Remarks at the Opening of the Bilateral Human Rights Working Group

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Tegucigalpa, Honduras
September 13, 2012

(As Prepared for Delivery)

[Spanish Version]

I am honored to lead the U.S. delegation to the first annual meeting of the Bilateral Human Rights Working Group. The establishment of this working group demonstrates the seriousness with which the Government of Honduras addresses human rights issues, its commitment to achieve concrete results, and its willingness to engage on human rights at a high-level with its international partners.

Since taking office, President Lobo has demonstrated his commitment to human rights with the establishment of the Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, the Ministry for Indigenous and Afro-Honduran Affairs, and the establishment of the Special Victims Task Force, recognizing that there is much more work to be done in the area of human rights. This Task Force underscores the commitment of the government to protect all its citizens, including those who are most vulnerable.

The Special Victims Task Force, with the support of the U.S. government, aims to break the cycle of impunity against vulnerable groups, including journalists and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) individuals. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right in every democracy, and journalists must be free to report on all topics, without censorship and without fearing for their safety.

This is one of the reasons why the Task Force also investigates attacks on journalists and social communicators. In addition, the Task Force is making progress towards ending impunity in specific cases against individuals of sexual diversity. As Secretary Clinton said, "LGBT rights are human rights." Their efforts in these cases led to 22 arrests in LGBT and journalist cases so far.

There are other vulnerable populations at risk of human rights violations. Human rights defenders and trade unionists are threatened, harassed, beaten and even killed for standing up for the rights of others. Honduran youth are too often exposed to grave gang violence, and threatened by narco-traffickers. Women are frequently victims of gender-based violence. The protection of these individuals is one of the most important responsibilities of government.

The Bilateral Human Rights Working Group gives both governments the opportunity to work together on the difficult tasks that we must undertake to improve citizen safety and ensure that human rights of all Honduran citizens are respected. We will discuss breaking impunity, justice and security sector reform, and respect for human rights. But our aim in this bilateral relationship will be to help you identify concrete, achievable objectives and timelines that we can help you achieve.

When we complete our discussions today, our work will continue. To this end, we will establish two sub-working groups, one in Washington, D.C. and one here in Tegucigalpa. Through these groups, we will continue to work together to help you accomplish the objectives we agree upon today.

Ending impunity is key to creating a safer, more prosperous, and more socially inclusive future for Honduras. When impunity persists, citizens turn away from government and feel increasingly powerless -- resulting in a violent cycle that leads to insecurity and widespread fear. To end impunity, authorities must thoroughly investigate allegations of abuse, to build strong, credible cases. These cases must result in prosecutions and convictions of the responsible parties, following due process and equal protection under the law.

The message must be clear that the law applies to everyone -- from the common pickpocket to the powerful government official or the wealthy business person. This sends a signal that a crime is a crime and it doesn’t matter who commits it or what they do.

Combating impunity also requires strong judicial and security sectors that are respected and trusted by the people. Instead of being seen as part of the problem, the police must become the most trusted actor in Honduras. The people need to have confidence that when they call the police they will get the help they need and will receive equal treatment under the law.

The United States welcomes new institutions, such as the Public Security Reform Commission and the Directorate for the Investigation and Evaluation of the Police Career. They demonstrate that this government wants to introduce essential reforms. These new institutions give Hondurans hope that change is possible, but results must follow. However, changes of this magnitude are often slow and difficult and require unwavering dedication and a clear vision to achieve concrete and lasting results. The United States is prepared to support you in this important and challenging journey.

To move this work forward, the Foreign Affairs Minister Arturo Corrales and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding to focus our joint efforts on citizen security. This agreement identifies five priority areas that are essential to strengthen the Honduran government’s efforts to combat impunity and reform the security and justice sectors.

The Government of Honduras cannot succeed in this ambitious agenda alone. An engaged civil society organizations are critical partners in the effort to build responsible and trusted security and justice institutions. Civil society must be free to act as an advocate for change and to serve as the outside auditors of justice and security sector reform. In turn, civil society must demonstrate its willingness to engage in productive dialogue with the state. We commend the leadership of the Alliance for Peace and Justice, a coalition of organizations, in encouraging meaningful progress in justice and security sector reform in Honduras.

We urge the government to continue to find ways to support civil society groups, such as the Alliance, to fulfill the important role they play in any democracy.

As partners, the U.S. stands with Honduras to make important progress in human rights and improved security for all Hondurans. However, progress will come slowly and it will only come through partnership and dedication to the principles of respect for human rights. With this first high level meeting, we confirm the importance of the Bilateral Working Group to issues the essential reforms and make sure that the government, along with civil society, emphasize human rights.