Washington, D.C. (Conexihon) .- Hundreds of national and international civil society organizations called on the government of Honduras and Colombia to guarantee the human rights of defenders, social leaders, indigenous and farming communities who vulnerability has increased due to the record number of threats by armed groups in the midst of the COVID 19 health crisis.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is intensifying the human rights crises in Honduras and Colombia," said EarthRights executive director Ka Hsaw Wa. "These governments are wisely protecting the public with measures of social isolation. But these same measures have introduced new risks for human rights defenders who are now particularly vulnerable to armed groups trying to silence them. We urge the governments of Honduras and Colombia to defend the human rights of these defenders during this public health crisis."

Cases of assaults during quarantine

In Honduras, the assassination of farmer and land defender Iris Argentina Álvarez (53), who was shot by alleged security elements hired by the La Grecia Sugar Company in conjunction with alleged members of the CRAE'S private security company, took on Thursday April 2.

In addition, the attacks against Yoni Rivas of the Agrarian Platform and the Unified Peasant Movement of Aguán (MUCA), who is based in the Lower Aguán Region is currently unable to leave the area due to the curfew, rendering security measures in his favor ordered by the IAHRC inadequate to guarantee his life. Hehas been subject to surveillance and harassment by the paramilitary group La Confianza; on multiple occasions the presence of heavily men, wearing masks, from this group has been reported near his house.

Similarly, Jaime Adali Cabrera, a member of the Agrarian Platform, has been subjected to death threats and acts of provocation acts by a paramilitary group commanded by Santos Marcelo Torres that operates in the area of ​​the community of Panama and the Paso Aguán farm. These incidents include death threats, the presence of armed men stalking his home, and several robberies of farm animals by Mr. Cabrera, which constitute provocations and harassment. He has received credible information indicating that there is a plan to hire a hitman to assassinate him and a colleague from the Farming Cooperative Gregorio Chávez.

In addition, Esly Banegas of COPA, has reported has reported that she has received requests on multiple occasions, by phone and in person, for her to meet with Lenir Pérez, one of the owners of the Guapinol mining project, for which they are Seven land defenders were illegally detained. The leader Banegas and her husband, also beneficiaries of protective measures from the IAHRC, have interpreted these communications as threats.

Harassment of community journalists

Community journalist and land defender member of COPA, Leonel George, also denounced that on April 8, 14 and 25, slanderous articles on his work were published on the Facebook page, 'La Voz de Tocoa y Tocoa Exclusivas'. Previously, George was arbitrarily imprisoned and criminalized by the Honduran Public Defender’s office, increasing his vulnerability and risk of human rights violations.

Communicator, Karla Zelaya of the Agrarian Platform, also reported being intimidated and threatened with detention twice by military and security agents of a supermarket.

In addition, leaders of La Lempira, including Raúl Ramírez of the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguán (MUCA), reported that on April 7, community members found an abandoned vehicle at the entrance to their home which was reported to the police station. They were informed that the car was stolen the previous day and that it contained bags of food meant to be distributed by the government.  Given the situation in the area, community members  “fear that the police will try to use this incident to criminalize the beneficiaries of MC 50 -14 in La Lempira ”, explained representatives of local organizations.  

Increasing vulnerability

Vulnerability increased in the context of the pandemic, finding that attacks by armed groups do not comply with the mandatory social isolation measures and, on the contrary, have taken advantage of the situation to illegally mobilize through the territories and attack the defenders, the press release said.

A total of 116 organizations from Honduras signed the letter addressed to the National Protection Mechanism for human rights defenders, journalists, social communicators and justice operators, while 101 Colombian organizations joined in making the same call to their leaders.

Colombia and Honduras are considered two of the most dangerous countries in the world for defenders of human rights, the environment, and land rights.

The Inter-American Commission granted precautionary measures to farmers in Bajo Aguán in 2014, but the Honduran government has not adequately complied with them. More than 140 peasant leaders in Honduras have been assassinated since 2010.

"Although threats against human rights defenders have been reported to the authorities of both countries, the protection measures have not guaranteed their safety," added the signatory organizations.

Freedom for defenders

The defenders of the Guapinol River, held in prison while they await a Supreme Court of Justice ruling on whether they can wait for their trial under substitutive measures, are at serious risk of contagion from COVID-19 while in detention.  

In this regard, members of the European Parliament recently denounced that this preventive detention "does not have a solid legal justification" and constitutes "judicial harassment of defenders in the absence of clear incriminating evidence against them."

Along the same lines, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, declared on March 25, 2020: "Now, more than ever, governments should release all detainees without a sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting opinions. "

Agro politics disadvantages peasants

In Honduras, the Council of Ministers approved an Executive Decree on April 11, which establishes "measures to guarantee food sovereignty and security." The next day, President Juan Orlando Hernández presented a plan to guarantee the country's food security, but the plan prioritizes agribusiness operations, leaving little support for small independent producers or land rights advocates, and he does not take account for the increased food security risks imposed by the pandemic.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has reminded States that emergency measures must "adhere to the unconditional observance of inter-American and international human rights standards, which are universal, interdependent, indivisible, and transversal."

Specifically, states cannot suspend "irrevocable" rights and must "adopt an intersectoral human rights approach in all their government strategies, policies, and measures to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and its consequences."


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Translation: P. Cabezas