Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On The Life of Berta Caceres

Mr. President, the woman in the photograph next to me is Berta Caceres, an indigenous Honduran environmental activist who was murdered in her home on March 3rd

Ms. Caceres was internationally admired, and in the 12 days since her death, and since my remarks on the morning after and on the day of her funeral on March 5th, there has been an outpouring of grief, outrage, remembrances, denunciations, and declarations from people in Honduras and around the world.

Among the appalling facts that few people may have been aware of before this atrocity is that more than 100 environmental activists have reportedly been killed in Honduras just since 2010.  It is an astonishing number that previously received little attention.  One might ask, therefore, why Ms. Caceres’ death has caused such a visceral, explosive reaction.

Berta Caceres, the founder and General Coordinator of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was an extraordinary leader whose courage and commitment, in the face of constant threats against her life, inspired countless people.  For that she was awarded the prestigious 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. 

Her death is a huge loss for her family, her community, and for environmental justice in Honduras.  As her family and organization have said, it illustrates “the grave danger that human rights defenders face, especially those who defend the rights of indigenous people and the environment against the exploitation of [their] territories.”    

This is by no means unique to Honduras.  It is a global reality.  Indigenous people are the frequent targets of threats, persecution, and criminalization by state and non-state actors in scores of countries. 

Why is this?  Why are the world’s most vulnerable people who traditionally live harmoniously with the natural environment so often the victims of such abuse and violence? 

There are multiple reasons, including racism and other forms of prejudice.  But I put greed at the top of the list.  It is greed that drives governments and private companies, as well as criminal organizations, to recklessly pillage natural resources above and below the surface of land inhabited by indigenous people, whether it is timber, oil, coal, gold, diamonds, or other valuable minerals.  Acquiring and exploiting these resources requires either the acquiescence, or the forcible removal, of the people who live there.  

In Berta Caceres’ case, the threats and violence against her and other members of her organization were well documented and widely known, but calls by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for protective measures were largely ignored. 

This was particularly so because the Honduran government and the company that was constructing the hydroelectric project that Ms. Caceres and COPINH had long opposed were complicit in condoning and encouraging the lawlessness that Ms. Caceres and her community faced every day.

The perpetrators of this horrific crime have not been identified.  Since March 3rd, there has been a great deal of legitimate concern expressed about the treatment of Gustavo Castro, the Mexican citizen who was wounded and is an eye witness, and who has ample reason to fear for his life in a country where witnesses to crime are often stalked and killed.  In the meantime, for reasons as yet unexplained, the Honduran government suspended for 15 days Castro’s lawyer’s license to practice.

That concern extends to the initial actions of the Honduran police who seemed predisposed to pin the attack on associates of Ms. Caceres.  This surprised no one who is familiar with Honduras’ ignominious police force. 

The fact is we do not yet know who is responsible, but a professional, comprehensive investigation is essential and the Honduran government has neither the competence nor the reputation for integrity to conduct it themselves. 

There have been countless demands for such an investigation.  Like her family, I have urged that the investigation be independent including the participation of international experts.  With rare exception, criminal investigations in Honduras are incompetently performed and incomplete. 

They almost never result in anyone being punished for homicide.  As Ms. Caceres’ family has requested, the Inter-American Commission is well suited to provide that independence and expertise, but the Honduran authorities have not sought that assistance just as they refused the family’s request for an independent expert to observe the autopsy. 

The family has also asked that independent forensic experts be used to analyze the ballistics and other evidence.  The internationally respected Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, which has received funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development for many years, would be an obvious option, but the Honduran government has so far rejected this request too.

Like Ms. Caceres’ family, I have also urged that the concession granted to the company for the Agua Zarca hydroelectric project be cancelled.  It has caused far too much controversy, divisiveness, and suffering within the Lenca community and the members of Ms. Caceres’ family and organization.  It clearly cannot coexist with the indigenous people of Rio Blanco who see it as a “permanent danger” to their safety and way of life.  It is no wonder that two of the original funders of the project have abandoned it.  The Dutch, Finish, and German funders should follow their example.  

This whole episode exemplifies the irresponsibility of undertaking such projects without the free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous inhabitants who are affected by them.  Instead, a common practice of extractive industries, energy companies, and governments has been to divide local communities by buying off one faction, calling it “consultation”, and insisting that it justifies ignoring the opposing views of those who refuse to be bought.

When a majority of local inhabitants continue to protest against the project as a violation of their longstanding territorial rights, the company and its government benefactors often respond with threats and provocations, and community leaders are vilified, arrested, and even killed.  Then representatives of the company and government officials profess to be shocked and saddened and determined to find the perpetrators, and years later the crime remains unsolved and is all but forgotten. 

Last year, President Hernandez, Minister of Security Corrales, and other top Honduran officials made multiple trips to Washington to lobby for Honduras’ share of a U.S. contribution to the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity of the Northern Triangle of Central America.  Among other things, they voiced their commitment to human rights and their respect for civil society, although not surprisingly they had neglected to consult with representatives of Honduran civil society about the contents of the Plan.

The fiscal year 2016 Omnibus Appropriations Act includes $750 million to support the Plan, of which a significant portion is slated for Honduras.  I supported those funds.  In fact I argued for an amount exceeding the levels approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees, because I recognize the immense challenges that widespread poverty, corruption, violence, and impunity pose for those countries. 

Some of these deeply rooted problems are the result of centuries of self-inflicted inequality and brutality perpetrated by an elite class against masses of impoverished people.  But the United States also had a role in supporting and profiting from that corruption and injustice, just as today the market for illegal drugs in our country fuels the social disintegration and violence that is causing the people of Central America to flee north. 

I also had a central role in delineating the conditions attached to U.S. funding for the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity, and there is strong, bipartisan support in Congress for those conditions.  They are fully consistent with what the Northern Triangle leaders pledged to do, and what the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development agree is necessary if the Plan is to succeed.

I mention this because the assassination of Berta Caceres brings U.S. support for the Plan sharply into focus.  That support is far from a guarantee. 

It is why a credible, thorough investigation is so important. 

It is why those responsible for her death, and the killers of other Honduran social activists and journalists, must be brought to justice. 

It is why Agua Zarca, and other such projects that do not have the support of the local population, should be abandoned.    

And it is why the Honduran government must finally take seriously its responsibility to protect the rights of journalists, human rights defenders, other social activists, COPINH, and civil society organizations that peacefully advocate for equitable economic development and access to justice.     

Only then should we have confidence that the Honduran government is a partner the United States can work with in addressing the needs and protecting the rights of all the people of Honduras, and particularly those who have borne the brunt of official neglect and malfeasance for so many years.

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