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

    "Defenders working in [the field of economic, social and cultural rights] face violations of their rights by the State and/or face violence and threats from non-State actors because of their work. Violations of their rights seem to take all the forms that violations of the rights of defenders working in the field of civil and political rights take. There are some differences though, perhaps the most important being that defenders working in the field of ESCR often have a harder time having their work accepted as human rights work. This might have several effects, including difficulties attracting funding, a lack of coverage from the media to violations of these defenders' rights, and a lack of attention paid to these violations and a hesitation in seeking remedial measures at the domestic or international level."
    Hina Jilani, Report submitted by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights defenders to the Human Rights Council, 24 January 2007(5)

This report focuses primarily on the risks faced by human rights defenders in Honduras and Guatemala, as Amnesty International believes the pattern of human rights abuses against human rights activists in both these countries is widespread, showing no signs of improvement and therefore in need of serious attention by national and international governments.

Government responsibility

When a government fails to condemn, prevent or remedy violations against human rights defenders it sends a message that such violations are tolerated. The lack of affirmative, decisive and comprehensive measures by governments to protect human rights defenders so they can carry out their human rights work creates an environment in which their work can be undermined and their security seriously compromised.

The governments of Guatemala and Honduras are parties to -- that is, have voluntarily undertaken a legal commitment to uphold the provisions of -- numerous international and regional human rights treaties. The supremacy of international and regional human rights treaties over ordinary law is established in several Constitutions in Latin America, including those of Guatemala and Honduras.

Governments have a duty to guarantee respect for human rights. They have a responsibility to take effective action to ensure that state agents act within the rule of law to prevent abuses, to investigate those abuses which are committed, to bring those implicated in human rights violations to justice, and to award reparation to their victims. Any state that fails to protect human rights defenders against attacks, harassment and threats by its own agents can be held responsible for human rights violations under international law.

States also have a duty to protect people from violations by private individuals and groups, including companies. This includes ensuring that they act within the rule of law and holding them to account for the negative impact of their activities on respect for human rights.

Governments have obligations to take action against those who hamper or threaten the work of human rights defenders. If the state fails to act with due diligence(6) to prevent, investigate and punish abuses, including harassment of human rights defenders, it is responsible under international human rights law.(7)

Despite the commitments undertaken by governments in the region, Amnesty International continues to document abuses against human rights defenders aimed at preventing them from exercising these rights. The cases detailed in this report illustrate some of the difficulties, dangers and challenges facing human rights defenders in Guatemala and Honduras and the failure of governments to live up to their obligation to ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their work free from attacks, fear and intimidation. It ends with recommendations to governments on the key steps they should take to make the commitments they have made a reality.