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Honduras must stop criminalising defence of indigenous rights, say UN experts

09 July 2021


GENEVA (9July 2021)  ̶  UN experts* today called on Honduras to stop arbitrarily detaining and criminalising human rights defenders of the Garifuna indigenous communities.

The Garifuna, who number about 300,000 in Honduras, are an ethnic group of mixed African and indigenous heritage. In 2015 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights recognised the violation of human rights of the Garifuna communities and ordered a set of reparations, including the delimitation, demarcation and titling of traditional lands, but Honduras has not yet implemented those measures.

Mary Lawlor, UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, spoke out after the arrest of Marianela Mejía Solórzano, Jennifer Sarina Mejía Solórzano and Silvia Bonilla, defenders of the territory and rights of the Garifuna people, and members of the Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras (OFRANEH).

The Public Prosecutor´s Office has accused the defenders of robbery with violence or intimidation, usurpation, damage and threats. According to the information received, the investigations arise from the conflict related to the possession, use and owenership of certain lands for which there are both private property titles and an ancestral property title in favour of the community of Cristales and Río Negro.

Jennifer Sarina Mejía Solórzano was arrested on 3 March this year, and when Marianela Mejía Solórzano went to the police station to get information about her sister’s detention, she was arrested on the same charges. They both could face 10 years in prison if convicted. On 7 March 2021, the two sisters were formally indicted and remanded in custody under precautionary measures. Silvia Bonilla was arrested on 16 June 2021, and on 2 July 2021 she was provisionally acquitted of all charges. In the context of these arrests, 29 arrest warrants are pending against defenders of the Garifuna indigenous communities.

“The timing of the sisters’ arrest is disturbing,” Lawlor said. “They were arrested just one day before a hearing on the Honduran Government’s failure to comply with the judgements of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to guarantee the Garifuna peoples use and enjoyment of their traditional lands.”

Lawlor and other human rights experts told the Honduran government of their concern that the sisters’ arrest comes against a backdrop of “violence, attacks and persecution against civil society organisations, indigenous communities and women in Honduras,” issues the experts have previously raised with the government.

“Honduras must stop misusing criminal law to persecute human rights defenders and to stigmatise the Garifuna community,” Lawlor said. “These three brave defenders are being persecuted for the work they are carrying out to defend human rights among the Garifuna people and now they face long term detentions.”

Francisco Cali Tzay, Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, agreed that “five years after the assassination of Berta Cáceres, Garifuna communities and those engaged in defending their rights continue to face violence, attacks and persecution.”

The Rapporteurs urge the authorities to provide effective protection for all human rights defenders in Honduras, especially those who continue to fight for indigenous, women's and environmental rights.

The Rapporteurs are in contact with the Honduran authorities on this issue.

The experts’ call was endorsed by: Working Group on discrimination against women and girls: Ms. Melissa Upreti (Chair), Ms. Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Vice Chair), Ms. Elizabeth Broderick, Ms. Ivana Radačić, and Ms. Meskerem Geset Techane;and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences: Ms. Dubravka Simonovic.


*The experts: Ms. Mary Lawlor is the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders. Ms. Lawlor is currently Associate Professor of Business and Human Rights at the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) at Trinity College Dublin Business School. In 2001 she founded Front Line Defenders - the International Foundation for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders to focus on human rights defenders at risk. As Executive Director between 2001 and 2016, Ms. Lawlor represented Front Line Defenders and played a key role in its development. Ms. Lawlor was previously Director of the Irish Office of Amnesty International from 1988 to 2000, after becoming a member of the Board of Directors 1975 and being elected its President from 1983 to 1987. 

Mr. José Francisco CALÍ TZAY (Guatemala) is the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples. He is Maya Kaqchikel from Guatemala, with experience in defending the rights of indigenous peoples, both in Guatemala and at the level of the United Nations and the OAS. Mr. Calí Tzay was the founder and member of a different indigenous organizations in Guatemala and the Ambassador of Guatemala to the Federal Republic of Germany. He was Director of Human Rights at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Guatemala; member of the Presidential Commission against Discrimination and Racism against Indigenous Peoples in Guatemala (CODISRA) and President of the National Reparation Program for Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict. Mr. Cali Tzay was President of the Committee for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, a treaty body from which he was elected for four consecutive periods of 4 years each.

Special Rapporteurs are part of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights System, is the general name for the independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms established by the Council to address specific country situations or thematic issues around the world. Special Procedures experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent of any government and organisation and act in their individual capacity. 

Country page: Honduras
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