June 30, 2022
H.E. Xiomara Castro
President of Honduras
Dear President Castro,
I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to congratulate you on your election as president of Honduras and to share with you a briefing paper that contains our assessment of the main human rights concerns in the country, together with recommendations to contribute to your administration’s rights agenda.
Since the military coup d’état that ousted President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009, Honduras has seen some of the most serious setbacks for human rights and the rule of law since the height of political violence in the 1980s. The soaring turnout in the 2021 elections that resulted in your victory likely reflects the weariness of many Hondurans with corruption, violence, and a lack of economic opportunities.
In January 2022, a Human Rights Watch delegation visited Honduras and met with officials, including Foreign Minister Enrique Reina, prosecutors, representatives of United Nations (UN) agencies, and diplomats. We also reviewed official information, as well as reports by local and international groups, and met with civil society representatives who, during recent years, have defended basic rights in an increasingly hostile environment.
The briefing paper outlines human rights issues that we urge you to prioritize and provides recommendations on how to address them; your government plan, drafted with wide civil society participation, already highlights some of these points. We describe key challenges regarding:
- judicial and prosecutorial independence,
- the fight against corruption,
- women’s and girls’ rights,
- LGBT rights,
- the independent work of civil society and journalists, and freedom of expression,
- migration and internal displacement,
- and land rights.
We hope our assessment will contribute to your administration’s broader human rights agenda.
Thank you in advance for your attention. We remain at your disposal to discuss our assessment and provide input that may be relevant for the implementation of our recommendations, which seek to strengthen human rights protections in Honduras.
Tamara Taraciuk Broner
Acting Americas director
Human Rights Watch
Key Human Rights Challenges in Honduras
Judicial and Prosecutorial Independence
Honduras’ justice system has suffered political interference for years.
Every seven years, Congress selects all 15 members of the Supreme Court. The procedure does not follow clear criteria, is not transparent, and is not based on candidates’ qualifications or integrity, making it vulnerable to political manipulation.
By constitutional mandate, Congress appoints Supreme Court members, by a two-thirds majority, from a list of at least 45 candidates prepared by a nominating committee. The nominating committee has seven members: the Ombudsperson, along with representatives of the outgoing Supreme Court, the bar association, the private business association, law professors, civil society, and the workers’ unions.
Once the list gets to Congress, in practice, political parties have split the 15 vacancies among them, according to the proportion of seats they hold, a political leader, several judges, and representatives of civil society told Human Rights Watch. Several sources also told Human Rights Watch that when a case involving a political party arrives at the Supreme Court, the case is typically assigned to a justice who would be sympathetic to that party.
The same problems of lack of transparency and clear criteria plague the selection of lower-court judges and decisions over their professional careers. The Supreme Court president has ultimate power over selection, promotion, transfer, and discipline of lower-court judges. Asociación de Jueces por la Democracia (AJD), a nongovernmental organization (NGO) made up of judges, described to Human Rights Watch several cases in which candidates had obtained high scores in selection processes, but other candidates with lower scores were appointed instead. Authorities rarely explained the basis for those appointments.
In addition, certain judges are temporary, appointed outside regular selection processes, according to AJD. No official statistics are published showing the total number. For instance, in the Tegucigalpa Sentencing Tribunal, five of twenty judges are temporary, two members of that tribunal told Human Rights Watch. Lack of secure tenure exposes such judges to a higher risk of external and internal pressure, as they can fear being removed if they adopt decisions that displease powerful interests.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers have also warned that the excessive concentration of power in the Supreme Court is troublesome and that the internal disciplinary system lacks independence.
The mechanism to appoint the attorney general likewise lacks transparency and is highly vulnerable to political interference. By constitutional mandate, Congress appoints the attorney general, by a two-thirds majority, from a list of five candidates prepared by a nominating committee.
The committee includes the Supreme Court president and another justice, the Ombudsperson, representatives of the public Honduran Autonomous National University (UNAH), private universities, the bar association, and civil society. The current attorney general, appointed in 2018, was not on the list of five candidates that the nominating committee prepared, in violation of a constitutional provision that mandates that the attorney general be selected from that list.
In 2023, Congress is scheduled to select Supreme Court justices, the attorney general, the deputy attorney general, and the Board of Auditors, an entity charged with auditing public resources. It is crucial that these appointments be transparent and based on merit and clear criteria.
