Human Rights Defenders and the Death of Berta Cáceres

The building of the Agua Zarca cascade of four giant dams in the Gualcarque river basin in Honduras has given rise to very great local controversy.  All too often major construction projects are embarked on in Central America and elsewhere without proper heed to the interests and welfare of those who have always lived and earned their livelihoods in the region.  I have often read of similar problems in South America, Africa and South Asia.

Local and international law exists to protect such people, but all too often the law is unknown, local judges have not been trained how to apply it, and the government is so keen on the economic value of the development that it is relaxed about letting construction companies ride roughshod over the rights of indigenous peoples.  Lawyers and very brave members of the local community often carry on their battles without receiving the institutional support to which they are entitled.

Last year Berta Cáceres, a member of the local Lenca indigenous group, was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her opposition to this massive hydropower project.   Two years earlier a colleague had been shot dead by a military officer during one of the protests: several others were also killed last year.

Berta had recently moved home to a new house in La Esperanza on safety grounds.  She knew all about the risks she ran, but she felt obliged to fight on:

“We must undertake the struggle in all parts of the world… because we have no other spare or replacement planet”, she said.

She was often warned that she would be raped or murdered if she continued her campaigns.  She battled on regardless.

Last Thursday she was killed.  Gunmen entered her home at about 1 am and shot her dead.  Her brother was also wounded: the gunmen escaped without being identified.  Though the police spoke of an attempted robbery, her family is in no doubt that she died because of her resistance to the hydropower project.

Three months ago I posted on this site a series of blogs about Shakespeare and the Law.  We had been raising funds to protect people like Berta.  In the first blog I quote the actress Juliet Stevenson as saying (in Middle Temple Hall):

“As you have heard, Nelson Mandela found inspiration from the words of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar during his imprisonment in Robben Island.  In particular he was struck by the line:

‘Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once.’

Courage is a quality Mandela and all Human Rights Defenders share.  Around the world, Human Rights Defenders (including those who, like Mandela, practise as lawyers) risk their lives on a daily basis to defend the rights of the most vulnerable communities.

Those brave individuals pay a high price as a result of their work and deserve the support of the international community.”

Berta Cáceras was quite amazingly valiant.      She could only die once and she was not afraid to die.

In mourning her death we should all resolve to do even more – much, much more – to provide safe accompaniment to people like her.  Every day they face dangers on a scale we seldom dream of.

 

As some of my readers know, I am a patron of Peace Brigades International (UK)[1] and the president of the Alliance for Lawyers at Risk.  This is why Berta’s story is so distressingly familiar to me.

 

[1] This small charity exists to provide safe accompaniment to human rights defenders.  Lord Avebury, who died last month, was another of its patrons.   We all miss his indomitable devotion to the cause of human rights defenders in faraway places like Honduras.

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