As we await the final results of the Honduran elections, one thing is clear. This moment represents not only the culmination of an electoral process, but also the convergence of the multiple crises the country has faced since the 2009 Coup d’État, and particularly over the four years since the contested elections of 2017. The social ruptures that defined those elections, which left at least 23 persons killed, 60 injured by state security forces, as well as mass detentions and mistreatment of detainees, according to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), have only deepened over the years.

The Most Violent Elections in Honduran History

To date, this social polarisation has been reflected in numerous acts of political violence against candidates and activists from all parties, making the current electoral cycle the most violent in the history of Honduras. On 23 November, the OHCHR expressed its profound concern over this political violence, which, according to their count, had caused the deaths of 29 individuals. However, according to the National Violence Observatory, maintained by the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the toll is even higher, at 68 deaths.

Political violence has a direct impact on those who defend human rights. Of the eight monitoring organisations who participated in preparatory workshops facilitated by PBI Honduras in the week before the election, all eight reported an increase in violence against human rights defenders in key moments of the campaign, such as the primary elections in March of this year, the formation of an alliance of opposition parties in October, up to the general elections on 28 November.

The LGBT Community and Women: Groups in Situations of Vulnerability

Marginalised communities, particularly the LGBTQI+ community, saw a serious increase in their security risks, in the midst of a political campaign that questioned their fundamental rights. Several organisations representing this community denounced a “hate speech” from outgoing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, on the occasion of the bicentennial of Honduran independence, in which he called LGBTQI+ rights defenders, “enemies of the fatherland”. The next day, Arcoiris LGBT Association denounced, “every discriminatory message which incites hatred and does not safeguard the rights of all”. Just 10 days after the speech, Erika Tatiana, a trans woman from Copán Department in the mountainous east of the country, was stabbed to death in her home. The National Human Rights Commissioner (CONADEH) called for an investigation that would “lead to the capture and prosecution of the material and intellectual authors of such hate crimes”.

These discriminatory messages were also directed towards Honduran women, who are already experiencing a crisis of gender-based violence caused, in part, by the lockdown and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Just three days before voting began, a women’s march in commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women was harshly repressed by state forces, despite being deemed “peaceful” by CONADEH.

A Multi-Faceted Crisis

Adding to this situation of severe social polarisation are the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which have contributed to an unemployment rate almost twice as high as in 2019, and the increase of the rate of extreme poverty from 36.7% of homes to 53.4% over the same period. The country is also suffering from a food crisis, worsened by the devastation caused by Hurricanes Eta and Iota a little over one year ago. These concerns, and those over unequal access to land, have contributed to massive protests against the Zones for Employment and Economic Development (ZEDEs), which took place in departments around the country throughout the electoral process.

According to civil society organisations, the State response to these issues has been inadequate. In a context of numerous allegations of corruption in the management of the pandemic, and the sentencing of Tony Hernández, brother of Juan Orlando Hernández, on charges of drug trafficking in March of this year, the response of the Honduran people has been a historic drop in the level of trust in state institutions. According to surveys by Latinobarómetro, the approval rating of the Judicial Branch is currently at 17%, approval of the National Congress stands at 13%, while just 9% of citizens trust the President and political parties.

Reforms to the Penal Code

This lack of trust only increased in October, when the National Congress approved a series of reforms to the Penal Code during a week of national holidays. National and international civil society organisations expressed their grave concern over the content of the reforms, and the lack of transparency in their approval without prior debate. “The published modifications significantly reduce civic space through the criminalisation of peaceful protest, and limit the possibilities to investigate and punish corruption,” noted Isabel Albaladejo Escribano, OHCHR Representative in Honduras.

According to this publication, three elements of these reforms are particularly alarming. Penalties for “usurpation”, a charge frequently levelled against criminalised land and territory defenders, were increased. Moreover, the application of such charges was broadened to include the occupation of public spaces, as well as permitting evictions without judicial oversight. As a result, these charges severely limit rights to peaceful protest, freedom of association, and freedom of expression, among others. Reforms to the Special Law against Money Laundering particularly affected civil society organisations that administer international funds. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, these reforms could hinder civil society’s financial activities. Other reforms to the Special Law against Money Laundering restrict the investigative capacities of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in cases of corruption.

On 28 November, almost 70% of the Honduran population decided to exercise their right to vote. Several incidents occurred during election day. ASOPODEHU, for example, reported at least seven attacks against journalists, of which three were committed by the National Elections Council (CNE), two by military police, one by National Party activists, and another by Liberal Party activists. Regardless of the results of the final count, these crises and their structural causes will require a comprehensive and long-lasting response. One which supports, rather than attacks, the work of the human rights defenders who consistently fight for a better future.