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

Legal framework for the protection of human rights defenders

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights(8) and the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man(9) contain important standards relevant for the work of human rights defenders, and so do the core human rights treaties which flow from the two Declarations,(10) to which Guatemala and Honduras are parties. These instruments protect, for example, the right to life and personal liberty, the protection against arbitrary deprivation of liberty, the right to a fair trial, the right to freedom of expression, movement, association, and religion to name a few and entail the obligation of states to respect and ensure the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all persons under its jurisdiction.

In addition to the international and regional treaties, the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognised Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (Declaration on Human Rights Defenders), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1998, is a set of safeguards designed to guarantee the rights of human rights defenders and ensure their proper protection.

"Article 1 of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides:
Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels. "Therefore, every person who in any way promotes or seeks the realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms, nationally or internationally, must be considered a human rights defender."(11)

The Declaration sets out the rights of human rights defenders and the specific freedoms and activities which are fundamental to their work. These include the right to know, seek, obtain and receive information about human rights and fundamental freedoms; the right to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights; the right to criticize and complain when governments fail to comply with human rights standards; and the right to make proposals for improvement.

By adopting the Declaration, states undertook to ensure that defenders are able to carry out their human rights work without interference, obstacles or fear of retaliation.

The governments of the Americas also recognized the importance of individuals, groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that promote human rights in several resolutions. The most recent resolution regarding human rights defenders was adopted by the Organization of American States (OAS) in June 2007.(12)

Protesters at the Chixoy Dam,September 2004 © Adivima

Around 20 Mayan communities were forcibly displaced as a result of the construction of the Chixoy Hydroelectric Dam in the Baja Verapaz Department, Guatemala, in the 1970s and 1980s. The Organizing Committee of Communities Affected by the Chixoy Dam (Coordinadora de comunidades afectadas por la hidroeléctrica Chixoy, COCAHICH) campaigns for these Indigenous communities to receive adequate compensation, and for recognition of the loss of livelihoods, homes, land and culture which the communities suffered as a result of their displacement.

From early 2005 until July 2007, nine members of COCAHICH were under investigation for alleged crimes committed during a peaceful demonstration at the dam in September 2004. Despite a report from
the regional prosecutor (Fiscal Regional) stating that a police report claimed that community members were participating in a peaceful protest, and that there was no damage to the dam, the nine were charged with various offences.(13) These included threats and coercion, actions against public services and actions against the internal security of the nation.(14)