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Statement of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons on conclusion of his official visit to the Republic of Honduras, 23 to 27 November 2015

27 November 2015

I visited Honduras at the invitation of the Government between 23 and 27 November 2015. I held consultations with senior Government representatives, United Nations agencies, national and international civil society and non-governmental organizations and others. I also visited victims of internal displacement and their representatives. I take this opportunity to thank the Government of Honduras for its cooperation with my mandate and all of those who met with me and provided information.

The following statement constitutes only the preliminary findings of my visit. My complete analysis and recommendations to the Government will be prepared over the coming weeks and presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in June 2016.

Let me say at the outset that I welcome the important recognition by the Government that the problem of internal displacement exists in the country and its acknowledgement that the challenges it presents require concerted action to tackle the root causes of displacement and protect the rights of internally displaced persons in line with international standards, including the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. This is a most important step to tackling the problem.

While the causes of this internal displacement are quite different to that resulting from conflict or disaster witnessed in other countries I have visited, the impact on the lives of those affected is no less catastrophic. Community members described to me violence, threats and intimidations, killings of family members, extortion, rape and murder of women and girls, and an environment of such fear and insecurity, often as a result of the activities of gangs known as maras, that they feel compelled to leave their homes for other parts of the country or, when their options in Honduras have been exhausted, to seek safety outside the country.

The primary responsibility of the State to protect persons from criminal gangs related displacement is constrained. It is intolerable that criminal gangs or maras have taken effective control of some neighbourhoods of cities including Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula that I visited. It is evident that gang members can conduct their criminal activities with almost absolute impunity and that the criminal justice system is not fulfilling its role. Gangs seek to control territories and communities and wield considerable power in the relative absence of an effective policing response. A thoroughgoing review of policing practices and structures and the failure of investigation and prosecution of crimes is required as a matter of some urgency.

I learnt during my visit about the unique and difficult challenges facing women and girls affected by violence. Women and girls can experience threats, intimidation and sexual violence by gang members as well as threats to their family members. I heard from young women who had been threatened because their brothers were in the maras and felt that they had no option other than to flee their homes. Many of these displaced women are alone, without resources and are extremely vulnerable to sexual abuse. It was evident to me after visiting centres for returned migrants that no adequate protection systems are in place for such women and girls.

The impact of crime and gangs on children and young people is particularly evident and disturbing. In some neighbourhoods children are easy prey for the gangs and others involved in criminal activities. Even very young children as well as adolescents may be coerced or forcibly recruited into the gang networks, even within the school environment, which is often infiltrated by gang members. Children may be used as drug mules, to carry weapons or used as “flags” or lookouts. It is clear that from an early age children in some of the poorest and most affected neighbourhoods are highly vulnerable and they and their parents feel that the only option to escape the influence of gangs and crime is to leave their homes.

Regrettably many of those who are internally displaced see few viable options that would provide them with security and livelihood in Honduras and so make the difficult decision to leave the country. Hence internal displacement becomes a staging post to migration. Many of those who leave the country are subsequently deported back to Honduras and face a precarious future since they fear to return to their neighbourhoods and may have exhausted their resources in their attempts to reach other countries, in particular the United States.

It is vital to recognize that the label of “economic migrant” is too often applied and yet does not take into account the unique circumstances of threat, fear and lack of options facing IDPs. We must recognize that these affected individuals and families are victims and not criminals.

A report launched by the Inter-Agency Commission for the Protection of Persons Internally Displaced by Violence during my visit on internal displacement caused by violence in several municipalities estimates that some 174,000 persons are internally displaced, while acknowledging that that real numbers could be much higher throughout the country. Nevertheless, there remains a lack of comprehensive data, including about where IDP are located, their needs and protection issues. It remains unfortunately the case that few concrete measures are yet in place for the assistance and protection of IDPs and measures by the Government remain in their infancy.

In Honduras and other countries in the region, internally displaced persons remain almost invisible victims of the violence in society. However, some important measures have been taken by the Government to bring the issues out of the shadows. I welcome for example the establishment in 2013 of the Government established an Inter-Agency Commission on Persons Internally Displaced by Violence, as an important step to bring attention to the issues across Government bodies and institutions and to begin the task of formulating law, policy and strategies to confront the issue. But this important development is not a solution in itself and must be quickly matched by concrete action on the ground to address the problem everywhere it exists.