- Introduce a bill to improve the independence of the judiciary, in accordance with international standards, including by:
- creating a judicial governance system that includes a fair, transparent, and independent mechanism for disciplinary actions for judges, administered by a body that is separate from the Supreme Court and independent of political and other outside pressures, and establishing that judges may only be suspended or removed for reasons of incapacity or behavior that renders them unfit to discharge their duties;
- establishing clear rules for the appointment, transfer, and promotion of judges, based on their qualifications and integrity;
- ensuring the prompt appointment of tenured judges; and
- establishing clear rules for distribution of cases among judges, to prevent conflicts of interest and vulnerability to internal and external pressures.
- Seek legal changes, including through introduction of legislative proposals, to modify procedures for appointing Supreme Court justices, the attorney general, and other high officials to ensure their selection is transparent and based on clear criteria, including qualifications and evidence of integrity, and to prevent political interference.
Fight Against Corruption
Corruption is a structural problem in Honduras. Following a public outcry and protests in 2015 regarding a high-profile corruption case, the government of then President Juan Orlando Hernández signed an agreement in 2016 with the Organization of American States (OAS) leading to the creation of a Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). The mission brought a significant investment of material and human resources to work on judicial and electoral reforms. As part of MACCIH, local prosecutors, with support from foreign prosecutors, investigated, filed charges, and secured several convictions in important corruption cases against high-level officials, many involving the alleged embezzlement of funds that had been allocated to programs necessary to protect and fulfill human rights, such as the rights to health, water, and education, and alleviate poverty. But MACCIH was unable to spur wider, lasting reforms to strengthen judicial independence.
Following a backlash from those benefiting from the status quo, both the executive and legislative branches implemented measures weakening the anti-corruption effort. Only four years after the mission’s creation, the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández refused to renew its mandate.
Local prosecutors who had worked for MACCIH were integrated in a new prosecutorial unit, Unidad Fiscal Especializada Contra Redes de Corrupción (UFERCO), but the resources and support that they had received from the mission were not replaced and their capacity to investigate corruption plummeted, the chief of UFERCO, prosecutor Luis Javier Santos, told Human Rights Watch.
In addition, some of the unit’s prosecutors have been subjected to criminal and administrative proceedings that they viewed as means to pressure them or retaliation for their work. The United Nations Convention Against Corruption, which Honduras ratified in 2005, obliges the state to ensure the existence of independent and effective authorities charged with investigating and combating corruption.
Several laws enacted before, during, and after MACCIH have hindered the fight against corruption and reduced transparency and accountability. They include:
- the so-called official secrets law (decree 418/2013), which authorities abused to classify, for up to 25 years, a wide array of documents and actions, including budgets and expenses that had nothing to do with national security;
- the barring of the Attorney General’s Office from investigating a corruption case without a report from the Board of Auditors (decree 116/2019), providing up to seven years to complete its report;
- the shielding of legislators, barring any civil, administrative, and penal sanction against them, for actions that they take in the exercise of their duties as legislators (decree 117/2019), which has been interpreted broadly in at least one case to close an investigation into alleged forgery of official documents, a prosecutor told Human Rights Watch;
- the requirement that prosecutors always request information in writing from public officials (decree 57/2020) thus alerting them to the investigation and giving them the chance to hide or modify information about the use of public funds; and allowing seizure of documents only with a judge’s prior authorization if, in a “reasonable time,” public officials do not provide the requested information; and
- the weakening of the criminal definition of money laundering (decree 93/2021), by making it harder to prove money laundering when the origin of assets is unknown, allowing dismissal of many cases under investigation.
On February 2, 2022, a newly seated Congress continued poor appointment practices when it named a solicitor general and deputy solicitor general, offices that exercise legal representation of the state, including in cases of corruption. The Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción (CNA), an independent organization created by law in 2005 to fight corruption, and non-profit organizations such as Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) and Foro Social de Deuda Externa y Desarrollo de Honduras (FOSDEH), noted that Congress did not hold any public hearing in connection with the appointments and did not assess whether the candidates met the professional competencies that the constitution mandates.
