Press Release

IACHR refers case on Honduras to the Inter-American Court

September 30, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - On August 12, 2020, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) referred the case of the Garifuna Communities of San Juan and its members, regarding Honduras, before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The case refers to the international responsibility of the State for the lack of protection of the ancestral lands of the Garifuna Communities of San Juan and Tornabé, as well as the threats against several of their leaders.

In its Report on the Merits, the Commission analyzed the case bearing in mind the jurisprudence of the inter-American system with respect to the rights of indigenous peoples, taking into account the distinctive social, cultural, and economic characteristics of the Garífuna people, including their special relationship with their ancestral and traditional territories.

The IACHR noted that there is no dispute that the Garifuna community of San Juan does not have a collective property title that recognizes all of its ancestral lands and territories. In this regard, the Commission considered that, although in 2000 the National Agrarian Institute granted a title recognizing a portion of the ancestral territory claimed, the State has not complied with the title to the community's entire territory, which has prevented the community from using and enjoying its lands in a peaceful manner. The Commission evidenced the existence of multiple omissions and irregularities in the processing of the title application, including the loss of the file that was opened since 1997 containing the application presented by the community. Likewise, in this scenario of lack of legal certainty regarding their ancestral territories, the Commission verified the granting of titles to third parties outside the community; the granting and operation of hotel projects; the expansion of the urban area of the Municipality of Tela; and the creation of a National Park in the territory claimed by the community. The Commission recalled that the State also does not have an adequate legal framework that would allow for the prompt and expeditious relocation of non-indigenous inhabitants within territories claimed ancestrally by indigenous peoples and communities.

The Commission therefore concluded that the State's failure to grant title to the entire territory of the San Juan Community, including its failure to ensure peaceful ownership and possession and non-interference by third parties, as well as its failure to adopt legislation in accordance with international standards, violated the right to collective property to the detriment of the San Juan Garífuna Community and its members.

On the other hand, the Commission considered that the lack of prior consultation regarding the granting of tourism projects in part of the lands and territories claimed by the community, as well as the lack of a legal framework that would allow for the materialization of such consultation, violated the community's rights to collective property, access to information, and to participate in matters likely to affect them. The Commission observed that, despite the fact that for decades the community presented multiple requests to the Honduran authorities for recognition of their ancestral territory, the remedies presented have not been effective since the State has not recognized the entire territory requested by the Community. Among the main irregularities, the Commission noted that, despite an application filed in 1997 due to the loss of the file related to the application for titling presented by the Community, it was not recovered, so that more than twenty years of that complaint have not been obtained a serious and substantive decision, evidencing an unreasonable delay, and lack of diligence of the state authorities to title the entire territory claimed by the Community.

In addition, the IACHR also took note of the multiple complaints made by the community to the Ethnic Affairs Prosecutor's Office or to the General Directorate of Criminal Investigation of the Public Ministry regarding the sale of ancestral lands; acts of threats, aggression, harassment, and persecution suffered by its authorities, leaders, and men and women as a result of their activities in defense of ancestral lands; and the situation of constant violence and insecurity generated by third parties in their territory. The State did not prove that these complaints had been diligently addressed, a circumstance that results in the continuation of conflict situations or acts of violence against the community and its members. Based on this, the IACHR concluded that the rights to judicial guarantees and judicial protection of the Garifuna Community of San Juan were violated.

On the other hand, the IACHR established that there is no dispute that on February 26, 2006, Gino Eligio López and Epson Andrés Castillo, members of the community, were shot by police officers, resulting in their deaths. In this regard, the Commission concluded that the use of lethal force employed by the police agents was unjustified, unnecessary, disproportionate, and lacked a legitimate purpose, and therefore constituted extrajudicial executions. Consequently, it determined that the Honduran State violated the right to life of Gino Eligio López and Epson Andrés Castillo.

Finally, the IACHR considered that the San Juan Garífuna Community is in a situation of insecurity, conflict and risk for its subsistence, and that the effects of the State's actions and omissions with respect to the collective ownership of ancestral lands and territories generated, in addition, an affectation to the psychic and moral integrity of its members.

In its Report on the Merits, the Commission recommended that the State:

1. Adopt as soon as possible all necessary measures to achieve the complete titling and effective cleansing of the ancestral territory of the San Juan Garifuna Community in accordance with the recognized boundaries. The State should ensure that these measures are conducive to effectively guarantee the possession and use of the territory, as well as the self-determination of the members of the San Juan Garífuna Community and their right to live their traditional way of life in a peaceful manner, in accordance with their distinct cultural identity, social structure, economic system, customs, beliefs and traditions.

2. Make full reparation for the consequences of the violations declared in the substantive report. In particular, to consider the damages caused to the Community by the lack of total title to its ancestral territory, as well as the damages caused by the hotel, tourist and housing projects developed there.

3. Ensure that any legislative or administrative measure or project, including those related to concessions and business activities, that may affect the San Juan Garifuna Community does not begin or continue to be implemented until the Inter-American standards on consultation and free, prior, and informed consent have been met.

4. Ensure that, if there are pending judicial or administrative remedies filed by the San Juan Garifuna Community, they are resolved in a prompt manner and with a control of conventionality in accordance with the international obligations of the Honduran State under the American Convention.

5. Take the necessary legislative, administrative or other measures to prevent similar events from occurring in the future; in particular to ensure that

i) rapid and effective mechanisms to guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to reclaim their ancestral territories and to peacefully exercise their collective ownership, through titling, demarcation, delimitation and clean-up.
ii) mechanisms that guarantee prior consultation, with the due participation of the Honduran indigenous community, and that incorporate the provisions of Convention 169 and international standards in this area.

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 and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. 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.

No. 239/20