The Biden administration recently issued a series of executive orders aimed at reforming immigration policy in the United States and addressing the root causes of migration. As the United States determines the causes of poverty, violence, and instability in Central America and attempts to put in place policies to address these, we encourage the US government to prioritize ensuring protection for human rights defenders.

PBI is encouraged by the administration’s intention, stated on December 10, to put universal rights and the strengthening of democracy at the center of its efforts to meet the challenges of the 21st century. As the Biden administration has noted, the work of human rights defenders “is an integral part of a vibrant civil society” and “investment in and support of them is likewise an investment in and support of the rule of law and democracy.” 

In Honduras and Guatemala, countries that hundreds of thousands of people have fled in recent years,[i] the United States’ support for human rights defenders is paramount. In Guatemala, more human rights defenders suffered attacks in 2020 than at any point in the last twenty years, according to the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala. In Honduras, killings of human rights defenders rose by 400 percent in 2019, according to Front Line Defenders. In the last two months of 2020 alone, six Honduran human rights defenders were murdered. Honduras’ national human rights institution, CONADEH, referring to these recent killings, termed them “an attack on the rule of law.”

This judgment is apt. Killings of defenders do, in fact, undermine the rule of law. Human rights defenders, by definition, are defending laws and agreements their governments have undertaken. Their work consists of insisting on the law, insisting on compliance with international treaties and accords. When human rights defenders are murdered, a message is sent: standing up for the rule of law can cost one’s very life. Terror spreads through society and civic space closes. The rule of law and stability are undermined.

Impunity for such killings is a further attack on the rule of law. When defenders are killed for defending the rights guaranteed to them, and when the government fails to punish their killers, the government weakens the rule of law in three ways: first, by failing to apply justice, as required by its own national laws; second, by seeming to condone or tolerate the killing of those working to defend their rights under the law; and third, by contributing, through such impunity, to the lack of safety for defenders. Human rights defenders are extremely vulnerable when it is clear that crimes against them will likely not be punished. This lack of safety interferes with their ability to do their critical work. We welcome, therefore, the US Embassy’s call for an expedited investigation of all the murders of human rights defenders in Honduras 2020 and encourage the US government to follow these cases closely and ensure justice is done.

Addressing impunity for killings of defenders is a necessary first step. Yet other steps must be taken. Some of our partner organizations in Honduras are requesting that the international community, represented by the United Nations, create an impartial body that can investigate and duly prosecute acts of drug trafficking, corruption, and impunity. The US could play a pivotal role by supporting such a UN-backed initiative, whether conceived of as a national or regional mechanism.  For Guatemala, too, such a mechanism could be vitally important.[ii]

The judicial systems in Guatemala and Honduras, which the US has attempted to bolster for many years with funding, training, and technical support, nonetheless continue to have extremely poor track records; more than 90 percent of all crimes remain unpunished. Human rights defenders, however, are routinely subjected to false charges, held illegally in pretrial detention and unfairly convicted. In the first nine months of last year, 287 such cases were reported in Guatemala, according to UDEFEGUA. At least a hundred such cases were reported in Honduras from March to October of last year, as the Center for the Study of Democracy (CESPAD) reports. Since each case can involve dozens of defenders, given that criminalization is often used against communities defending land and natural resources, thousands of individuals can be affected. Defenders subjected to criminalization, as the Inter-American Commission (IACHR) points out, have to interrupt their work and may be forced to change their place of residence and even to emigrate from their community or country. As the IACHR has made clear, “The State of Honduras must prevent the authorities or third parties from manipulating the punitive power of the State and its organs of justice to harass human rights defenders. In this regard, the State should take all necessary measures to prevent judicial investigations from subjecting human rights defenders to unfair or unfounded trials.”  The United States, like the IACHR, should insist on an end to the criminalization of defenders. To truly support justice and the rule of law in Honduras and Guatemala, the US must advocate strongly for the right of defenders to work unhindered, including by the very judicial systems the US has helped for decades to sustain.

The IACHR has found that people who defend the environment, land, and territory face the greatest risks in Honduras. They suffer violence, criminalization, and defamation as they work to defend their rights and resources against the imposition of large-scale projects, such hydroelectric, mining, and large-scale agrarian projects. The same holds true in Guatemala, where a spate of killings of indigenous leaders defending land and territory sparked a statement of concern from the IACHR in September of last year. Any efforts the US makes to invest in large-scale industries in Guatemala or Honduras should be tempered with the realization that violence against those stewarding a fragile and increasingly drought-ridden natural environment often ensues.[iii] This violence, along with the degradation of the environment that tends to follow in the wake of such projects, creates internal displacement which often in turn leads to migration. We are aware of reports that migration from Honduras is increasingly happening for this reason. The US should work with multilateral organizations, civil society organizations, and the Guatemalan and Honduran governments to address the root causes of threats to environmental defenders facing the imposition of mega-infrastructure projects, large-scale agribusiness, logging, and mining enterprises. Rights routinely violated include the right to free, prior, and informed consent by the affected population, as well as other cultural, economic, and social rights.

According to a 2018 report[iv] by the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights, defenders in Honduras cite government security forces as responsible for the majority of the abuses against them. The US must help create the political will on the part of the Honduran government to bring such abuses to an immediate end. Forced disappearance has re-emerged as a tactic, put to use last summer against an Afro-indigenous community that won a case against the Honduras government involving land rights. Abuses by the security forces were also evident in the aftermath of the 2017 presidential election, deemed fraudulent by many. At least 23 people were killed in the context of the demonstrated; at least 16 were shot by Honduran security forces as they protested. No one has been held to account. PBI recommends that the Military Police be disbanded, and we echo the calls of our Honduran partners and major human rights groups to suspend US security assistance to Honduras until key cases are resolved and the human rights situation improves.

