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Updated 04/01/2008

Honduras News in Review—March 2008

1. U.S. State Department's Honduras human rights report cites significant concerns
2. Leaders point fingers amid rising violence, impunity
3. National human rights chairman reelected to post amid dissent from leftist groups
4. Honduras faces trial in 1995 death of environmental activist
5. Advocacy groups, Public Ministry address domestic violence and women's security
6. Domestic-violence hotline up and running
7. National Institute presses for women’s rights as state policy
8. Women’s group proposes labor reform
9. Labor-rights training center inaugurated in murdered lawyer’s name
10. Costa Ricans propose wind power plant in Honduras

1. U.S. State Department's Honduras human rights report cites significant concerns

Honduras witnessed widespread incidence of human rights violations in 2007, according to the annual Country Report on Human Rights for Honduras, released March 11 by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the U.S. State Department. Among the "human rights problems" cited in the report were unlawful killings by members of the police and government agents, summary killings by former members of the security forces, beatings and other abuse of detainees, failure to provide due process of law, and judicial corruption. Violence and discrimination against women continued in 2007, along with child prostitution and abuse, human trafficking, and discrimination against indigenous communities and homosexuals.

The "erosion of press freedom" was cited as a concern, with the report noting an increase in intimidation of members of the press. At least 11 reporters were threatened, some to the point of fleeing the country for fear of their safety. Others who reported on corruption were targets of intimidation or lawsuits by public officials. According to the report, President Manuel Zelaya refused a request for an interview with a Radio Cadena Voces reporter, saying, “No way will I ever grant your radio station an interview, and if I were Hugo Chávez, I would shut it down.” On Oct. 18, Radio Cadena Voces journalist Carlos Salgado was murdered; throughout the year, he had requested police protection because of death threats. Special rapporteurs for the United Nations and OAS condemned the killing and demanded the government bring those responsible to justice.

For its part, the Honduran government called the report unhelpful. Speaking through its chancery, it said, “Honduras believes that reports written without bilateral or multilateral collaboration are unfavorable to continued cooperation in the field of human rights, and don’t foster mutual trust.” The statement continued by saying that Honduras is striving to meet its international obligations with respect to human rights in an open and transparent manner and has committed itself fully to decreasing human rights violations. It also attributed an increase in violence to external factors like the international arms trade, mass deportation of Honduran emigrants, and international crime syndicates.

Human Rights Commissioner Ramón Custodio said he supported the findings of the report. He implored the government to act swiftly on these findings and find answers to the problems that plague the country. Quickly repudiated by government officials, he in turn defended his statement as independent and said he refused to be intimidated. [El Heraldo, 3/12/08; El Heraldo, 3/13/08; El Heraldo, 3/16/08; full report: Honduras: Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2007, released by the U.S. Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, 3/11/08]

2. Leaders point fingers amid rising violence, impunity

In his Palm Sunday address on March 17, Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez called for an end to the violence that has broken out in Honduras in recent months. Speaking a few days after a U.S. State Department report highlighted a laundry list of human rights violations, the country’s top Catholic official kicked off a “Thou Shalt Not Kill: No More Violence in Honduras” campaign saying, “We can’t stand idly by, watching the death tolls rise daily.”

In an address the next day partly aimed at the cardinal’s comments and partly, it seemed, at addressing the State Department report, President Manuel Zelaya blamed the increase in violence on "inequality, injustice and poverty" and "a culture that promotes profit, personal gain and material interests." Addressing issues of impunity, Zelaya blamed the judicial branch for failing to process and sentence criminals in a timely manner, which led to many suspects going free. In reference to a section of the State Department report finding the Supreme Court had 271,000 pending cases but had only issued judgments in 6,000 of them, he claimed that many judges are influenced by political ties or fear of retribution by criminal elements.

