Bertha Oliva: The Search for Truth and Justice in Honduras

Posted on Categories Human Rights, International Law & Diplomacy

Marquette University Law School was very fortunate to have several international law events last week. The third of three international law speakers was Bertha Oliva, who spoke to an audience of law students and Marquette University undergraduate students on Wednesday, October 6, 2010.

Bertha Oliva is the General Coordinator of the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH). COFADEH is a Honduran non-governmental organization committed to fighting human rights violations. Ms. Oliva, along with others, founded COFADEH in 1982 to seek justice for the individuals who were detained, disappeared, and killed by Honduran death squads. COFADEH now investigates and documents human rights violations, represents victims of human rights violations, and educates the public on human rights issues.

Ms. Oliva spoke about the ongoing human rights violations in Honduras, particularly the violations that occurred (and continue to occur) after the coup d’etat last June. She described daily violence and threats that she, members of COFADEH, and other members of the resistance movement face because they oppose the post-coup government. Specifically, Ms. Oliva told about the rape of women, forced kidnappings, and the murder of resistance movement members that have become commonplace in Honduras. Additionally, resistance movement groups, including COFADEH, have been the victims of tear gas raids and attacks. 

Ms. Oliva also addressed the measures taken by the Honduran government, which in her view have been ineffective. She stated that the individuals responsible for investigating and prosecuting human rights violations were all members of the post-coup government, and were interested in supporting the post-coup government, rather than discovering the truth. According to Ms. Oliva, the state-sponsored Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) is not actually seeking the truth about human rights violations by government officials, nor is it attempting reconciliation with the victims of those human rights violations. COFADEH and other organizations have created their own truth commission, dedicated to researching and documenting human rights violations.

Ms. Oliva noted that COFADEH has attempted to bring numerous charges against the perpetrators of the human rights violations. These charges were first brought through the Honduran justice system, without any success. Having exhausted their domestic remedies, COFADEH and other organizations then turned to the Organization of American States, specifically, its Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Although some Precautionary Measures have been issued by the IACHR, the Honduran government has not cooperated with these measures and requests by the IACHR to protect Honduran citizens.

COFADEH recently spoke out against proposals for an International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras, citing the failure of the Commission of Verification established by the San José-Guaymuras Accords and the CVR. It also noted the problem with using coup leaders and members of the post-coup government to investigate claims brought before the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. It is COFADEH’s position that the legal authority to investigate and prosecute human rights violations must be held by individuals who were not a part of the coup or the post-coup government.

Ms. Oliva’s presentation was both insightful and troubling. It is easy to simply believe a situation has gotten better because it no longer dominates the headlines. Although most people are aware that a coup occurred last summer in Honduras, few outside of Honduras, it seems, know of the ongoing human rights violations and failure of the post-coup government to address them. The unfortunate truth in Ms. Oliva’s message, confirmed by IACHR statements and Precautionary Measures, is that the situation in Honduras is not “back to normal” and human rights violations continue to occur, without any recourse from the Honduran government. COFADEH has undertaken to document these violations and raise international awareness about the need for independent investigations in Honduras.

Ms. Oliva urged us all to contact our representatives and demand the U.S. put pressure on the Honduran post-coup government to comply with OAS injunctive measures and put an end to the human rights violations. Furthermore, Ms. Oliva reiterated the need for independent investigation into the human rights violations. Regardless of official U.S. policy towards the post-coup government of Honduras, ongoing human rights violations cannot be ignored. Countries around the world, including the United States, have committed to promote and protect human rights. It makes sense to encourage the development of an independent organization to investigate the human rights violations in Honduras. I think Ms. Oliva is right – the only answer to the situation in Honduras lies outside of the country now. As the Honduran government continues to perpetrate human rights violations, international pressure is the next step.

We were so fortunate to be able to host Ms. Oliva. Her story is compelling, and her dedication to fighting human rights violations in Honduras is incredible. On behalf of the International Law Society, and as a member of the MULS community, I’d like to again thank Bertha Oliva for speaking to us.

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