But the newly seated Congress did take a very positive measure by repealing the official secrets law. President Xiomara Castro signed the repeal into law on March 8 and it came into effect after its publication in the official state gazette on March 15. This may help to reinvigorate the Institute for Access to Public Information, which was created in 2006 through the Transparency and Access to Public Information Law to facilitate the public´s access to government information, but had been unable to provide much information due to the official secrets law. One of the three commissioners who direct the Institute told local media that the official secrets law “caused a lot of harm to the country” by blocking access to government information and that only certain “defense and security information should be kept confidential, under appropriate mechanisms.”
We likewise commend President Castro’s decision to ask the UN secretary general to advance creation of an international commission against corruption and impunity in Honduras.
Prosecutor Luis Javier Santos told Human Rights Watch that an international anti-corruption commission is needed to provide support to prosecutors who are committed to investigating graft “because within our country we face a lot of obstacles” to carry out that job.
- Ask Congress to abrogate or modify legislation that has unnecessarily hindered the fight against corruption, including decrees 116/2019, 117/2019, 57/2020, and 93/2021.
- Ensure that government institutions declassify and make public information withheld under the official secrets law, except in narrow circumstances defined by law where classification is necessary to protect a legitimate national security interest or privacy rights.
- Ensure that the policy of transparency enshrined in the Transparency and Access to Public Information Law is applied to all government institutions, including by routine publication of information of public interest, and that the mechanism that grants the public and the press access to government information works efficiently.
- Collaborate with corruption investigations by providing government information about contracts, spending, and other issues of interest to prosecutors.
- Work with UN agencies, donors, and other international actors to establish an anti-corruption commission with a broad mandate that includes: (i) investigation and prosecution of individual corruption cases; (ii) proposal of legislative reforms to strengthen the fight against corruption and the rule of law; (iii) training of Honduran prosecutors, judges, police, and others to fight corruption effectively; (iv) close collaboration with CNA and civil society organizations to ensure government accountability on the use of public funds.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Violence against women in Honduras is endemic. A 2020 report by CEPAL states that the country has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America. Under Honduran law, femicide is defined as “the killing of a woman by a man in the context of unequal power relations between men and women based on gender.” The Observatorio Nacional de la Violencia (ONV), an instance affiliated with the UNAH, has reported documenting 327 killings of women in 2020, including 277 femicides. In 2021, it reported 318 killings of women and has not yet said how many were femicides. UN Women has estimated, in 2022, that 90 percent of femicides go unpunished.
In 2016, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) expressed its concerns for the “lack of clearly defined and harmonized procedures, protocols and resources to provide protection to women who are victims of gender-based violence” in Honduras.
In Honduras, abortion is illegal under all circumstances. People who undergo or perform consensual abortions face up to six years in prison. While constitutional amendments in Honduras generally require a two-thirds majority, Congress passed a constitutional amendment, in 2021, that increased the majority needed to amend the provision banning abortion to a three-quarters majority.
Emergency contraception, often called the “morning after pill,” which is used to prevent pregnancy after rape, unprotected sex, or a contraceptive failure, is prohibited in Honduras. In April 2009, Congress passed a bill that banned emergency contraception, but then-President Manuel Zelaya vetoed it in May 2009. After the June 2009 coup against Zelaya, the de facto government prohibited emergency contraception through a government resolution in October 2009. The ban remains in effect today.
Human Rights Watch published a report in 2019 documenting how Honduras’ total ban on abortion and emergency contraception put women and girls in danger and violate their rights. The report included the testimony of Honduran women confronting the cruel effects of the abortion ban, including a woman forced to bear her rapist’s child; a woman facing jail after having a miscarriage; women who had unsafe abortions; a doctor who cannot always act in her patients’ best interests; and a pastor who faced death threats for supporting abortion rights.
Human Rights Watch research worldwide shows that criminalizing abortion not only undermines the ability of women and girls to access essential reproductive health services, but it also exacerbates inequalities and discrimination.
- Ensure that police carry out prompt, thorough, and independent investigations into cases of violence against women, including by providing adequate training to officials involved in investigations, as well as proper protections to avoid revictimization.
- Establish clearly defined and coordinated procedures, protocols, and resources to provide protection to women who are victims of gender-based violence.
- Ask Congress to ratify and align laws with the International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention (C190), which sets out comprehensive protections to ensure a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and sexual harassment.
