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

Indigenous and Afro-descendant leaders, who play a vital role in the religious, cultural and political life of their communities, were also highlighted by the Commission as being targeted for violations. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has noted that Indigenous leaders involved in protecting their territories and natural resources and defending their rights to autonomy and cultural identity have been the victims of a pattern of killings and threats. It also noted that in the vast majority of cases these crimes have been committed with impunity.(16)

For many years Amnesty International has been concerned about abuses against Indigenous peoples in Honduras, including intimidation, attacks and killings. Amnesty International's research suggests that many of the abuses and arbitrary detentions against Indigenous leaders, including leaders from Afro-descendant communities, have been designed to obstruct their efforts to secure recognition of their communities' claim
to communal land titles. These abuses have taken place in the context of the generalized failure by the authorities to carry out investigations and bring those responsible to justice. In some instances, members of the security forces in Honduras have been reportedly directly implicated in attacks against human rights defenders.(17)

Environmental activists are also increasingly threatened as their work becomes more visible. Amnesty International has received and documented a number of cases in Honduras where local communities and their leaders have been killed and threatened in an apparent reprisal for highlighting environmental damage. Environmentalists in Guatemala have also suffered serious attacks and threats as a result of their work,
in some cases having had to abandon their country due to fears for their safety.

According to the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit of the National Human Rights Movement in Guatemala, the number of reported attacks against human rights defenders rose in 2006. More than half of the 278 acts of intimidation and attacks against human rights defenders reported in 2006 were directed against individuals and organizations focusing on economic, social and cultural rights, including labour rights, the rights of Indigenous people and housing rights.

During a visit in May 2006 the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights stated that there had been no significant progress in combating impunity for human rights violations or eliminating clandestine groups in Guatemala. According to the UN High Commissioner, "complaints of threats and attacks on human rights defenders have scarcely been investigated. This fuels the perception that there is inadequate political will to protect defenders."(18) The attacks against human rights defenders reported by the UN High Commissioner included threats and abductions, hit-lists, surveillance and criminal accusations against human rights defenders, as well as break-ins at the headquarters of organizations working with victims, especially victims of the internal armed conflict.

Defenders of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights who are subjected to death threats or other attacks frequently meet with the attitude that "they get what they deserve". They have also struggled for space to place these issues on the national and international human rights agenda. Nevertheless their work has begun to be recognized and reflected in the analysis of the expert monitoring bodies, including the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights defenders.

Mourners carry the coffins of Israel Carías Ortíz and his two sons -- 11-year-old Robin Aroldo Ramírez and nine-year-old Luswin Alexis Ramírez, February 2007. © CUC

Killings and attacks

Israel Carías Ortíz, a peasants' rights activist in Guatemala, and his two sons -- 11-year-old Robin Aroldo Ramírez and nine-year-old Luswin Alexis Ramírez --were killed as they were walking home on 6 February 2007(19) According to reports, they were stopped at some point during the three-hour walk from the nearby town of Zacapa to their community in Los Achiotes and shot at point-blank range.