Berta Cáceres

Canada’s Hollow Human Rights Commitment on Honduras and Human Rights Defenders

Jen Moore Latin America Program Coordinator Jennifer Moore works to support communities, organizations, and networks in the region struggling with mining conflicts.

The Liberal government is much more, well, liberal with their use of the words “human rights” that the previous Conservative government. In practice, however, this means little more than business as usual, particularly where big business is involved.

This was evident in the Minister of Foreign Affairs’ recent response to our e-petition concerning the murder of world-renowned Honduran Indigenous activist Berta Cáceres and the attempted murder of Mexican activist Gustavo Castro nine months ago.

The petition, in concert with the persistent demands for an independent and impartial investigation into this crime from Berta’s family, her organization – the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) – and Gustavo, called on the Government of Canada to urge Honduran authorities to agree to such an investigation under the auspices of the regional human rights body – Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – and to fully implement the Commission’s orders to the Honduran government to protect Cáceres’ family and members of COPINH. Notably, repression, criminalization and violence against the organization have stepped up since Berta’s murder on March 2nd.

It is easy to get distracted reading through Minister Stéphane Dion’s effusive text about human rights as “an integral part of Canadian foreign policy”, including how much it spends in bilateral aid to Honduras and the number of times that Canadian representatives have talked to Honduran authorities about human rights since Berta’s murder. Cutting to the chase, however, Canada is clearly not advocating for an for an independent, impartial investigation into this crime. Rather, the Canadian government is “urging Honduran authorities to investigate” and providing material support toward this end. 

“The agency leading the investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres, the Technical Agency of Criminal Investigation (ATIC by its Spanish acronym), has benefitted from Canadian assistance through capacity-building led by the Vancouver-based Justice Education Society,” reads Dion’s response.

Notably, as Gustavo Castro – the only witness to the crime – has testified in a recent interview with Al Jazeera, it was ATIC that botched the early days of the investigation, and originally attempted to pin the murder on Berta’s own organization, COPINH.

It is precisely this sort of support from Canada, political and material, that led the Honduran General Attorney’s office to confidently state to the Al Jazeera reporter that the Honduran authorities feel no need to allow an independent, impartial investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres and attempted murder of Gustavo Castro because governments like Canada’s “trust us”.

But few others do. While several people have been detained as part of the current investigation, faith in the investigation has been undermined by serious irregularities from the start, the stealing of the investigation files, and high level connections between the company promoting the hydroelectric dam that Berta and COPINH were opposing at the time of her murder and high level officials in the Attorney General’s office. These include an official who worked with DESA’s attorney in the past, as well as the former Minister of the Environment when the permit for the dam was granted.

The response to the e-petition doesn’t even clarify the basic point of whether or not Canada is calling for Honduran authorities to fully implement precautionary measures ordered by the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for the protection of Cáceres’ family and members of COPINH.

Minister Dion writes that Canadian authorities have called for “protection to human rights defenders” and advocated for “the safety of human rights defenders”. But his reference to IACHR is evasive: “Canada supports the central role played by the IACHR in the protection and promotion of human rights and human rights defenders in the hemisphere.”

That’s nice, but why not say that Canada urges Honduran authorities to fully implement IACHR measures for the protection of Berta’s family and COPINH? Is it because the Canadian government is not doing that?

While Dion’s response clarifies where Canada stands on the investigation into this crime, it remains absolutely silent on the underlying issues about which the e-petition also asked for a response. Namely, that Canada would urge Honduran authorities to demilitarize Lenca Indigenous territory and cancel the Energy Development Company’s (DESA) Agua Zarca hydroelectric project, granted without the Lenca people’s free, prior and informed consent.

On these points, unfortunately, the Canadian government would likely be straying to far from its own comfort zone domestically, as it recently demonstrated with the approval of the Site C hydroelectric dam, as well as the Kinder Morgan and Trans Mountain pipelines without the free, prior and informed consent of many First Nations. It is plausible that the Canadian government might be in agreement with the use military force to impose unwanted projects, judging by the Minister of Natural Resources’ recent slip that “defence forces” could be used against pipeline protests.

Unless efforts to stand up for human rights defenders address underlying questions regarding how mega-projects are being imposed on (and harming) communities, then the demonization, the threats, the criminalization, the repression, and the violence against people who are standing up to protect their territory, their land, their water, the health of their communities, and their visions of development, will continue.

Finally, and notably, the Minister’s response did not entirely shy away from the final point in the e-petition, which urged the Canadian government “to order an investigation into the Canadian government’s role in Honduras during and since the 2009 coup,” given how “[d]espite the climate of violence and impunity [in Honduras], the Canadian government entered into a free trade agreement with Honduras, while lobbying for a mining code that favours companies and puts people and the environment at risk.”

In its written response, the Liberal government not only takes credit for their recent engagement with Honduras, but also for Canadian foreign policy toward Honduras over the years. There is not even a glimpse of daylight between the Trudeau Liberals and the previous Harper Conservative government. Minister Dion’s response states: “The promotion and protection of human rights is (…) a long-standing priority in our relationship with Honduras.”

In classic doublespeak, this line is a reaffirmation of business as usual in Canada’s bilateral relationship with Honduras, including since the military-backed coup of June 2009. Throughout this time Canada has played – and continues to play – a leading role in Honduras to legitimize and prop up corrupt and repressive regimes that have sanctioned and perpetuated the policies and projects that killed Berta Cáceres and many many others.

If Canada cannot get its policy right on the highest profile killing of a land defender and water protector in Honduras and all of Latin America in recent years, where the company was not even Canadian, this is a poor sign of Canadian foreign policy toward the many other defenders in the region facing threats, criminalization, repression, and violence in connection with large-scale energy and mineral extraction projects. Behind all the rights-laden language, little has changed.

In the meantime, the international community has responded to calls from Berta’s family, COPINH and Gustavo Castro and created an Independent Group of Experts that is now undertaking its own assessment of the investigation in an attempt to clarify the facts. In Canada, for the hundreds of people who signed this e-petition and who continue to be deeply concerned about the lack of justice for Berta, Gustavo and many others under the gun in Honduras, keep an eye out for forthcoming plans for demonstrations across the country on March 2nd, 2017 in time for the first anniversary of Berta’s murder.