- Abrogate the 2009 resolution prohibiting the promotion, use, sale, or purchase of the emergency contraception pill and ensure that it is available and accessible to all.
- Introduce a bill to decriminalize abortion and ensure that the health system is prepared to provide comprehensive sexual and reproductive education and care, including safe abortion care, without discrimination, stigma, or revictimization.
- Ensure access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health information, psychosocial support for women and girls in the event of unwanted pregnancies, and post-abortion care for those who may have had unsafe abortions.
LGBT people in Honduras endure violence and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation and gender identity. Gangs, the national civil police and military police, and members of the public frequently target them for discrimination, extortion, and violence, Human Rights Watch research shows. Discrimination is common in schools, the workplace, and the home. Violence against LGBT people forces some to leave home and become internally displaced or leave the country to seek asylum.
The Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a landmark decision in 2021 in the case of Vicky Hernández, a sex worker and trans activist killed in San Pedro Sula during the 2009 coup. The court noted generalized violence against LGBT people in Honduras—and prevailing impunity for such violence. It ordered the government to implement structural reforms to advance recognition and respect for LGBT people’s human rights, including by instituting a procedure for people to change the gender listed on their documents to match their identity and by training security forces to investigate anti-LGBT violence. On May 9, President Castro acknowledged “the responsibility of the Honduran state in the events that led to her death” and committed to implement the court's ruling.
Cattrachas Lesbian Network, an NGO, documented the killing of almost 400 LGBT people in Honduras from 2009 through 2021. Cattrachas said those killed were targeted for their sexual orientation and gender identity. Cattrachas documented killings of 28 LGBT people in 2021; and 15 from January 1 through April 22, 2022.
Congress voted last year to increase the majority needed to amend Honduras’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage from two-thirds to three-quarters. In 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an advisory opinion stating that all rights applicable to family relationships of heterosexual couples should extend to same-sex couples.
- Fully implement the Inter-American Court of Human Rights judgment in the Vicky Hernández case, which requires training security forces in investigation of anti-LGBT violence, improving data collection on crimes motivated by anti-LGBT bias, and adopting a procedure for legal recognition of gender, allowing people to change the gender listed on their documents to match their identity.
- Ensure all killings of, and abuses against, LGBT people are investigated thoroughly and promptly, and perpetrators are brought to justice.
- Send Congress a bill to approve same-sex marriage.
Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, and Freedom of Expression
Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries for human rights defenders in Latin America, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders said after visiting in 2018. At least 10 human rights defenders were killed in 2021, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has reported, while 199 human rights defenders were harassed, threatened, or attacked that year. Of these 199, 80 percent were defending land rights or the environment. Threats and attacks against human rights defenders routinely remain unpunished.
The assassination of environmental and Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres in 2016 has become a symbol of the dangers to human rights defenders in Honduras. Unlike in most cases, significant international attention and condemnation led to trials. Honduran courts found the killers had targeted Cáceres for her opposition to construction of a hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River. In 2018, a court found seven men guilty of killing her. In 2021, the same court convicted David Castillo for ordering the killing. Castillo is a former public official of the national electric power company who at the same time became director of the private company in charge of the hydroelectric dam project, according to prosecutors. Cáceres’ family and the organization she led, the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), say that other people were involved in ordering the killing and prosecutors are not properly investigating them.
Human rights and environmental defenders are frequently unfairly prosecuted for misappropriation, theft, or other alleged crimes—or sued—to impede their work, several Honduran civil society organizations and the OHCHR told Human Rights Watch. For example, six Guapinol River defenders who opposed opening an iron oxide mine inside a national park were released on February 24, 2022, after being detained for more than 29 months for alleged crimes during protests. Their liberation came weeks after high courts had ruled that their rights had been infringed and a year and a half after the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had found their detentions arbitrary and urged for them to be freed immediately.
Honduras is one of the Western Hemisphere’s deadliest countries for journalists, Reporters Without Borders says. C-Libre, a Honduran NGO that defends free speech, reported 93 journalists killed from 2003 through January 2022. In only five cases—about 5 percent of the total—did a trial lead to conviction of the killers, and in no case was a person who ordered a killing tried, C-Libre reported. In January, Pablo Isabel Hernández Rivera, a journalist and human rights defender in the Lempira department, was shot on his way to church. He had reported on alleged acts of corruption by a mayor and had told prosecutors that he had received threats and that someone had cut off electrical service to his radio station as a reprisal for this reporting, the Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras (COFADEH), told Human Rights Watch.
