I/A Court H.R., Case of Kawas Fernández v. Honduras. Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of April 3, 2009. Series C No. 196.

Non official brief

 This summary is also published in the website of the Council of Europe in the following link: www.venice.coe.int/files/Bulletin/B2009-2-e.pdf

 

Headnotes:

 

When there is evidence that State agents were involved in the perpetration of human rights violations, the State may not rely on its own lack of diligence in a judicial proceeding intended to assess criminal responsibility for those acts in order to release itself from international responsibility for the violation of Article 4.1 ACHR.

 

Under Articles 8.1 and 25 ACHR, a 14-year domestic investigation into a murder exceeds the reasonable length of time available to a State to fulfil its obligation to undertake a serious, complete, and effective investigation of the events surrounding the crime where the case can be characterised as non-complex, the relatives of the victim do not take actions aimed at hindering the investigation, and the investigating authorities unjustifiably keep the investigation inactive for eight years and later undertake actions aimed at derailing the investigation and intimidating witnesses.

 

The defence of human rights is not limited to civil and political rights but necessarily encompasses the work of educating, monitoring, and reporting on the status of economic, social, and cultural rights.

 

Environmental protection and the enjoyment of other human rights are undeniably linked in virtue of the ways in which environmental degradation and the adverse effects of climate change tend to impair the effective enjoyment of human rights.

 

A State incurs international responsibility for the violation of the right to freedom of association when an agent of the State has been implicated in the murder of an environmental activist and there is evidence that the activist's defence of the environment was a motive for the murder.

 

The State's failure to adequately investigate and punish the murder of an environmental activist when there is evidence that the activist's defence of the environment was a motive for the murder produces a chilling effect on other people engaged in the defence of the environment.

 

States have a duty to adopt legislative, administrative, and judicial measures, or to perfect those already in place, which guarantee the free exercise of the activities of defenders of the environment, provide immediate protection to environmental activists facing danger or threats as a result of their work, and ensure the diligent and effective investigation of acts endangering the life or integrity of environmentalists on account of their work.

 

Summary:

 

I. On 6 February 1995, Blanca Jeannette Kawas-Fernández was shot and murdered inside her home. The victim had been president of PROLANSATE, a foundation organised to promote the protection and preservation of the areas surrounding the Tela Bay in the Department of Atlantida, Honduras, and to improve the quality of life of the area's residents. In this capacity, she had denounced damage caused by private interests to Punta Sal, contamination of the lakes, and illegal logging of the region's forests, as well as other economic development projects in the area. State authorities initiated a criminal investigation immediately after Ms. Kawas-Fernández's murder, but subsequently allowed the investigation to remain idle until 2003. At the time that the Inter-American Court's Judgment was emitted, fourteen years after the murder, State authorities had not implemented any measures aimed at arresting suspected perpetrators. Evidence also suggested that State agents had been involved in planning the murder. Moreover, in the years following Ms. Kawas-Fernández's murder, various acts of aggression and coercion and the murder of environmental activists in Honduras were reported.

 

On 4 February 2008, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights filed an application with the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (hereinafter "the Court") against the State of Honduras (hereinafter "the State") to determine its international responsibility for the alleged violations of Article 4 ACHR (Right to Life) in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR (Obligation to Respect Rights) to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández; and Article 8 ACHR (Right to a Fair Trial) and Article 25 ACHR (Right to Judicial Protection), in relation to Articles 1.1 and 2 ACHR (Domestic Legal Effects), to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández's next of kin. The representatives of the victim and her next of kin alleged additional violations of Article 16 ACHR (Freedom of Association) to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández and of Article 5 ACHR (Right to Humane Treatment) to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández's next of kin. For its part, the State admitted international responsibility for the violation of Articles 8 and 25 ACHR, in conjunction with Articles 1.1 and 2 ACHR, to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández's next of kin.

 

II. In its Judgment of 3 April 2009, the Court first found that the State had violated Article 4.1 ACHR, in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR, to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández, by its failing to initiate a prompt, serious, impartial, and effective investigation into her murder. Indeed, because State agents had attempted to derail the investigation and intimidate witnesses, were negligent in the gathering of evidence, did not carry out standard operating procedures for arresting suspected perpetrators of the crime, and unjustifiably allowed the investigation to remain inactive until 2003, the State had failed to fulfil its duty to respect and guarantee the victim's right to life.

 

Furthermore, the Court found, in accordance with the State's partial acceptance of international responsibility, a violation of Articles 8 and 25 ACHR, in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR, to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández's next of kin, given that the delays in investigations were due solely to the acts of State agents. However, the Court declined to find a violation of Article 2 ACHR given that the parties did not provide arguments and supporting evidence in that respect.

 

The Court also found that the State had violated Article 5.1 ACHR, in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR, to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández's next of kin, on account of the pain, suffering, and feelings of insecurity, frustration, and impotence caused by the State's inefficiency in investigating the victim's murder and punishing the perpetrators. The Court did not, however, find a violation of Article 5.2 ACHR to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández's next of kin, in accordance with its jurisprudence on the subject of torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment.

 

Finally, the Court found the State responsible for a violation of Article 16.1 ACHR, in relation to Article 1.1 ACHR, to the detriment of Ms. Kawas-Fernández, because an agent of the State had been implicated in Ms. Kawas-Fernández's murder and the State had failed to adequately investigate the murder and punish those responsible when there was evidence that her activities in the defence of the environment were a motive for the commission of the crime. These factors produced a chilling effect on other activists engaged in the defence of the environment.

 

Accordingly, the Court ordered the State to pay pecuniary and non-pecuniary damages, to reimburse the costs and expenses of the parties, to carry out pending criminal proceedings and any other proceedings initiated with respect to the facts that gave rise to the violations in the case within a reasonable period of time, to publicise the Judgment, to publicly acknowledge its international responsibility, to construct a memorial honouring the memory of Ms. Kawas-Fernández, to erect signs at the national park named after her, to provide free psychological and psychiatric care to the victim's next of kin, and to launch a campaign promoting national awareness and sensitivity regarding the importance of the work performed by environmentalists in Honduras and their contribution to the defence of human rights.

 

 

Judge García Ramírez wrote a concurring opinion, which was joined by Judge García-Sayán.