Elections loom again this year. The United States, as Honduras’ main trading partner, is in a   powerful position to stop the closing of space that prevents civil society from safely supporting and strengthening democracy and building a strong and free society where Hondurans can remain and flourish.

In Guatemala, the United States has an equally strong role to play. The few protections that existed for human right defenders have been dismantled, according to UDEFEGUA. The institutions created to implement the 1996 Peace Accords, too, have been systematically closed, in spite of the objections of Guatemalan civil society. The Peace Accords, brokered with the participation of the US, commit the Guatemalan government to addressing the basic structural inequalities that have left more than half the country living in poverty, with one of the worst child malnutrition rates in the world; 47 percent of Guatemala’s children are stunted from malnutrition. In rural departments where the large majority of inhabitants are indigenous, that rate reaches 70 percent. It is no wonder that the majority of Guatemalans reaching the US border are indigenous. The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, notes the lack of guarantees in Guatemala for the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, the recognition of their own systems of self-government, their rights to lands, territories and natural resources, the exercise of indigenous jurisdiction, and access to basic health, education and food that are culturally and linguistically appropriate.  “The implementation rate of the 1996 Peace Accords regarding the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” she pointed out after a 2018 trip to Guatemala, “is only 19 percent. Failure to comply with these commitments has undermined progress of adopting measures in many areas, including land reform, recognition of indigenous authorities and justice, political participation and bilingual intercultural education. . . .The full implementation of the Peace Accords must be a priority on the State's agenda to overcome existing problems that impede the enjoyment of the rights of indigenous peoples.”

Guatemala with each passing year sinks deeper into patterns that drive migration. The inequality index is among the worst in the world, land conflicts are raging, indigenous leaders are being murdered, and the institution seen as the most fair, independent, and free of corruption, the Constitutional Court, is under attack. The US Embassy in Guatemala has done well to express concern recently about these attacks on the Constitutional Court and to call for transparency in the process of selection of judges. But Guatemala will continue to lose its citizens to forced migration if core issues are not at last addressed: land tenure; discrimination and exclusion of the country’s indigenous majority; entrenched disparities in wealth; and a development model that favors the elite while disrupting, displacing, and violating the rights of many long-established and often indigenous communities, as Victoria Tauli-Corpuz points out in her report. “In addition to the question of territorial rights and consultation, projects that are imposed on indigenous peoples,” she stresses, “disregard their rights to their own development models and have a serious impact on other human rights. It has been pointed out that the areas in which foreign investment is most highly concentrated are also the areas with the worst human development indicators, which indicates that the indigenous communities affected do not benefit from such projects. It is telling that, in Alta Verapaz, in areas with a high number of hydroelectric power plants, the communities have no electricity. In San Pablo, in San Marcos department, there are serious problems with electricity costs and supplies. Departments where agro-industry is particularly active, such as Alta Verapaz, exhibit the highest levels of acute malnutrition.”

The US should encourage the Guatemala government to abide by and implement the terms of the Peace Accords, supporting Guatemalan civil society organizations as they look for opportunities to dialogue with the Guatemalan government and find a way forward.

The US should encourage independent investigations, supporting the employees of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) and their work and should stand behind, collaborate with, and support the work of the UN Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Guatemala and the office of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman. Likewise, the US should encourage an end to restrictive laws that have been introduced and would hamper the work of NGOs and make justice for crimes against humanity carried out during the 36-year internal armed conflict impossible.

Finally, the US must demand that a Public Protection Policy for human rights defenders be developed, with the expertise of human rights organizations, and implemented without delay. The Guatemalan government was required by a 2014 Inter-American Court ruling to establish such a protocol but never has done so.

In both Honduras and Guatemala, masses of protesters have thronged peacefully through the streets, demanding the resignation of their countries’ presidents. Guatemalans protesting in November were met with brutal and excessive force. The US must insist that in the countries of the Northern Triangle, the rights to peaceful assembly and free speech are respected. Otherwise, instability will increase.

Supporting stability, democracy, and the rule of law requires new approaches, clearly; the old ones haven’t worked. The Biden administration must take a firmer stand than administrations of the past, tackling the root causes of migration by insisting on justice[v] in all its forms and true democracy. The administration’s recent executive order  on addressing root causes of migration includes promoting respect for human rights as a priority area. This is progress.  Full respect for the rights of the most vulnerable must not be simply promoted, however; respect for the rights of the most vulnerable needs to be ensured, along with protection for those who defend these rights.


[i] In 2019 alone, 264,168 Honduran citizens and 264,168 Guatemalan citizens were apprehended at US borders.
[ii] The International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) played a critical role before it was forced out of Guatemala.

[iii]The IACHR’s report points out, “According to information received by the IACHR, the inauguration and expansion of extractive and energy megaprojects in some areas of the country has been related to the installation of criminal groups in the territories affected by the projects and to the displacement of communities and people active in the defense of lands and territories.”

[iv] The UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, visited Honduras from 29 April to 12 May 2018 and in February released his report. Among his findings, he learned that defenders “continue to identify the national police, the military police, and the armed forces as the main perpetrators of human rights violations and attacks against defenders.”
[v]This justice the US must advocate for an insist on should not be limited to ending impunity but must encompass socio-economic justice, including access to land, healthcare, education, and human development.