The Human Rights in the Americas Project seeks to build on collaborative relationships with grass-roots activists, human rights practitioners and scholars to support human rights struggles in the Americas and contribute to the development of the human rights framework of the Inter-American System for Human Rights. Joseph Berra directs the Project. Collaborative projects with community-based partners and human rights practitioners provide students with an opportunity to engage in human rights advocacy. Events and programming bring together key actors from across the Americas for dialog and shared work on key and emerging issues in human rights in the Americas.
Update: July 13, 2021
We have been actively monitoring the events following the assassination of Berta Cáceres, who was a remarkable person - an environmentalist, an Indigenous activist, a clear voice for human rights in the midst of chaotic corruption and impunity.
Her family, friends and colleagues have made resounding calls for justice which are reverberating through Honduras' civil society. This is our statement on the verdict of a powerful coauthor of her death, and on our commitment to supporting human rights advocates like Berta.
The Promise Institute Statement on David Castillo's Guilty Verdict in the Cause of Berta Cáceres
The Promise Institute applauds the judicial verdict in the case against Roberto David Castillo, found guilty on July 5th as coauthor of the assassination of Indigenous environmental defender Berta Cáceres in Honduras. The decision announced from the bench is an historic rupture in the wall of impunity made possible by the sustained, fierce and courageous demand for justice and a full accounting by the daughters of Berta Cáceres, the Lenca Indigenous organization COPINH, and the family’s legal team, accompanied by a wide array of Honduran and international human rights organizations and solidarity movement. The First Criminal Court of National Jurisdiction exhibited in its reasoned decision a high degree of judicial independence and adherence to the law, motivated by the overwhelming evidence presented.
The Promise Institute participated as a member of the International Expert Observer Mission, observing and assessing each of the almost 50 days of the trial. The Observer Mission consists of 15 domestic (Honduran) and international human rights organizations dedicated to monitoring the trials related to the cause of Berta Cáceres.
Berta Cáceres was assassinated on March 2, 2016, for leading the Lenca resistance to the construction of a hydroelectric dam over the Gualcarque River by the Honduran company DESA. The Gualcarque river is considered sacred to the Lenca people and runs through the heart of their territory. Roberto David Castillo is an ex-military officer, former administrator of the Honduran public electric utility, and served as president of DESA at the time of the assassination. While his conviction is an important victory for the cause of justice and human rights, evidence presented at trial exposed a wider structure of criminal liability beyond Castillo, involving the owners/directors of DESA and implicating other members of the Honduran political and military class. After the trial, the Honduran Public Prosecutor’s office announced that the case remains open, and they are investigating further participation in the crime. We join the family of Berta Cáceres in demanding that the intellectual authors be brought to justice.
In an earlier trial in late 2018, seven men were found guilty of carrying out the assassination, including an active military intelligence officer, current and former employees of DESA, and former military personnel. The family and their attorneys were barred from participation in that trial following a dispute with the Public Prosecutor and a challenge to the court’s impartiality. The trial against Castillo was groundbreaking not only because Castillo belonged to a superior executive structure in the planning of the crime, but also in that the family of Berta Cáceres and their attorneys, constituted as Private Prosecutors (“Acusación Privada”) under Honduran law, were allowed to present a robust case, including novel expert testimony on historical discrimination and the social context of the Lenca struggle against the dam and the positioning of Castillo within the corporate and institutional power structure that operated with presumed impunity. For the most part, the legal team was able to coordinate with the Public Prosecutor’s office in the presentation of the case rather than as perceived adversaries.
The case demonstrates the important role that the victims, constituted as Private Prosecutors, can play in holding the legal system accountable, opening cracks in the wall of impunity, and achieving some measure of truth and justice.
At the same time, we must recognize that a culture dominated by structural impunity continues to exist in Honduras. In the last two years alone, the assassinations and human rights violations of Indigenous human rights and environmental defenders multiplied, including the assassination of Garifuna leader Martin Pandy, the forced disappearance of Alberth Centeno, president of the communal board of the Garifuna community of Triunfo de la Cruz along with four other young Garifuna men, and the assassinations of Tolupán leaders Solomon and Samael Matute. All were apparently targeted for their defense of Indigenous communities and communal lands against extractivist industries. Many other community members are criminalized because of their resistance to similar projects.
While the cause of Berta Cáceres is emblematic and historic, until human rights violations in Honduras cease and perpetrators are consistently brought to justice, the struggle of human rights defenders, amidst ongoing threats to their lives and well-being, continues. The Promise Institute is committed to ongoing work with our partners in Honduras through the Human Rights in the Americas Project. We continue to advocate with them on important human rights cases within the Honduran legal system and the Inter-American System for Human Rights, largely related to the defense of Indigenous lands and resistance to extractivist industries.
Prior Activity in the Cause of Berta Cáceres - Update: October 6, 2020
The trial against government officials accused of corruption in the case known as the “Fraud on the Gualcarque” has passed its initial phases and is schedued to begin on January 18, 2021 in Honduras. The case stems from accusations made by Berta Cáceres and COPINH against the illicit concession of the Gualcarque river to the company DESA for construction of a dam on Lenca territory, leading to the assassination of Berta Cáceres. The International Observer Mission in the Case of Berta Cáceres previously denounced the denial of COPINH’s request to participate in the trial as victim (lee la carta en español aquí | read the letter English here). The Mission is planning a forum on the importance of the trial for the rights of Indigenous people the week of January 11-stay tuned for date and time.
For background information, see International Trial Observation and Monitoring below.