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Washington, D.C. – The assassination last night of Berta Cáceres, one of the most prominent and internationally known human rights and environment defenders in Honduras, must be condemned, and calls for an independent, international investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice, Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) Co-Director Mark Weisbrot said today. Cáceres, who was General Coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was reportedly murdered by gunmen who broke down the door of the house where she was staying and shot and killed her. They also wounded her brother, who was staying with her.
“Cáceres’ murder represents an escalation in the targeting of human rights defenders and dissidents in Honduras,” Weisbrot said. “It is a tragic and disturbing development showing how vulnerable anyone in Honduras is, and demands a strong international response.
“The Obama administration must stop white-washing the human rights abuses being committed and perpetuated in near-total impunity in Honduras, and stop ignoring the involvement of U.S.-backed Honduran security forces in many of these abuses.”
Cáceres had received international recognition for her work to defend indigenous rights and the environment, including the Goldman Environmental Prize last year. She was also a prominent opponent of the coup d’état against the democratically elected government of President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had ordered protection for Cáceres in 2009, the day after the coup. One of Cáceres’ close colleagues at COPINH, Tomás García, was shot and killed by a Honduran soldier in July 2013 as he peacefully demonstrated against the Agua Zarca dam project in Rio Blanco. In recent days, Caceres had accompanied the Rio Blanco Lenca community in peacefully opposing the dam project, and she and members of the community were reportedly subject to threats and harassment from local officials and public and private security forces.
Weisbrot noted that political repression, including targeted killings of activists, had increased drastically after the 2009 military coup, as Honduras’ post-coup governments and the U.S. government looked the other way. Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state during the coup, “did her best to help the coup government succeed and legitimate itself,” said Weisbrot. In her book, “Hard Choices,” Clinton describes how she made sure that the democratically elected president, Manuel Zelaya, would not return to office; and her recently de-classified emails provide more detail of how the U.S. State Department was isolated in the hemisphere in its opposition to restoring the elected government.
COPINH has opposed the creation of dams on the Gualcarque and Canjel rivers near areas where indigenous Lenca communities live in Honduras’ Santa Barbara and Intibucá departments. Honduran company DESA (and previously also Chinese company Sinohydro) is trying to build the Agua Zarca dam, while Blue Energy and Canadian dam company Hydrosys Consultants are building the Canjel Dam, without having properly consulted the Lenca indigenous inhabitants there, as required under international law. COPINH has led road blockades and demonstrations opposing the projects, and Cáceres had received numerous threats of murder, rape, and assault in connection to COPINH’s opposition to the dams and had undergone arbitrary detention by security forces.
“The Honduran government repeatedly and consistently failed to protect her, and instead enabled her persecution and now, her murder,” CEPR Senior Associate for International Policy Alexander Main, who had accompanied Cáceres on meetings on Capitol Hill, said. “IACHR Precautionary Measures must be enforced for all such rights defenders in Honduras.
“All U.S. support for Honduran security forces should also be suspended as long as brave human rights defenders, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Hondurans, members of the LGBT community, and other minorities continue to be killed with impunity.”
Main supports calls by Cáceres’ family, from COPINH, and from a number of other Honduran and international organizations for an independent, international investigation in Cáceres’ assassination.
“The heartless murder of Berta Cáceres shows once again why an independent commission, such as the one sponsored by the U.N. in Guatemala, is needed to investigate terrible crimes such as this in Honduras, and bring the perpetrators to justice,” Main said. “Instead, the U.S. State Department has supported the toothless Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, a body that has no independent investigative and prosecutorial mandate, and is as favored by the government of President Hernández in Honduras.”
CEPR had a long working relationship with Berta Cáceres going back to 1999. Her murder has been denounced by numerous organizations, including the United Nations, Amnesty International, Friends of the Earth International, Global Exchange, the International Trade Union Confederation, Front Line Defenders, School of the Americas Watch, Honduras’ Platform of the Social and Popular Movement, Honduras’ Coalition Against Impunity, and by members of Congress including Representative Nancy Pelosi,Representative Jan Schakowsky, and Senator Patrick Leahy.