I also visited reception centres for returned migrants where staff informed me of their important work to assist those newly returned to the country. The large proportion of those who use the services are people affected by violence, in some cases unaccompanied adolescents and children. The services are commendable and demonstrate collaboration between Government Ministries, civil society and the United Nations Agencies. However, it was clear to me that once they had been formally processed there are little longer term protection options available for those who face protection challenges such as fear of violence or rape.

I urge the Government to take concrete steps to address this protection gap including, for example, the provision of secure temporary shelter for internally displaced women and girls at risk of violence. Currently there are few such essential facilities in place in the country. Where people feel that they are unable to return to their places of origin due to fear of violence or other factors, it is necessary for the Government to develop more comprehensive options for local integration or relocation and resettlement in other parts of the country as part of a strategy of durable solutions for IDPS.

Honduras remains largely at the planning phase of its responses to its internal displacement problem in many respects, but it does have the political will and the potential to become a leading nation in the region on the issue if it takes the necessary next steps. While the Inter-Agency Commission represents an important national focal point, it lacks any budget or implementation mandate and I strongly recommend that an additional dedicated body is created at the highest level with practical implementation functions and necessary powers.

Honduras currently lacks a law or policy on internal displacement which is essential to fully addressing the challenges, establishing the rights of IDPs in national law, identifying responsibilities and governance structures, and putting national budgets in place. While it was noted by the Inter-Agency Commission that steps are being considered to develop such frameworks and to include forced-displacement as a crime in a new criminal code, progress must be made quickly and I offer the services of my mandate to assist the Government. Such dedicated legal and policy frameworks will help to guide national responses and engage all relevant institutions in a comprehensive plan of action to combat internal displacement.

It is important to understand that the solutions do not lie in enhanced security measures alone. Measures in the area of social policy and development, including to provide employment and livelihood opportunities and to tackle high poverty rates are also essential both immediately and in the medium and long-term. Ending violence and eliminating the pervasive presence and impact of gangs requires holistic solutions that understand that this is a complex challenge which requires multi-faceted responses. Amongst these is the understanding that recruitment into gangs is undermined when young people have alternative and better options available to them.

Community members highlighted to me that their trust in the police has broken down completely. This is a matter that requires urgent attention. Communities must feel that the police and other security personnel are there first and foremost to protect and assist them in the face of threats, violence and intimidation – as a service to them, not a force to be feared. Yet victims do not bring cases to the police because they believe that no proper investigation or action will be taken and due to their legitimate fears that gangs or other criminals have connections to the police and reporting crimes against them may put their safety or lives at risk.

I met with the Minister of Security and Director of National Police who informed me of programmes under way to strengthen the police in terms of its numbers, training and capacity, including through new investigation units and community policing strategies. These are positive steps but they must be undertaken sensitively and in consultation with communities affected by violence to ensue that they meet their objectives for already traumatized communities.

A heightened security response alone will not solve the problem of violence and internal displacement and in some cases may even contribute to the problems faced by communities. Communities do not wish to see greater militarization of their neighbourhoods as they frequently perceive the military and police as well as newly formed bodies such as the military police as an additional threat to them rather than creating conditions of security. Women and men described to me cases of intimidation, sexual abuse and extortion carried out by those whose job it is to protect them.

Internal displacement in Honduras must also be understood in the context of wider challenges facing the region, including the narcotics trade and the migrant and people trafficking routes between Central and North America. Consequently solutions must also involve regional and international partners working together. I was pleased to learn of some initiatives in this respect which may contribute, including the Prosperity Alliance Plan. Nevertheless, the most important solutions will be home-grown ones.

While my visit focused largely on the urban violence induced internal displacement, I also encountered other concerning internal displacement issues which will feature in my report. I met with indigenous and Afro-descendent communities and rural farmers who informed me of the challenges that they face in their lands and territories, including the threat of eviction, the impact of business enterprises, such as extractive industries – particularly mining and logging, and development projects, including hydro-electric projects which have led to their internal displacement.

Collusion between gangs, police and business enterprises was frequently stated as a concern by those whom I met. Indigenous and community leaders have been killed or threatened to the extent that they must leave for their safety.

The Government must ensure that it is in full compliance with international standards relating to indigenous peoples, including ILO Convention 169 which requires the free, prior and informed consent of indigenous peoples before projects are implemented that affect them or their lands and territories. It must equally ensure full compliance with regard standards relating to business and human rights and the actions of non-State actors that may lead to internal displacement.