On March 18, Supreme Court President Vilma Morales responded, saying the courts were processing cases promptly, but that the problem was "the investigative arm, which is weak and doesn’t work as it should.” She cited the case of her own sister, murdered in her Puerto Cortés home a year ago, which is yet unsolved. Former Bar Association President Valentín Aguilar agreed, saying that Zelaya’s declarations were irresponsible. However, in a statement on March 23, Marco Tulio Barahona, Supreme Court magistrate, registered his agreement with the Honduran president, saying that oftentimes judges discount investigators’ findings, leading to detainees going free. “It’s not possible that it’s only police and prosecutors making mistakes, and that we judges are never mistaken,” he said. [Tiempo Digital, 3/18; Tiempo Digital, 3/19; La Prensa, 3/24]

3. National human rights chairman reelected to post amid dissent from leftist groups

On March 12, National Commission for Human Rights Chairman Ramón Custodio was reelected by the National Congress for a second six-year term. Custodio has played a long and distinguished role in Honduras’ human rights movement, having founded the Committee on Human Rights in Honduras in 1981, which was on the forefront of defending the lives of thousands of victims of the repression of that era, often under threat to his personal safety. He has also twice served as president of the Human Rights Commission of Central America.

His nomination and reelection to this ombudsman position, however, were received coolly by a variety of left-leaning organizations. MISF associate producer Oscar Estrada, who lives in Tegucigalpa, summed up the sentiment of many on the left by saying, "[Custodio has been] uncritical of the previous government in the area of human rights, and uncritical of the current one. With so many extrajudicial killings and massacres, and government officials linked to drug trafficking, the commissioner always stays silent. For this reason he was reelected, because he's a threat to no one." Custodio's critics include COFADEH Coordinator Berta Oliva and Rafael Alegría, head of the left-leaning United Democracy political party. While few specifics of the criticisms were published, Custodio’s widely reported response was that he “isn’t and will never be a tool” of the government or anyone else. “Independence sometimes offends,” he continued, “but when independence is wielded with conscience and ethics, one has to be calm and learn that not everyone approves of one’s actions.” Dogged by apparent continued criticism, in a separate statement he said he had managed the commission thoughtfully and ethically, and not through thoughtless action.

Without overtly mentioning Custodio, the Center for Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation of Torture Victims and Their Families issued a statement on March 10, two days before Custodio’s election, saying that it was time a woman was appointed to the post. While CPTRT Vice President Alba de Mejía didn’t name anyone directly, she said there were many qualified and influential women who could manage the agency with distinction. [La Prensa, 3/12/08; La Prensa, 3/13/08; Hondudiario, 3/12/08; El Heraldo, 3/14/08; Hondudiario, 3/11/08]

4. Honduras faces trial in 1995 death of environmental activist

The government of Honduras will be on trial before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights regarding the 1995 death of environmental activist Janeth Kawas. Kawas, then president of the Foundation for Protection of Lancetilla, Punta Sal y Texiguat, was shot to death in her Tela home on Feb. 6, 1995. It is strongly believed she was murdered because of her opposition to the exploitation of the forest lands in nearby Punta Sal, which is home to approximately 1,500 Garifuna people. Hers was the first of a string of seven murders of environmentalists in the Olancho region. A trial date is set for May. [Revistazo, 2/29/08; TierraAmerica, 2/26/08]

5. Advocacy groups, Public Ministry address domestic violence and women's security

In an attempt to highlight a prevalent issue in the country, several women’s advocacy groups hosted a viewing on March 12 of a documentary on violence against women in Honduras. The gathering, hosted by the Catracha Lesbian Network, the Central American Feminist Women’s Collective, the University Women’s Feminist Collective and the Public Ministry, among others, hoped to raise awareness in a political campaign year and underscore that democracy cannot exist if there are no political efforts to stop this kind of violence. “We hope that this won’t just be another meeting, because we need to put in place real public policy [in this matter],” said advocate Irma Amaya. The film, called “Honduras, a Femicidal Paradise,” depicts the victims and those affected by murder against women, or femicide, as it's known locally, along with discussion of changes needed.

