Improving access to justice for indigenous Lenca community in Honduras

March 23, 2017

Improving access to justice for indigenous Lenca community in Honduras

By Santiago Agra Bermejo

One year on from the murder of environment and indigeous rights activist, Berta Cáceres, a Trócaire-supported project launches to empower the Lenca people of Honduras to gain access to the judicial system, and have their rights recognised and protected in a country recently labelled "The Deadliest Place to Defend the Planet" by Global Witness. 

Víctor Vásquez speaks to press at programme launch event. Photo: Trócaire 2017

Víctor Vásquez, Lenca Indigenous Independent Movement of La Paz (MILPAH) coordinator speaks to press at programme launch event. Photo: Trócaire 2017

Víctor Vásquez can’t bend his leg since a bullet fired by a policeman broke his knee in January.

He was supporting a group of peasants threated to be evicted when the police charged. Three others were also injured. Vásquez is getting use to this, as he is the coordinator of the Lenca Indigenous Independent Movement of La Paz Honduras (MILPAH), a groups supported by Trócaire partner the Honduran Centre for Communal Development (CEHPRODEC).

The indigenous people known as the Lenca live between Honduras and El Salvador, and they represent the majority of the population of the department of La Paz (Honduras), where livelihoods and access to resources are threatened by land-grabbing and hydroelectric projects.

The Lenca have lived for a long time in poverty and they have historical problems getting access to the judicial system.

Social and cultural barriers, as well as lack of knowledge and gender discrimination, have kept them out of the system and in turn has increased their distrust of it.

To tackle these barriers, our partner CEHPRODEC, along with the Women Studies Centre of Honduras (CEM-H), and the Relatives of Disappeared Detainees Committee of Honduras, have joined forces in a project to improve the access to justice of the Lenca people of La Paz, through a project funded by the EU Eurojustice programme. 

The project aims to empower the Lenca people, particularly women, to know and exercise their rights and to help them to use the judicial system. It also aims to ensure that the system itself is more aware of the reality and rights of the Lenca people.

120 justice workers will be the direct target of this four-year project, which launched in La Paz in February. The project will end in November 2019, with the aim that by then, the Lenca people would be empowered to use the judicial system to stand up for their rights and lands, and that the justice operators are more aware of the reality they work in. 

The launch event took place just before the first anniversary of the killing of the Lenca leader Berta Cáceres and days after the release of the Global Witness report “Honduras: The Deadliest Place to Defend the Planet”.

berta caceres

Berta Cáceres, the Honduran Lenca rights and environmental rights campaigner, was murdered on 3 March 2016, barely a week after she was threatened for opposing a hydroelectric project. As yet nobody has been prosecuted for her murder.

Trócaire’s partners support almost all the persecuted people detailed in that report.

At the launch, Trócaire Honduras' country director Hervé Bund highlighted the rising criminalisation of human right defenders in the country to an audience of judges, civil servants, the regional police chief, and Lenca leaders. 

MILPAH deputy coordinator, Martín Gómez, thanked the Irish for their support and linked the Lenca struggle with Lempira, the indigenous leader against the Spanish colonisers “the Lenca are doing what Lempira did, raising our voice against injustice”.

“They want to silence us, to tame us, they want us to ignore the massacres and murders, but we won’t. Only we can decide what to do with our lands, from deep in the Earth up to the radio spectrum."

José Luis Espinoza of CEPHRODEC said that “Many things that are legal are not fair. A state that goes against fulfilling rights is against history and it is doomed to be a failed state”.

Bertha Oliva of COFADEH said: "Honduras in sinking in a state of fear, silence and neglect. The people need their liberation and to recover what has been denied”.

Oliva highlighted some of the barriers to access to justice in La Paz, like illiteracy, but she called for the building of bridges, not walls.

For her part, Suyapa Martínez, CEM-H coordinator, focused on women, highlighting the startling figure of 500 femicides per year in Honduras, the lack of judicial resolution of the cases, the fact there are crime scene analyses or autopsies, and that less than 2% of the judicial budget goes to fight gender violence. “We need a working rule of law”, she stressed.  

“Without rights, there is no justice”, highlighted Madeleine Onclin, chief of Cooperation in the EU delegation in Honduras.