In two strongly worded letters to the new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, almost 80 United States legislators today expressed their grave concern at the risks facing activists who defend their land and the environment in Honduras.
A recent Global Witness report exposed how more than 120 land rights defenders have been killed since 2010. These were ordinary people who took a stand against abusive dams, mines, logging or large-scale agriculture on their land. They were murdered by state forces, security guards or hired assassins. Countless others have been threatened, attacked or imprisoned.
The US is implicated. In 2016 it provided US$98.3 million in bilateral assistance to Honduras, on top of millions more through multilateral agreements. A large chunk of these aid dollars are funding the police or military, which are behind many of the attacks. Yet Tillerson met with the Honduran President in Washington two weeks back to discuss further collaboration.
But now lawmakers from both the Senate and the House of Representatives - led by Patrick Leahy and Jim McGovern - have called upon the Trump administration to take stronger action to support activists and prevent investment in abusive industries. They demand that US assistance to Honduras be withheld if a stricter inspection of their human rights record proves that the country is not complying with aid conditions.
The letters are significant for four principle reasons.
Firstly, simultaneous bicameral letters regarding foreign affairs is extremely rare. With legislators in both chambers spelling out a clear agenda on Honduras just weeks after Tillerson’s confirmation, he will clearly face close and coordinated scrutiny when it comes to the role of the US and human rights in Latin America, the deadliest continent for environmental activism.
Secondly, the fact that 78 US politicians took the time to speak out about this at a time when – let’s be honest – there’s quite a lot going on in Washington, sends an especially strong message of solidarity with those activists on the front line. The subtext to Hondurans is reassuring: we will not forget about you just because things got a bit crazy over here.
Thirdly, they get it. The letters don’t just express concern at the murders, but call for tackling the root causes documented in our report: widespread corruption allowing business and political elites to impose mining, hydropower and other industries on rural communities, whilst impunity means dissent can be silenced violently without consequence.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, legislators have used the letters to highlight the breadth of US interventions which impact Honduran human rights, and the safety of those who defend them.
The focus is on US aid, where legislators question how the State Department recently certified Honduras – the most dangerous place on Earth to stand up for land and environmental rights – as having complied with conditions demanding that non-governmental groups ‘operate without interference’. The letters call for the establishment of effective criteria to measure compliance, reiterating that aid should be withheld if that can’t be verified. They also highlight how complex it is to understand how US assistance is spent, calling for greater transparency.
The letters go further still. Recognising that abusive projects will cease to exist without investment, they call for the State Department to work with the Treasury to oppose financing by International Financial Institutions, such as the World Bank, in industries associated with human rights violations.
They demand pressure on the Honduran government to guarantee indigenous rights. They ask that the US be more vocal in its support of local activists.
But why should we expect the new administration to act? Well, perhaps the most obvious reason for President Donald Trump is that this is intimately linked to one of his priorities: migration.
Thousands of Hondurans are fleeing to the US because of conditions back home, in which the corruption which we documented ensures that the country’s resources remain in the hands of a few elites. It is precisely those community leaders combating this corruption and proposing more universally beneficial development projects who are being murdered. If Trump really wants to lower immigration, he needs to deal with its root causes; and that means acting on these letters.
The call from Congress is timely: a year on from the murder of prizewinning environmentalist Berta Cáceres, and at a time when conditions for human rights defence in Honduras are worsening. The government has failed to counter an orchestrated online campaign against Global Witness and other NGOs, whilst hydropower company DESA recently filed a civil case against local defender Suyapa Martinez for defamation.
But current levels of scrutiny are unprecedented. These letters come on the back of reintroduced legislation calling for the immediate suspension of US security aid to Honduras. Together they remind the Honduran government that it will have to do an awful lot better and protect defenders if it wants to count upon continued US support.
Ben Leather is a Campaigner for the protection of land and environmental defenders at Global Witness. Follow him on Twitter at @BenLeather1