A few days later, on March 24, Public Ministry Spokesman Melvin Duarte announced that 800 femicides had been recorded in the last three years. He said that while Ministry numbers were a bit lower, statistics collected from interested organizations had confirmed this number. He said that 11 percent of these murders were committed by women’s romantic partners, and 23 percent occurred within the confines of the home. Duarte said these statistics should be a message to Congress that the issue requires attention. [Hondudiario, 3/13/08; Hondudiario, 3/25/08]

6. Domestic-violence hotline up and running

As part of an initiative to curb violence against women, a domestic-violence hotline — 114 — was recently launched. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it will be staffed by 16 female police officers specially trained for the duty. The calls are limited to emergency situations when an attack is under way. An address is taken and, in collaboration with the national emergency hotline — 199 — a police unit dispatched. [Hondudiario, 3/5/08]

7. National Institute presses for women’s rights as state policy

On March 24, Director of the National Institute for Women Selma Estrada, speaking at a meeting with government officials, members of civil society and foreign-aid agencies, said that women’s rights should be a matter of state policy. She noted that currently the biggest problem in protecting women's rights is that every four years the programs that benefit them disappear when a new government comes to power. The National Institute has been working on national policy supporting women, having completed "the first national equal-opportunity plan 2002-2007," and is now seeking national government commitment to a plan that would be in force when a new government takes office in 2009. Estrada said she is working with the current government as well as those who have announced their presidential candidacies for the 2009 election. “We’re not working for those women who are already lawyers and engineers,” she said, “but rather those in rural areas without equal opportunity, and without access to financial resources, better living conditions or healthcare.” [Hondudiario, 3/24/08]

8. Women’s group proposes labor reform

The Honduran Women’s Collective (Codemuh) launched a labor reform proposal on March 6, timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. The proposal seeks to keep up with changing workplace risks and challenges, and includes demands for an increase in work-related accident compensation, an increase in penalties for employers’ failure to comply with national laws and international agreements, dispensation for pregnancy in shift scheduling and production goals, as well as employer’s responsibility for illness and injury suffered during work hours. Codemuh Coordinator Maria Luisa Regalado cited the collective’s own study, saying that “75 of every 100 women exhibit fatigue symptoms caused by long work days of over 12 hours a day in maquilas.” Other research shows that 92 of every 100 women show signs of repetitive stress injuries caused by the high production targets. Currently, American and Asian as well as Honduran companies fire employees for illness and injury. Regalado says she considers the current Labor Code obsolete, crafted when the nation and world economies were very different from today. Exposure to contaminants, chemicals, and psychosocial risks, as well as mechanical and biological ones “aren’t contemplated in the current code, which is why we urge Congress take up this reform,” she said. [El Heraldo, 3/7/08; Hondudiario, 3/6/08; Revistazo, 2/29/08]

9. Labor-rights training center inaugurated in murdered lawyer’s name

On March 11, the Association for a More Just Society dedicated a new work training center in the name of murdered “lawyer for the poor” Dionisio Díaz García. The center will train workers in fast-food, sanitation, and security-services industries about their rights as workers and related labor issues. “A year ago, we went through a period of frustration, disappointments, unjustified delays and negligence,” said Mauricio Aguilar, ASJ legal representative. Speaking at the dedication ceremony, he expressed his satisfaction at being able to launch the training center now, after last month’s arrest of Díaz García’s alleged killers. [Revistazo, 3/12/08]

10. Costa Ricans propose wind power plant in Honduras

Costa Rican investors met on March 5 with members of Congress to get special dispensation to build a wind power plant in Honduras. The investors, part of Mesoamérica Energy, own a similar installation in Costa Rica, the first such plant in Latin America. In an unrelated statement, former Natural Resources Minister Xiomara Gómez said that Honduras has great potential in the renewable-energy sector, including, among others, wind power. In a statement on March 12, she called for a private- and public-sector push in this area, while also warning of the dangers of climate change. [El Heraldo, 3/6/08; Hondudiario, 3/13/08]

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