Everyday in certain countries around the world, the lives of lawyers and their loved ones are seriously endangered. In their pursuit of justice, fairness and human rights, they are perceived as a threat to organised crime and/or authoritarian regimes. Bertha Oliva de Nativi of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) stated that, since 2010 to date, 81 lawyers have been killed in Honduras, nine of whom were prosecutors. She also said that one of the biggest challenges to Honduran society is the prevailing impunity, which is exacerbated by extreme poverty, corruption, human rights abuses and an abysmal record on access to justice. One latest example: in 2015, Frontline Defenders reported that Reina Lillian Rodriguez, a Honduran lawyer working for the National Commission of Human Rights (CONADEH), was subjected to intimidation and harassment as a result of her investigation into the murder of Hector Orlando Martinez, another Honduran lawyer. Hector Martinez was a lawyer and a member of the Union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (SITRAUNAH). Prior to his murder, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights had granted precautionary measures to Hector Martinez and his family because of the danger they were in as a result of Hector’s work as a union leader.
The US Department of State’s Human Rights 2013 report on Honduras outlined that corruption, intimidation and the poor functioning of the judicial system were serious obstacles to the protection of human rights. The report also highlighted that security forces, including the army and the police, were suspected of arbitrary killings and human rights abuses, which were neither investigated nor punished. It is a well-known fact that crimes committed by representatives of the State - or by individuals who enjoy the state’s protection - are particularly difficult to investigate. These state actors seek to justify their activities by arguing that it is motivated by legitimate national security concerns.
In August 2015, members of the US Congress, alarmed by the reports of human rights abuses involving Honduran security forces, called again on the Obama administration to put an end to the funding of these forces. The congressional letter requested “the suspension and re-evaluation of further training and support for Honduran police and military units until the Honduran government adequately addresses human rights abuses”. Given the lessons learned from previous conflicts in the Central American region throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, it is clear that, under the current state of affairs, an increase in military assistance would not necessarily benefit Honduras.
In this context of weak governance, distrust of national government institutions and continuous insecurity, the murders and attacks committed against lawyers in Honduras should prompt us to give a considered response - a proposal of appropriate measures that will assist a return to the rule of law and democracy.
Similar events and experiences of lawyers in Colombia show that a constructive and proactive international response can favourably support a return to democracy. In Colombia, hundreds of lawyers have been murdered, intimidated, victimised and/or subjected to other forms of persecution for their commitment to defending human rights. According to information from the Attorney General’s Office in 2012, there were over 4,400 incidents against lawyers between 2002 and 2012 and over 400 lawyers have been killed in Colombia since 1991.
Luis Guillermo Perez, Colombian lawyer and former Secretary General of the FIDH, expressed that the UK Lawyers Caravana Group and Sarah Chandler from The Law Society’s Human Rights Committee were instrumental in keeping the plight of Colombian lawyers alive. The Caravana brought together more than one hundred European and US lawyers, who regularly visited Colombia to show solidarity, to support public hearings and to carry out advocacy work with the relevant authorities in order to demand protection for Colombian lawyers. Mr Perez went on to say that this international support contributed to those attacks becoming less systematic and less persistent and forced the Colombian state to provide protective measures such as armoured cars, bodyguards and bulletproof vests. These protective measures have helped to reduce the risk and impact of physical attacks. However, he noted that less has been done regarding the identification and punishment of those responsible for these attacks.
Adopting a policy of isolation would be detrimental to Honduras and would only increase the danger and vulnerability to their human rights lawyers. Consequently, a constructive and continuous political engagement is needed to help bring about positive political, economic and social changes in Honduras.
By taking direct action, international lawyers are well placed to support these efforts and to stand in solidarity with their fellow lawyers. Country visits can help to research, systematise and report on the situation of lawyers, the judiciary and the rule of law. These reports can also provide recommendations to the Honduran government and the international community. Helping to build a strong and independent judiciary and legal profession is a necessity for Honduras. Indifference and inaction are definitely not the answers that Honduras and the legal profession deserve.
For further information
1. “Congressional Democrats voice renewed opposition to U.S. security assistance to Honduras – Will Kerry finally listen” (August 2015) Centre for Economic and Policy Research https://cepr.net/blogs/the-americas-blog/congressional-democrats-voice-renewed-opposition-to-u-s-security-assistance-to-honduras-will-kerry-finally-listen
2. Honduras 2015: Crime and Safety Report https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=17494
3. “Situation in Honduras: Article 5 Report” (October 2015) Office of the Prosecutor, International Criminal Court https://www.icc-cpi.int/iccdocs/otp/SAS-HON-Article_5_Report-Oct2015-ENG.PDF
4. “Honduras 2013: Human Rights Report” (2013) Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, United States Department of State http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/220663.pdf
5. Honduras (Updated 2014) The World Bank http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/honduras/overview
6. “Honduras: Harassment of Lawyer Reina Lillian Rodriguez” (July 2015) Frontline Defenders https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/29160
7. “Honduras: Crimes committed following the 2009 military coup must be investigated even without the ICC” (October 2015) FIDH https://www.fidh.org/en/issues/international-justice/international-criminal-court-icc/honduras-crimes-committed-following-the-2009-military-coup-must-be
8. Overview of threats to lawyers (2012) Colombian Caravana http://www.colombiancaravana.org.uk/overview-of-threats-to-human-rights-lawyers/
9. PM 253/14 – Hector Olando Martinez and Family (Honduras) Precautionary Measures issued by the Inter-American Commission of Human http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/decisions/precautionary.asp
10. Rayner, J (April 2009) “Hundred of Colombian lawyers murdered but no one prosecuted, report reveals” The Law Society Gazette http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/hundreds-of-colombian-lawyers-murdered-but-no-one-prosecuted-report-reveals/50680.fullarticle