On February 2, 2022, Congress passed a law introduced by the government that provided an amnesty to people charged or convicted “on political grounds” for protesting or defending land and other rights, as well as former public officials during President Zelaya’s term in office. While human rights organizations applauded the decision to amnesty protesters and human rights defenders, anti-corruption organizations warned that the law’s overbroad language—allowing amnesties for public officials charged or convicted for “actions related to the exercise of their public function”—could shield former officials who had committed acts of corruption. Local media have listed at least five former public officials whose corruption charges have been withdrawn or their convictions annulled pursuant to the amnesty law.
Several provisions in Honduran law threaten freedom of expression and assembly. A vague law passed last year criminalizes seizing public spaces, posing a threat of arrest to people who join peaceful demonstrations. Although Human Rights Watch is not aware of any prosecutions under the law, it punishes “seizing” streets, squares, or other public spaces with up to 10 years of imprisonment, regardless of whether the person intended to appropriate those areas. The charge only requires intent to impede people exercising their duties, “affecting the normal development of their activities and rights.” The law’s vagueness and breadth can have a chilling effect on legitimate protest: as written, the law could potentially be used to prosecute demonstrators for being in the path of a government official or anyone else walking through a park or down a street.
The penal code that took effect in 2020 retained the crimes of slander and defamation, with prison sentences of up to a year. Human Rights Watch opposes all criminal defamation laws as a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations, which chills freedom of expression. The criminal defamation and slander provisions in Honduras have been abused to prosecute journalists in the past. Among those who have been convicted under them, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, is David Romero Ellner, a journalist who was sentenced to 10 years in prison on various charges of slander and defamation. He was imprisoned in 2019 and died in 2020 after contracting Covid-19 behind bars.
Several journalists Human Rights Watch interviewed expressed concerns over possible government surveillance of their communications. Media reports and academic research link the government of then President Juan Orlando Hernández to the purchase or use of commercial spyware.
In 2015, Honduras created a mechanism to protect journalists, human rights defenders, and professionals working in the justice system. However, its capacity to provide effective protection is undermined by serious structural and operational flaws. The mechanism’s director told Human Rights Watch that its budget for protective measures has been frozen at the same level (20 million lempiras or US$806,000) since 2019, despite his requests for increases. Resources for protective measures are allocated from a “security fund” that collects money from the national financial system. Those allocations often have been delayed, which has made it hard for the mechanism to maintain protective measures while waiting for funding to come through, the director said.
Under the Official Secrets Law, the previous government managed disbursements with absolute lack of transparency. The director said lack of financial autonomy is one of the mechanism’s greatest weaknesses.
When someone reports being at risk, decisions on granting protective measures are made by a technical committee that includes the security secretariat, which operates the police, even though in some cases defenders fear police are involved in the threats and attacks. Several civil society organizations and representatives of the OHCHR office in Honduras told Human Rights Watch that human rights defenders do not trust the mechanism and are afraid to provide personal information that could end up in the hands of those who threaten them.
Currently, 22 people work for the mechanism, handling over 120 protection cases, the director said. In the past two years, his requests to add at least 20 staff have been rejected, he said.
The mechanism’s mandate prioritizes reactive measures, which, the director said, is “not functioning.” To be effective, the mechanism can and should also address root causes of threats against defenders, for instance by working with other government agencies to resolve land conflicts that are at the core of intimidation and violence against Indigenous and environmental defenders, and by advocating on behalf of defenders so that threats against them are properly investigated and prosecuted.
- Establish a working group, including civil society groups, UN agencies, prosecutors, and officials from the executive and congressional branches, to review the legal framework, budget, and practices of the mechanism for protection of journalists, human rights defenders, and professionals working in the justice system. The working group should draft proposals to ensure the mechanism’s financial autonomy, develop preventive and root cause-oriented measures, and ensure responsiveness to the needs of human rights defenders on a case-by-case basis.
- Introduce a bill to eliminate the crimes of slander and defamation, and to eliminate or redefine the crime of seizing public space to ensure it does not result in violations of freedom of assembly and expression.
