In January 2022, Xiomara Castro became the first female president of Honduras, after winning the elections by a wide margin, promising to defend human rights. In April, former President Juan Orlando Hernández (2014-2022) was extradited to the United States on drug trafficking and gun charges.
Honduras’ justice system has suffered political interference for years. As of October, the Castro administration and the United Nations were negotiating to establish an international commission to investigate corruption. Congress repealed an overly broad secrecy law but has not revoked other laws that pose major barriers to corruption investigations.
Gang violence and human rights violations cause internal displacement and migration. Women, human rights defenders, Indigenous, Afro-Honduran, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people are at particular risk of violence.
Judicial Independence and the Fight Against Corruption
President Castro campaigned on a promise to work for independent and impartial justice. The justice system’s weak response to corruption, a structural problem in Honduras, and a series of laws hindering prosecutors’ capacity to investigate have enabled impunity for corrupt acts that contribute to human rights violations.
In February, Congress passed a government-supported amnesty for people charged, on “political grounds,” for protesting or defending rights, including to land, as well as for former public officials during the administration of Manuel Zelaya (2006-June 2009), President Castro’s husband. While human rights organizations applauded the amnesty for defenders and protesters, anti-corruption organizations warned that overbroad language—amnesty for authorities charged or convicted for “actions related to the exercise of their public function”—could shield corrupt former officials.
In July, Congress passed a law regulating the committee in charge of nominating candidates for the 15 Supreme Court vacancies that will open in January 2023. The law specifies evaluation standards for the committee; requires that sessions and interviews be public; allows civil society, media, and UN agencies to participate as observers; and reserves at least seven seats on the new Supreme Court for women. The committee started working in September.
But the law did not set any criteria for Congress as a whole to choose the new justices from the list of at least 45 candidates sent by the committee. In the past, parties have split the vacancies among them, according to the proportion of seats they held in Congress.
Lack of transparency and clear criteria also plague the selection of lower-court judges and decisions over their careers. The Supreme Court president has ultimate power over selection, promotion, transfer, and discipline of lower-court judges.
Congress took a positive step by repealing the so-called official secrets law in March. Previous governments had abused it, classifying, for up to 25 years, budgets, expenses, and other documents having nothing to do with national security. But, as of October, the Castro administration had not informed the public about the use of a fund, previously considered secret, that collected a tax from any financial transaction. Congress has not repealed other laws that drastically curtail prosecutors’ power to conduct anti-corruption investigations.
President Castro’s negotiations with the UN to implement an international commission against impunity and corruption continued, as of October.
Human Rights Defenders
The UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders called Honduras, in 2019, one of Latin America’s most dangerous countries for defenders. From January through August 2022, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) reported attacks on 120 human rights defenders, including 78 environment and land defenders. Such defenders are frequently unfairly charged with misappropriation, theft, or other crimes—or sued—to impede their work, the OHCHR said.
In February, a court annulled, because of due process violations, a trial against eight Guapinol River defenders who protested opening an iron oxide mine inside a national park. It ordered the release of six who remained in pretrial detention and had spent more than 29 months in jail. In 2020, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had found their detentions arbitrary.
In June, David Castillo was sentenced to more than 22 years in prison as a co-conspirator in the killing of environmental and Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres, in 2016. The tribunal said Castillo targeted Cáceres for her opposition to a private hydroelectric dam project he directed. Cáceres’ family and the organization she led, the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH), say prosecutors are not thoroughly investigating others who helped orchestrate the killing.
The mechanism Honduras created in 2015 to protect journalists, human rights defenders, and justice system professionals has serious flaws. In January, its then-director told Human Rights Watch that it suffered from staff shortages, lack of financial autonomy, and prioritization of reactive measures rather than root causes. Naming a new director in July, the Castro administration vowed to coordinate with civil society to make the mechanism more effective, transparent, and accountable.
Attacks on Journalists
Honduras is one of Latin Americas’ deadliest countries for journalists, Reporters Without Borders noted in 2022. From 2001 to October 2022, 98 journalists were killed—5 in 2022—C-Libre, a Honduran free-speech NGO reported. In only 10 cases—about 10 percent—were killers tried and found guilty, C-Libre said.
