Last November, Honduras underwent its third Universal Periodic Review (UPR). One of the country’s most-lauded advances was the creation of the National Protection Mechanism (the Mechanism), based on the National Protection Law, which was drafted as a result of the recommendations made during the previous UPR cycle in 2015. Five years later however, countries such as Germany, Greece, Ireland, Japan, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and Spain, once again made recommendations to improve this body, calling for its increased effectiveness, the dedication of greater resources, and the involvement of civil society organisations in its decision-making.

From its establishment to 31 July 2020, the Mechanism recorded a total of 547 requests for protective measures, according to data gathered by local news outlet Pasos de Animal Grande. There are currently only 183 open cases (109 on an individual level and 74 cases relating to groups). Out of this total, 74% are for human rights defenders and lawyers, 20% for journalists and social communicators, and 6% for justice operators.

The importance of a preventative focus

Despite these advances, Honduran organisations report institutional weaknesses which hinder the full protection of human rights defenders in the country. In 2019, Honduras was the most dangerous country to defend human rights when measured in killings per capita. Between 2020 and 2021, at least two persons receiving protective measures from the Mechanism were assassinated: Marvin Damián Castro Molina, a member of the MAS Vida Environmental Movement from the south of the country; and indigenous Lenca defender Juan Carlos Cerros, who opposed the ‘El Tornillito’ hydroelectric dam and held protective measures since suffering a violent attack the previous year.

The lack of investigation is a major weakness of the Mechanism. Protected individuals and organisations report that their measures are primarily related to police and infrastructure. Police liaisons and guards, panic buttons, and CCTV are measures that do not focus on seriously investigating the causes of why defenders require protective measures. In 2017, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR) recommended that member states adopt comprehensive protection policies, going beyond physical protection to include a preventative and differential approach. One year later, the Mechanism established the Prevention and Context Analysis Unit. However, this Unit still does not have sufficient resources for its operations. Another initiative to improve this preventative and investigative approach was the creation in 2018 of the Special Prosecutor for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Journalists, Social Communicators and Justice Operators (FEPRODDHH). However, despite receiving 199 complaints between March 2018 and October 2020 (the majority for abuses of authority), no arrest warrants were issued.

Lack of training and information

Mechanism beneficiaries also report that assigned police liaisons lack awareness of their situation of risk, details of their protective measures, and the operations of the National Protection System. “Two factors explain this situation: turnover in police liaisons is very high, sometimes changing every three months. Moreover, there is not a complete transfer of information, leading to gaps in information and context which are fundamental to fully understanding the situation of the beneficiary”. The low reactive capacity of police during emergencies in addition to the potential for sexist and suggestive comments towards women defenders from the majority-male police liaisons are further challenges.

The lack of awareness of the Mechanism among authorities, noted by the IACHR in August 2018, is even greater in rural areas. The institution’s centralisation means that local authorities are not informed and lack training in human rights, gender, and protective measures. This is particularly concerning in light of the fact that nearly 40% of beneficiaries are land and territory defenders in rural areas.

Another negative pattern is the Mechanism’s lack of full authority and the rigid hierarchy between the National Protection System and the Security Secretary. Beneficiaries report that police liaisons, who report to the Security Secretary, are not accustomed to receiving direct orders from the Mechanism: “This dynamic slows reaction times during an emergency even further. It is different when the order comes directly from the Security Secretary; in these cases, the police liaison’s activation is much more rapid and effective.”

Lack of Trust

According to ERIC-SJ’s 2020 Opinion Polls, 82.5% of Hondurans do not trust the Central Government. This situation is replicated within the Mechanism, where there is a mutual distrust between human rights defenders and authorities. Many human rights defenders refuse to request measures despite facing grave threats to their security due to their fear of sharing sensitive information with the Mechanism and the police “How can we ask for protection from the same people who are attacking us?” beneficiaries ask. The National Network of Women Human Rights Defenders in Honduras recently denounced that four out of every ten attacks against women defenders are committed by police agents. Furthermore, beneficiaries report having difficulty demonstrating that their security incidents are directly related to their defence of human rights. “The authorities tend to identify these incidents as isolated episodes, without situating them within a larger context of systemic persecution”.

In his 2018 end of mission statement, then-UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, recognised that, “There exists an urgent need to adopt a comprehensive public policy for the protection of human rights defenders and to assign the necessary budget for its effective implementation”. Forst also noted that the Mechanism’s budget represented a miniscule percentage of the total budget of the Ministry for Human Rights (0.00018%).

To date, many countries have supported this task. In 2017, they signed a Treaty of Cooperation with Freedom House for capacity building and financing the Risk Unit and the Prevention and Context Analysis Unit. In 2020, the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation and Development (AECID), in collaboration with the UNOHCHR, began supplying technical assistance for the development of several protocols, including a protocol related to the investigation of crimes against human rights defenders. This is a vital initiative in a country where over 90% of such crimes are never prosecuted.