WASHINGTON – Expressing their condolences to the family and friends of murdered indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres, 11 Democratic U.S. Senators, Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Christopher Coons (D-Del.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry requesting his support for a transparent international investigation into Ms. Cáceres’ death.
Recognizing that Ms. Cáceres’ murder is an example of the grave challenges faced by Honduran activists, the legislators urged the Department of State and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) to place greater priority on protecting fundamental freedoms and strengthening the rule of law. The letter also requests an evaluation of the effectiveness of U.S. security assistance, as well as the efficacy of Honduras’ efforts to guarantee freedom of expression, the rule of law, and proper investigation of human rights abuses.
In their letter, the Senators urge the Secretary “to take necessary steps to ensure that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has unique expertise investigating human rights violations across the Americas, is allowed to actively participate in the investigation of Ms. Cáceres’ death.”
The letter appears below in its entirety:
The Honorable John Kerry
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Dear Mr. Secretary,
We write to express our profound concern over the tragic murder of Honduran environmental and indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres on March 3, 2016. As the General Coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and a past winner of the internationally acclaimed Goldman Environmental Prize, Berta Cáceres was an unwavering advocate for Honduras’ indigenous peoples and environmental stewardship.
Alarmingly, Ms. Cáceres’ death is a disturbing reminder of the grave challenges faced by Honduran human rights defenders and civil society. In recent years, Ms. Cáceres was subjected to routine harassment and received numerous death threats, as documented by Amnesty International, among others. The climate of insecurity in Honduras is underscored by the deeply troubling news that another member of COPINH, Nelson García, was murdered on March 15.
Since 2009, more than 100 environmental activists, more than 30 journalists, and more than 30 trade unionists have been murdered in Honduras. Consistent with the State Department’s 2014 Human Rights Report on Honduras, which stated that the “institutional weakness of the justice system [leads] to widespread impunity,” too many of these cases remain unsolved and the perpetrators have not faced justice.
Given this reality, we are closely monitoring the Honduran government’s investigation of Ms. Cáceres’ murder. We welcomed President Hernandez’ request for support from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). And, we commend U.S. Ambassador to Honduras James Nealon’s decision to provide U.S. investigators and technical support.
However, more must be done to guarantee that the investigation into Ms. Cáceres’ death does not end in impunity. Additional efforts are needed to afford Honduran human rights defenders greater protection and strengthen the judicial system and the rule of law. We respectfully request you take the following steps:
- Support an International Investigation: We urge you to take necessary steps to ensure that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which has unique expertise investigating human rights violations across the Americas, is allowed to actively participate in the investigation of Ms. Cáceres’ death. We also ask that you use diplomatic channels to ensure that the UNHCHR can support the investigation.
- Provide USAID Funding for Honduras’ Program to Protect Human Rights Defenders: While the Honduran Congress approved legislation in April 2015 to establish a protection program for human rights defenders, trade unionists, and journalists, this initiative is not fully operational nor does it have sufficient funding. A similar program in Colombia has benefitted greatly from USAID technical assistance and funding. The success of this program in Honduras – which must include the input and participation of beneficiaries – will directly save the lives of human rights defenders.
- Review U.S. Security Assistance: As we expand engagement with Honduras, it is imperative that we evaluate the effectiveness of U.S. assistance, in particular our security assistance. We also must assess the efficacy of Honduras’ efforts on key issues, specifically its ability to guarantee freedom of expression and association, the rule of law and due process, and proper investigation of human rights abuses, including those allegedly involving security forces. We ask that you provide Congress with a detailed review of these critical matters and ensure that no U.S. assistance goes to police or military personnel implicated in human rights violations.
In the wake of Berta Cáceres’ death, we lament the loss of a passionate voice for justice and human rights in Honduras. As the U.S. continues to expand its efforts in Central America – an effort that we support – we urge the Department of State and USAID to place greater priority on protecting fundamental freedoms and strengthening the rule of law. Achieving citizen security and economic prosperity in the region will not be possible without greater investment in good governance and strong democratic institutions.