Migration, Asylum, and Internal Displacement
Violence, lack of opportunity, unemployment, and climate-related disasters contribute to push thousands of Hondurans to flee, studies by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) show.
From January through September, 23,146 Hondurans—more than any other nationality—requested asylum in Mexico, Mexico’s refugee agency reported. Many more continue to the United States. Migrants face serious risks—including kidnapping, robbery, and discrimination—throughout the journey.
From January through September, 72,111 Hondurans were forcibly returned—more than throughout 2021—the government reported, almost all from Mexico and the US, evenly divided.
As they transit Honduras, heading north, Haitians, Nicaraguans, Cubans, Venezuelans, and other migrants risk being targeted for serious crimes such as robbery, sexual abuse, and murder.
Gang violence and human rights violations caused the internal displacement of some 191,000 people between 2004 and 2018, the latest comprehensive government data shows. Those most affected are children fleeing forced gang recruitment, professionals and business owners facing extortion, domestic violence survivors, and LGBT people and members of ethnic minorities enduring discrimination and violence, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) reports.
The military took control of prisons in 2019, but in August, President Castro ordered national police to take charge for a year, calling for a plan to gradually transfer their oversight to other civilian authorities.
As of September, almost 20,000 detainees occupied prisons with capacity for under 11,000. Almost half of male and more than half of female detainees were in pretrial detention, official statistics show.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Honduras has the highest rate of femicide—defined as “the killing of a woman by a man in the context of unequal power relations between men and women based on gender”—in Latin America, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean reports. The Centro de Derechos de Mujeres, a Honduran NGO that monitors media reports, counted 211 femicides from January through September 2022. In January, UN Women estimated that 90 percent of Honduran femicides go unpunished.
Abortion is illegal in Honduras under all circumstances, with prison sentences of up to six years for people who have abortions and their providers. Emergency contraception—the “morning-after pill”—to prevent pregnancy after rape, unprotected sex, or contraceptive failure, is prohibited.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
LGBT people in Honduras continue to suffer high levels of violence and discrimination in all areas of life, pushing some to flee the country.
In May, President Castro committed to implement a 2021 Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruling finding Honduras responsible for the killing of Vicky Hernández, a transgender woman, during the 2009 military coup. Among other measures, the ruling ordered the creation of a simple and accessible procedure through which trans people can change their name and gender on official documents to reflect their gender identity. As of October, it had not been established.
Honduras has no national legislation implementing Indigenous people’s right under international law to free, prior, and informed consent to legislative or administrative measures affecting them.
In April, Congress revoked a law that had created so-called ZEDEs (Areas of Employment and Economic Development, in Spanish), geographic areas in which private companies were granted extensive operational autonomy, including the power to establish their own courts. Indigenous and garifuna—Afro-Indigenous—organizations say authorities created zones within their traditional territories without proper consultation. As of October, they reported that ZEDEs that had been established before the April law repeal were still operating.
Indigenous and Afro-Honduran communities report enormous obstacles to obtaining title to traditional lands, which the National Agrarian Institute administers.
Honduras’ fragile institutions fail to protect children’s—including adolescents’—rights and access to education and health care, the IACHR reported in 2019.
More than 256,000 children ages 5 through 17 work, the National Statistics Unit reported in 2021, and almost a third of those under 17 do not attend school.
Child recruitment by gangs has caused many children to flee, abandoning school. The average age of first contact with gangs is 13, the UN Development Programme reported in 2020.
Key International Actors
Under President Castro, Honduras maintained a hesitant stance on human rights in its foreign policy. It voted in favor of multiple UN resolutions condemning Russia’s rights violations in Ukraine. It abstained from UN Human Rights Council resolutions renewing the mandate of the UN fact-finding mission in Venezuela and initially voted against, but then clarified its intention to abstain on, a resolution establishing a group of experts to investigate human rights violations in Nicaragua.
Honduras also abstained on a vote to create a new special rapporteur on Russia but was one of only two countries in the region to vote in favor of a decision to discuss a report by the High Commissioner for Human Rights on violations against Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim communities in the Xinjiang region of China. In the Organization of American States, it abstained from a resolution urging Nicaragua to release political prisoners and cease media persecution.