory defenders from Tocoa, Colón, Roberto Antonio Agueta Tejada and José Mario Rivera, were killed.
Organisations have linked the killings to the defenders´ active resistance to the Guapinol mine owned by energy company Inversiones los Pinares. If so, this would be another chilling reminder of the impunity and frequency with which such killings happen – and how those behind them appear not to be intimidated by - and even defiant in the face of - international scrutiny.
The situation around the mining project Guapinol is emblematic of the criminalisation and constant attacks against those defending their land and territory in Honduras and in many other countries around the world. Guapinol has been a source of conflict ever since mining company Inversiones los Pinares was given a concession by the government which the surrounding communities claim was illegal. They also claim irregularities in the way the project obtained its environmental licence.
Since then, 32 members of the resistance movement have been criminalised, six have been killed and many activists have been threatened and stigmatised.
The UN Working Group expressed specific concern for those defending their land and territory in their comments at the end of the visit:
"The state must act now to put an end to the recurring attacks, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders, trade unionists and indigenous communities and their representatives who have reported violations of fundamental guarantees related to business activity and large scale development projects."
The group support the immediate derogation of sections of the new Criminal Code that penalise dissidence and silence those who defend victims of abuse, whilst reducing sentences for fraud and corruption.
The stories of Roberto and Antonio, who were killed in different areas of Colón, are two tragedies among many in Honduras and across Latin America. The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre has followed the situation in Honduras closely for several years, noting with concern the increase in criminalisation and attacks against those defending their land and territory.
Honduran defenders engaged in such activities have faced almost 170 death threats and physical and judicial attacks since 2015. The numbers have grown from 16 attacks recorded in 2015, to 31 in 2016, 36 in 2017, a small drop to 31 in 2018, and a peak of 53 so far in 2019. If this trend continues, the attacks are on track to double in 2019, in comparison to 2018.
Mining (33% of attacks) and hydroelectric projects (32%) are the most dangerous sectors for defenders in the country. Frivolous lawsuits and arbitrary detentions (37%) and intimidation and threats (37%) have been the most common form of attack, followed by killings.
In 2019, over 50% of attacks were arbitrary detentions and lawsuits. This criminalisation is often coupled with the spreading of negative narratives about defenders, physical attacks and intimidation against them and their families, and in the most extreme cases, the killing of well-known leaders such as Berta Cáceres in 2016.
"The majority of conflicts related to large-scale investments results from the systematic lack of transparency and meaningful participation of affected communities in any decisions regarding business activity", said one of the Working Group members, Anita Ramasastry
While the exact parameters of this are not clear yet, it is growingly recognized that businesses have a responsibility to respect human rights defenders and to identify, prevent and mitigate risks they face. Businesses operating in Honduras must be aware of the challenges posing those defending their land and territory, and should implement rigorous due diligence procedures to ensure their activities are not causing, contributing or directly linked to risks for defenders. Even when they have no links to the risks themselves, they should use their platforms to speak up for defenders and civic freedoms.
Since 2016 we have seen several companies, multi-stakeholder initiatives, industry associations, and investors – such as adidas, M&S, Barrick Gold Corporation, Vattenfall, The Coca Cola company, Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - RSPO, International Finance Corporation, and others – clarify their positions on human rights defenders and civic freedoms.
Policy commitments in and of themselves are not enough – but they are still important and necessary steps forward, especially in relation to high-risk areas like Honduras. However, the real test will be putting them into practice.
-- More information about business, civic freedoms and human rights defenders here. --