I/A Court H.R., Case of the Garífuna Punta Piedra Community and its members v. Honduras. Preliminary Objections, Merits, Reparations and Costs. Judgment of October 8, 2015. Series C No. 304.

Non official brief

[This summary was developed by the Secretariat of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. It relates only to the merits and reparations aspects of the judgment. A more detailed, official abstract (in Spanish only) is available on that Court’s website: http://www.corteidh.or.cr/.] 

 

 

Facts – In 1993, the State of Honduras granted a property title to the Punta Piedra Garifuna Community[1]. The title was later expanded in 1999. Nevertheless, at the moment that the Community received title, part of the territory was occupied by peasants of the Río Miel village. As a result, multiple conciliatory proceedings were held. In 2001 the State committed to clearing the title over the territory in favour of the Punta Piedra Community by paying for the relocation of the Río Miel peasants and for improvements they had made to the property. However, these commitments were not fulfilled, thus generating greater conflict be- tween the communities. As of that moment, acts of violence and intimidation occurred, and a leader of the Punta Piedra Community, Mr Félix Ordóñez Suazo, was killed. In the course of the proceedings, the information disclosed to the Inter-American Court showed that an exploratory mining con- cession granted by the State could also affect part of the territory to which the Punta Piedra Community was granted title.

 

For the purposes of this specific case, the Inter- American Court requested a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in order to obtain additional information, by means of satellite imagery analysis, on the territory belonging to the Punta Piedra Community. Moreover, a delegation of the Tribunal headed by the President of the Court held an on-site visit to the territory in order to observe some of the claimed areas, hear testimony from the villagers and meet with the parties.

 

Law

(a)     Preliminary objections – The State submitted two preliminary objections regarding the non- exhaustion of domestic remedies. These were rejected unanimously on the grounds that part of Honduras’s argument was time-barred and that there had been unwarranted delay in rendering a final judgment with regard to the investigation into Mr Ordóñez Suazo’s death.

 

(b)     Partial acknowledgment of international responsibility – The Inter-American Court unanimously accepted the acknowledgment of inter- national responsibility expressed by the State, in that it had not cleared the Punta Piedra Community’s title, and thus not guaranteed the Community peaceful possession of the territory. For the Court, that recognition had legal consequences regarding the violation of the right to collective property of the Punta Piedra Community.

 

(c)      Article 21 (right to property) of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), in relation to Article 1(1) (obligation to respect and ensure rights) and 2 (domestic legal effects) – The Inter-American Court established that the State’s failure to provide clear title, as well as the lack of implementation of the conciliatory agreements, had obstructed the Punta Piedra Community's use and enjoyment of the possession and its effective protection of its territory against third parties, in violation of its right to collective property.

 

The Court held that one of the appropriate measures for ensuring the effective use and enjoyment of the collective territory of indigenous and tribal Peoples is “title clearing”. For the purposes of this case, the Court understood that “title clearing” (saneamiento) is a process that derives from the obligation of the State to remove any interference regarding the territory, in particular, granting plenary possession to the legal owner and, if applicable, paying for improvements made by third-party occupants and for their re- location. Also, the Court found that even though title clearing is a measure that usually must be executed before title is transferred, once this had occurred, the State had the undisputable obligation to clear title, in order to guarantee the use and enjoyment of the collective property of the Punta Piedra Community. This obligation had to be fulfilled by the State ex officio and with extreme diligence, so as to protect the rights of third parties as well.

 

Regarding the duty to ensure a consultation process and the right to cultural identity, the Court noted that the exploratory mining concession could directly affect the territory of the Punta Piedra Community. The State therefore had the duty to perform a consultation process prior to any exploration project that might affect the traditional territory of indigenous or tribal communities[2], but had failed to do so in the instant case. On that point, the Court examined the domestic law and found that it was imprecise regarding the previous stages of the consultation process, as it did not establish the need for consultation before the exploratory stage. Hence, the Court found a breach of the State’s duty to adopt domestic measures, with respect to Articles 21, 1(1) and 2 of the ACHR.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(d)     Article 25 of the ACHR (right to judicial protection), in relation to Article 1(1) – The Inter- American Court held that due to the lack of a collective remedy in Honduras at the time of the events, the conciliatory agreements, which were ad hoc procedures, should have been adopted by mechanisms that guaranteed their direct execution, without requiring other administrative or judicial proceedings for that purpose. Thus, even when the conciliatory agreements adopted in this case were appropriate in order to obtain the title clearing of the indigenous territory, the lack of direct execution rendered them ineffective and obstructed the use and enjoyment of the territory titled in favour of the Punta Piedra Community. Therefore, the Court found the State responsible for the violation of Articles 25(1) and 25(2)(c) of the ACHR.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(e)     Article 4 of the ACHR (right to life), in conjunction with Article 1(1) – Regarding the alleged failure to guarantee Mr Félix Ordóñez Suazo's right to life, the Court held that there was not enough evidence to determine that the State knew or should have known of a situation of real and immediate risk to his detriment prior to his death. Therefore, the Court did not find a violation of the duty to guarantee the right to life.

Conclusion: no violation (unanimously).

 

(f) Article 8(1) of the ACHR (judicial guarantees) and Article 25 in relation to Article 1(1) – The Inter- American Court analysed multiple complaints filed by members of the Punta Piedra Community, including usurpation of territories, threats, and the murder of Mr Ordóñez Suazo. It concluded that the State had not complied with its obligations to exercise due diligence and to carry out the investigation within a reasonable time. The State was therefore responsible for the violation of the rights established in Articles 8(1) and 25 of the ACHR, to the detriment of Mr Félix Ordóñez Suazo and the members of the Punta Piedra Community.

Conclusion: violation (unanimously).

 

(g)     Reparations – The Inter-American Court established that the judgment constituted per se a form of reparation and ordered, inter alia, that the State: (i) guarantee the use and enjoyment of the traditional territory of the Punta Piedra Community by clearing the title; (ii) cease any activity regarding the exploratory mining concession that had not been previously consulted; (iii) establish a com- munity development fund for the members of the Punta Piedra Community as compensation for pecuniary and non-pecuniary damage; (iv) publish the summary of the judgment and broadcast it by radio; (v) adopt measures so that domestic legislation regarding mining does not affect the right to consultation; (vi) establish an appropriate mechanism to regulate the property register system; and (vii) continue and conclude, in a reasonable time, the investigation into the death of Mr Ordóñez Suazo and, if applicable, punish those responsible.



[1] The Garifuna Peoples are a culture and a distinct ethnic group, originated as a syncretism between indigenous and African people, who have asserted their rights in Honduras as indigenous Peoples.  

[2] In that regard, the Court noted that Article 15(2) of the Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (International Labour Organisation Convention No. 169) establishes the following: “In cases in which the State retains the ownership of mineral or sub-surface resources or rights to other resources pertaining to lands, governments shall establish or maintain procedures through which they shall consult these peoples, with a view to ascertaining whether and to what degree their interests would be prejudiced, before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of such resources pertaining to their lands. The peoples concerned shall wherever possible participate in the benefits of such activities, and shall receive fair compensation for any damages which they may sustain as a result of such activities.”