Human Rights in the Americas

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 CáceresUpdate: 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.

  • Re-Imagining Rights in the Americas

    Programming for the coming years will focus on the Project’s signature initiative of Re-Imagining Rights in the Americas, which will culminate with a planned period of sessions of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the UCLA campus in March 2022.  This initiative will spotlight emerging struggles in the Americas around autonomy for Indigenous peoples, environmental defense, racial justice and state accountability.  It will promote dialog, action and research to expand the legal framework for these struggles, building towards the visit of the Commission.  In its period of sessions, the Commission will hold public hearings on human rights violations by state parties and emerging human rights issues in the Americas.

  • Visiting Professor James Cavallaro

    We are thrilled that James (Jim) Cavallaro will be a visiting professor and  teaching a course on Regional Human Rights Protection: The Inter-American System at UCLA Law in Spring 2021. A former president of the Inter-American Commission, prolific scholar and sought-after voice on international human rights issues, Professor Cavallaro has dedicated his thirty-year career to human rights advocacy and is frequently called upon by the media and civil society to offer his expertise. He is currently the Executive Director of the University Network for Human Rights, which trains undergraduate and graduate students in human rights fact-finding, documentation and advocacy.  This course is a terrific opportunity for our students to learn from an eminent leader in the Inter-American human rights system.

  • Spanish/Portuguese Speaker Series

    As part of the Reimagining Rights in the Americas initiative, we launched a Spanish/Portuguese speaker series to expand our reach across the Americas.  The inaugural event, El Sistema Interamericano de Derechos Humanos: luces, sombras y nuevos derroteros (“The Inter-American System for Human Rights: lights, shadows and new paths”) was held on International Human Rights Day, December 10, 2020 and featured James Cavallaro, former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and visiting professor at UCLA Law for Spring 2021 as moderator of a discussion with José Miguel Vivanco (Director of Human Rights Watch Americas Division), Silvia Serrano Guzmán (former attorney with the IACHR) and Claudio Nash Rojas (Constitutional Law expert at the Univ. of Chile).  You can view the event here in Spanish and here with English interpretation. Future events are planned with leaders of Afrodescendent and Indigenous organizations, environmental defenders, and critical human rights scholars in the region.

  • Collaborative Projects

    The Promise Institute is engaged in ongoing collaborative human rights work and litigation in the Inter-American System through the Human Rights in the Americas Project.  Students have the opportunity to participate in this work through advanced clinics, independent study, and pro-bono initiatives.  In August 2020, through the Human Rights in Action Clinic we filed a new petition with our partners in Honduras to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in the case of assassinated women’s and land rights leader Margarita Murillo against the state of Honduras.  Contact project director Joseph Berra if interested.

  • Fellowship Opportunity

    The Promise Institute has a collaborative agreement with the Special Rapporteur for Economic, Social, Cultural and Environmental Rights of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Promise Institute will provide a graduating student who demonstrates an outstanding commitment to human rights in the Americas with an award and post-graduate fellowship opportunity with the Special Rapporteur at the Commission.  Contact Joseph Berra for more information.

  • International Trial Observation and Monitoring

    Human Rights in the Americas Project Director Joseph Berra is part of the International Observer Mission to the murder trial of Honduran environmental and Indigenous rights activist Berta Cáceres. Cáceres was assassinated in March 2016, after winning the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work leading the Lenca community’s fight to stop construction of a dam on the Gualcarque River. Berra represents the Promise Institute on the Mission, which includes 17 national and international human rights organizations from North and South America and Europe. 

    From October to December of 2018, eight defendants stood trial for the murder of Berta Cáceres.  Seven were found guilty: the four material authors and three who organized them. The latter group includes a mid-level manager and a former security guard for the dam-building company DESA, and an active duty military intelligence officer.  The executive president of DESA is awaiting trial as the only intellectual author so far to face justice. The family of Berta and the Lenca organization COPINH continue to demand investigation and prosecution of the intellectual authors of the crime, which implicates powerful individuals in Honduran society.  

    Berra and Amy Kimbel (UCLA Law 2019) were observers during the first trial. The Mission’s final report and other information on the trial can be found here. The Mission found irregularities and serious deficiencies in the Honduran justice system in the course of the trial, and made recommendations to help overcome endemic structures of impunity. 

    Berra is a frequent spokesperson for the Mission due to his expertise on Honduras and work in collaboration with COPINH on Indigenous rights issues. On December 1, 2020 he participated in the forum “Access to Justice, Truth and Judicial Guarantees in the Cause of Berta Cáceres” on the second anniversary of the conviction and on the eve of the prosecution of DESA president David Castillo. You can view the forum (in Spanish) here. Berra will observe the upcoming Castillo trial as part of the Mission, expected to take place in early 2021.

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