IACHR Takes Case involving Honduras to the Inter-American Court
October 11, 2013
Washington, D.C.—The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Case No. 12.761, Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra and its Members, Honduras.
The facts in this case have to do with the State’s international responsibility for violating the right to property of the Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra and its members, as a result of a failure to fulfill the duty of guarantee in the face of encroachment by non-indigenous people into lands and territories that belong to the Community and that were subsequently recognized by the State through the granting of full ownership titles. The titling was done without an adequate process to clear the lands of non-indigenous people, despite knowledge that a group of settlers had occupied various parts of the Community’s lands and territories, especially in Río Miel and the forest area. This situation has meant that the Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra has been able to exercise effective possession of only half of the territory to which the State granted legal title, with results that negatively impact its way of life, means of subsistence, and traditional culture, uses, and customs. Moreover, the ongoing occupation by non-indigenous people has led to a conflictive situation that has resulted in threats, acts of harassment, and even the death of one member of the Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra.
The State of Honduras has not responded effectively to this situation. Up until now, its initiatives have failed, and the State has not complied with agreements to ensure that the lands and territories of the Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra are cleared of non-indigenous inhabitants. This situation has worsened and exacerbated the conflict in the area. Further, the Community has not had access to an effective remedy to obtain peaceful possession of its lands and territories.
The case was sent to the Inter-American Court on October 1, 2013, because the Commission deemed that the State had not complied with the recommendations contained in its Report on the Merits of the case. In that report, the Inter-American Commission recommended that the State adopt, as soon as possible, the measures needed to enforce the Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra’s right to communal property and possession with respect to its ancestral territory. In particular, the Commission recommended that the State take the necessary legislative, administrative, or other measures to ensure that the land is not occupied by outsiders, in accordance with common-law rights, values, uses, and customs, and to guarantee to the members of the Community that they can continue their traditional way of life, in keeping with their cultural identity, social structure, economic system, and distinctive customs, beliefs, and traditions. In addition, the Commission called on the State to adopt an effective, simple remedy that would safeguard the right of the indigenous peoples of Honduras to claim ownership of and gain access to their traditional territories, and that would make it possible to protect those territories from actions on the part of the State or third parties that might infringe on the indigenous peoples’ right to property.
In addition, the IACHR recommended that the State take the necessary steps to ensure that similar situations do not arise in the future, in accordance with the duty of prevention and the duty to guarantee the basic rights recognized in the American Convention.
Meanwhile, the Commission’s Report on the Merits recommended that the State adopt the necessary measures to prevent the Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra and its members from being targets of acts of discrimination, and particularly from being exposed to acts of violence by third parties on account of their ethnic origin. The Commission called on the State to investigate and punish those responsible for the threats, harassment, acts of violence and intimidation, and property damage against the Garifuna Community of Punta Piedra and its members, and to provide reparation, individually and collectively, for the consequences of their rights having been violated.
This case provides an opportunity to strengthen case law in the inter-American human rights system with respect to the State’s obligation to create conditions so that indigenous peoples’ ownership of their lands, territories, and natural resources can be exercised peacefully, without threats to their way of life, social organizations, and traditional uses and customs. Moreover, it makes it possible to strengthen case law as regards indigenous peoples’ right to effective judicial protection when, despite having legal title, they lack coercive mechanisms to enforce their rights against threats and encroachments by non-indigenous third parties.
A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this matter. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.