Politics of Poverty

Our pledge—to speak out and defend the political spaces being claimed by women and men like Berta Cáceres and Nelson García

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A woman holds up a poster with a photo of slain environmental leader Berta Caceres, during a protest march in Tegucigalpa, Honduras on March 16, 2016. Caceres' colleague, Nelson Garcia was killed by unidentified gunmen on Tuesday, March 22. Both Caceres and Garcia were indigenous rights activists with the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH). (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)

In just the last two weeks two Honduran human rights activists were killed for their outspoken defense of indigenous land rights. Their murders are part of the growing backlash against civil society around the world. We need to take concrete steps to reverse the trend – there’s no time to waste.

Like so many others across the globe, Oxfam condemns the tragic assassinations of Berta Cáceres and Nelson García, renowned indigenous leaders and environmental activists in Honduras. Their brutal murders are an enormous loss to human rights defenders around the world.

Berta and Nelson’s murders are tragic reminders that fighting for land, environmental preservation and justice is a fight over life and death.

We know that space for activists like Berta and Nelson—and the organization Berta co-founded, the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH)—to organize, mobilize, speak out, influence and hold the powerful to account is shrinking. As extreme economic inequality deepens around the world so too does the risk of “political capture” by the wealthy elite, with grave consequences for rights-based development agendas.  At Oxfam we will continue to work with our colleagues in this fight.  We will continue to speak out and defend the political spaces claimed by women and men like Berta and Nelson, and their lands.

Their murders are a chilling reminder that working on “who decides to extract, and who gets what” in natural resource-dependent countries is risky, and dangerous.

Last month, I was in Lima for the Global Conference of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).  Launched by Tony Blair more than ten years ago, the EITI brings together business, governments, and NGOs in dialogue to deliver improved accountability over financial flows from mining, oil, and gas activities in compliant countries—of which Honduras is one.

A day before the conference officially opened, I spoke at a side-event that Oxfam co-hosted with Publish What You Pay, Grupo Propuesta Cuidadana and the Peru Support Group. We put front and center the reality that citizens, activists, and journalists—from Guatemala to Cambodia; Azerbaijan to Equatorial Guinea and Peru—are being harassed, jailed and killed as they defend of their lands and fight corruption.

Not 15 minutes after I left the stage, the EITI conference was engulfed in an internal governance crisis on the right of the civil society constituency to select its own board members.  To protect its rights under EITI rules, and avoid setting a dangerous precedent, civil society staged a protest to insist that its right to independent decision making be respected.  The EITI theory of change depends on free, informed and robust civil society that is able to demand concrete reform, and critique governments and companies.

Despite the crisis being resolved—to me, it signaled a much larger problem: rather than be seen as essential voices holding power holders to account, citizens are increasingly being seen as a problem, to be silenced.

We know that EITI is not alone in grappling with the issue of closing civil society space. Stakeholders in EITI, including donors, should take action, and look to other initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership to see how they are responding to this issue. There is much to do, and there are a few things we can do right now:

  • Donors need to take an expansive view of civil society. While threats to local civil society organizations must not be tolerated within EITI, donors, diplomats and others must take an expansive view of “civil society”, and use their institutional muscle, to ensure space for civic engagement on important natural resource public policy issues is protected.
  • Donors and INGOs can work closely to help protect advocates by making greater use of the international human rights system. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association Maina Kiai recently conducted a study on attacks on organizations and individuals working on extractive industry issues. “The presence of a robust, vocal and critical civil society sector guarantees, almost without exception, that a State also possesses a good business environment,” Kiai said.
  • Donors should support the development of the non-formal side of civil society by supporting a wide variety of grassroots community based organizations, social movements and groups, trade unions and active (online) citizens and their ability to claim their rights.

I reiterate the challenge I put to the EITI, and extend it to all governments, businesses, and investors.  Will you be part of the solution or part of the problem?  If transparency works only to supply numbers in reports that aren’t used–or worse, can’t be used by citizens to push for concrete change–EITI and other voluntary initiatives will be part of the problem. If transparency is used as “open washing” by governments who have no interest in true accountability, EITI and other voluntary initiatives will continue to be part of the problem.

If, though, transparency efforts like EITI shine a light on how the information produced should be used and stands up to protect the space for citizens, CSOs, journalists and others in an accountability ecosystem to push for concrete change, they can be part of the solution.

The new EITI Global Board has its work cut out for it.  It must rebuild the trust that was broken in Lima.  An immediate first step is to ensure that the EITI Civil Society Protocol of 2015 is comprehensively applied in every country context, and swift action taken when the minimum standards here are broken.  Lives are at risk.


Join Oxfam and take action now to end violence against other community leaders in Honduras.

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