- Drop arbitrary, baseless, or disproportionate charges against human rights defenders that are used as reprisals or acts of intimidation for their defense work.
- Send a bill to Congress to eliminate the overbroad language of the amnesty law and narrow its scope, so that it cannot be applied to corruption cases in which there is no evidence that the prosecution is politically motivated.
- Disclose any existing government contract for surveillance technology, types of surveillance technologies used, and the general purpose for which they are used; and establish mechanisms that ensure public or community approval, oversight and control of the purchase of surveillance technologies.
- Provide any information within the government’s possession about possible illegal surveillance to the Attorney General’s Office for investigation and prosecution.
- Ensure that any use of surveillance technology is in accordance with the international human rights standards of legality, necessity, proportionality, and legitimacy of objectives, and that victims of unlawful surveillance have meaningful access to an effective remedy.
- Sign and send to Congress for approval the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, known as the Escazú Agreement.
Migration and Internal Displacement
Violence, lack of opportunity, unemployment, climate-related disasters, and despair for Honduras’ future continue to push thousands to leave the country, according to studies by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI), among others. The most recent report by the International Panel on Climate Change, the world’s leading scientific body on climate change, concluded that international migration from Honduras is “partly a consequence of prolonged droughts, which have increased the stress of food availability.”
In 2021, more than a quarter of the people seeking asylum in Mexico were Honduran. Many others continue on to the United States. Migrants face serious risks throughout the journey, including kidnapping, robbery, and discrimination. Some so-called migrant caravans—consisting of migrants who travel in large groups to reduce dangers—have already left Honduras for the US this year.
More than 50,000 Hondurans were forcibly returned to Honduras in 2021, almost 80 percent from Mexico and 20 percent from the US, according to the Honduran government. From January through April 2022, more than 32,000 were returned, almost double the number in the same period in 2021.
Civil society organizations, UN agencies, and Honduran agencies working at airports and at the border with Guatemala provide deportees with health screening, psychological attention, and transportation to their communities. But once inside Honduras, they are on their own, as there is no effective reintegration program. In their communities, unsupported, some opt to head for the US again. Only those who express fear of violence if they return home receive some support, consisting of a review by UN agencies of relocation possibilities in other parts of the country and monitoring of their situation, UN representatives told Human Rights Watch.
The situation was especially dire from September to November 2021, as buses operated by Mexico’s National Immigration Institute from the Mexico-Guatemala border arrived at the Honduran border late at night, when receiving facilities were closed, UNHCR and organizations assisting migrants at the border told Human Rights Watch. They told Human Rights Watch the people being returned were Hondurans whom the United States had expelled under Title 42 and transferred to Mexico by plane. Title 42 refers to a US public health law that the administration of former President Donald Trump started to use during the Covid-19 pandemic to deny families, children, and adults arriving at the southern border their right to seek asylum in the United States, and which the administration of President Joe Biden has continued to use.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that Title 42 expulsion policy would be terminated on May 23. But on May 20, a federal judge temporarily blocked the termination of the policy. The Biden administration said it would appeal the decision.
Migrants of other nationalities, including Haitians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, and Venezuelans, face serious dangers as they transit Honduras heading north. These include murder, robbery, and sexual exploitation, crimes that particularly affect vulnerable populations like LGBT people, UNHCR said.
Internal displacement continues to disrupt Hondurans’ lives. Gang violence and human rights violations internally displaced some 191,000 people between 2004 and 2018, government data shows. Those most affected, the IACHR reports, are children subjected to forced gang recruitment, professionals and business owners facing extortion, domestic violence survivors, and LGBT people and members of ethnic minorities enduring violence and discrimination. Extreme weather events such as droughts and tropical cyclones, which scientists have linked to human-induced climate change, are yet another factor contributing to displacement. Communities subject to increased food insecurity due to prolonged drought, extreme weather events, and other climate change impacts, for example, are vulnerable to displacement, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) has warned.
- Address the human rights violations and gang violence that drive people to leave Honduras or become internally displaced through reforms that uphold fundamental rights and the rule of law, including the recommendations on judicial independence, fight against corruption, protection of women’s, children’s, LGBT, migrants’, and Indigenous rights detailed in this briefing paper.
