Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

August 8, 2007

Persecution and resistance: The experience of human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras

    "The Commission wishes to reiterate that the most effective way to protect human rights defenders in the hemisphere is by effectively investigating the acts of violence against them, and punishing the persons responsible. In the region of the Americas, one of the great problems affecting human rights defenders is the failure to investigate the attacks to which they are subjected, which has accentuated their vulnerability. This is especially relevant when it comes to protecting the right to life and personal integrity."(23)

The failure to provide adequate protection can have devastating consequences, not only for the individuals involved but also for the human rights situation in general, particularly if human rights defenders feel forced to flee the country for their safety.

Adequate protection can only be achieved if it is provided with the consent and co-operation of the human rights defenders at risk. Protection which would be implemented by the same state agencies who are believed to have been involved in abuses can intensify rather than reduce the risk and is unlikely to be acceptable. Appropriate and effective protection must necessarily be the result of discussion and agreement with the defenders themselves.

At the international and regional level, many governments in the Americas have played a decisive role in supporting the principles of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders and designing regional instruments for its implementation. However, at the national level, they have failed to take the actions needed to turn these rights and protections into everyday realities for human rights defenders.

The governments of Honduras and Guatemala have begun to develop some initiatives in order to protect human rights defenders and ensure a safer environment where they can carry out their work without fear of reprisals. In July 2005, the Guatemalan authorities issued a public statement which recognized the legitimacy of the work of human rights defenders and reiterated their intentions to support their work and protect them.(24) This followed the creation in 2004 of the Human Rights Defenders Unit within the Presidential Coordinating Committee for the Executive's Human Rights Policy (COPREDEH), which is in charge of overseeing the implementation of protection measures ordered by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. At the time of writing, an initiative to create an integral public policy for the protection of human rights defenders is reportedly being consulted with members of civil society.(25), (26) Amnesty International welcomes this development and reiterates the need to incorporate the suggestions from the consultation and to implement a thorough and adequate mechanism of protection that not only concentrates on providing immediate security measures but that is matched with impartial and thorough investigations into human rights violations against human rights defenders who continue to be at risk. The fact that high numbers of attacks, threats and even killings continue to be recorded demonstrates that the Guatemalan authorities still need to develop a holistic approach to protection that tackles the historic problem of impunity.

According to the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit of the National Human Rights Movement, the implementation of protection measures is often highly irregular and measures are often only implemented properly at an initial stage. It is reported that investigations into threats and intimidation against human rights defenders granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights have not produced any concrete results (2000-2006). The Special Unit for Crimes Committed against Human Rights Activists, Judicial Officers, Journalists and Trade Unionists created within the Public Prosecutor's Office reportedly lacks adequate resources to be able to conduct investigations across the country, leaving human rights defenders who work in remote areas more vulnerable.(27)