- Work with UN agencies, donors, and civil society to create a reintegration program that addresses returnees’ specific needs, including work, security, family reunification, and services for survivors of gender-based violence, including access to emergency contraception and support for children on the basis of best-interest assessments.
- Establish protection mechanisms for migrants in transit, especially those populations at most risk.
- Implement measures that guarantee comprehensive human rights protections for internally displaced people, for example, by working with Congress to pass the protection bill being promoted by migrant-support groups and international organizations, which provides for the creation of a registry of displaced people, protection and humanitarian aid, and the implementation of prevention measures to address internal displacement.
Land conflicts are at the core of many human rights issues described in this briefing paper, including corruption, migration, internal displacement, and violence against and criminalization of human rights defenders.
For years, the Honduran state has granted rights to land and to exploitation of natural resources to companies and well-connected individuals through contracts that lack transparency and elicit allegations of corruption, without proper consultation with communities that would lose access to land, and without considering their rights to land and resources, the OHCHR, prosecutors and civil society organizations told Human Rights Watch. This has led to community protests that have often resulted in criminal prosecutions of demonstrators, while the issues that led to the protests remained unaddressed.
One major underlying problem is that communities face significant difficulties obtaining recognition of their land rights, which the state administers through the National Agrarian Institute (INA). Indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities, in particular, report enormous obstacles to obtaining title to traditional lands. To do so, they must apply to slow, resource-consuming administrative-judicial processes. In some cases in which communities were able to obtain land titles, the titles excluded some parts of their ancestral territory. And even after they received formal documentation some communities have faced court-ordered evictions when third parties presented state-issued titles to the same land, Indigenous and Afro-Honduran organizations told Human Rights Watch.
Another recurrent problem is lack of proper consultation with Indigenous communities and communities of mixed African and Indigenous ancestry known as garífunas, and poor or non-existent implementation of their right (recognized by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights) to free, prior, and informed consent regarding decisions over their traditional lands and land use changes that may affect them, including projects with significant environmental impacts. Honduras has ratified International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169, which, among other provisions, recognizes the right of Indigenous people to be consulted about projects on their lands. But the country has not yet approved national legislation to implement that right. In 2018, the government introduced a bill to regulate the right to free, prior, and informed consent, but Indigenous and Afro-Honduran organizations rejected it saying it did not guarantee the effective exercise of this right and they had not been included in the bill’s drafting process. The bill is still pending.
In 2021, the ILO Conference Committee on the Application of Standards urged Honduras to implement Convention 169 both in law and in practice, citing “the requirement to consult Indigenous peoples, so that such consultations are held in good faith and in a form appropriate to the circumstances, with the objective of achieving agreement or consent to the proposed measures.”
A particularly concerning example of infringement on these rights was the creation through a 2013 law of Zonas de Empleo y Desarrollo Económico (ZEDE), areas where private companies were granted extensive operational and functional autonomy. The law says that the autonomous legal entity created by the private company to operate in that area shall have “the same functions, faculties, and obligations (…) that municipalities have,” and that “they shall have autonomous and independent courts with exclusive jurisdiction over them, which may adopt legal systems or traditions from other parts of the world.” Indigenous and Afro-Honduran organizations say that such zones were created within their traditional territories without proper consultation, including free, prior, and informed consent. Currently, three ZEDE are functioning in sectors ranging from agrobusiness to mining and industry. The OHCHR has expressed concern about their compatibility with Honduras’ international human rights obligations.
We applaud Congress’ decision to revoke the ZEDE law and the various regulations that governed their operation. A key challenge moving forward will be how to effectively dismantle ZEDE that are currently functioning.
- Create and implement a clear, transparent, and expeditious mechanism for cadastral mapping and issuance of collective titling of traditional Indigenous and Afro-Honduran territories.
- Send a bill to Congress to create and implement, in consultation with Indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities, effective mechanisms on consultation, including free, prior, and informed consent regarding decision making on land use changes and other developments that may affect those communities.
- Establish a plan for dismantling operations that ZEDE created without proper consultation, or that violated the rights of residents. While the legal process for dismantling ZEDE is ongoing, establish a fair, participatory compensation mechanism in cooperation with communities and residents negatively impacted by the establishment and operation of ZEDE areas.