Posts Tagged ‘book review’

Nina Lakhani’s “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?” reviewed

June 10, 2020

COHA

COHA of 9 June 2020 published a Book Review by John Perry of “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?: Dams, Death Squads, and an Indigenous Defender’s Battle for the Planet,” by Nina Lakhani.

They build dams and kill people.” These words, spoken by a witness when the murderers of environmental defender Berta Cáceres were brought to trial in Honduras, describe Desarrollos Energéticos SA (DESA), the company whose dam project Berta opposed. DESA was created in May 2009 solely to build the Agua Zarca hydroelectric scheme, using the waters of the Gualcarque River, regarded as sacred by the Lenca communities who live on its banks. As Nina Lakhani makes clear in her book Who Killed Berta Cáceres?, DESA was one of many companies to benefit from the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras, when the left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya was deposed and replaced by a sequence of corrupt administrations. The president of DESA and its head of security were both US-trained former Honduran military officers, schooled in counterinsurgency. By 2010, despite having no track record of building dams, DESA had already obtained the permits it needed to produce and sell electricity, and by 2011, with no local consultation, it had received its environmental licence.

[see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/03/03/anniversary-sparks-arrest-in-investigation-of-berta-caceres-murder/].

..Lakhani quotes a high-ranking judge she spoke to, sacked for denouncing the 2009 coup, as saying that Zelaya was deposed precisely because he stood in the way of this economic model and the roll-out of extractive industries that it required. The coup “unleashed a tsunami of environmentally destructive ‘development’ projects as the new regime set about seizing resource-rich territories.” After the post-coup elections, the then president Porfirio Lobo declared Honduras open for business, …….

Lakhani’s book gives us an insight into the personal history that brought Berta Cáceres to this point. She came from a family of political activists. As a teenager she read books on Marxism and the Cuban revolution. But Honduras is unlike its three neighbouring countries where there were strong revolutionary movements in the 1970s and 1980s. The US had already been granted free rein in Honduras in exchange for “dollars, training in torture-based interrogation methods, and silence.” At the age of only 18, looking for political inspiration and action, Berta left Honduras and went with her future husband Salvador Zúñiga to neighbouring El Salvador. She joined the FMLN guerrilla movement and spent months fighting against the US-supported right-wing government. Zúñiga describes her as having been “strong and fearless” even when the unit they were in came under attack. But in an important sense, her strong political convictions were tempered by the fighting: she resolved that “whatever we did in Honduras, it would be without guns.”

Inspired also by the Zapatista struggle in Mexico and by Guatemala’s feminist leader Rigoberta Menchú, Berta and Salvador created COPINH in 1993 to demand indigenous rights for the Lenca people, organising their first march on the capital Tegucigalpa in 1994. From this point Berta began to learn of the experiences of Honduras’s other indigenous groups, especially the Garífuna on its northern coast, and saw how they fitted within a pattern repeated across Latin America….

In Río Blanco, where the Lenca community voted 401 to 7 against the dam, COPINH’s struggle continued. By 2013, the community seemed close to winning, at the cost of activists being killed or injured by soldiers guarding the construction. They had blocked the access road to the site for a whole year and the Chinese engineering firm had given up its contract. The World Bank allegedly pulled its funding, although Lakhani shows that its money later went back into the project via a bank owned by the Atala Faraj family. In April 2015 Berta was awarded the Goldman Prize for her “grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.”

…….

The horrific events on the night of Wednesday March 2 are retold by Nina Lakhani. Armed men burst through the back door of Berta’s house and shot her. They also injured Gustavo Castro, who was visiting Berta; he waited until the men had left, found her, and she died in his arms. ,,,By the first anniversary of Berta’s death the stuttering investigation had led to eight arrests, but the people who ordered the murder were still enjoying impunity. Some of the accused were connected to the military, which was not surprising since Lakhani later revealed in a report for The Guardian that she had uncovered a military hit list with Berta’s name on it. In the book she reports that the ex-soldier who told her about it is still in hiding: he had seen not only the list but also one of the secret torture centers maintained by the military.

Nina Lakhani is a brave reporter. She had to be. Since the coup in Honduras, 83 journalists have been killed; 21 were thrown in prison during the period when Lakhani was writing her book. She poses the question “would we ever know who killed Berta Cáceres?” and sets out to answer it. Despite her diligent and often risky investigation, she can only give a partial answer. Those arrested and since convicted almost certainly include the hitmen who carried out the murder, but it is far from the clear that the intellectual authors of the crime have been caught. In 2017 Lakhani interviewed or attempted to interview all eight of those imprisoned and awaiting trial, casting a sometimes-sympathetic light on their likely involvement and why they took part.

….

In September 2018, the murder case finally went to trial, and Lakhani is at court to hear it, but the hearing is suspended. On the same day she starts to receive threats, reported in London’s Press Gazette and duly receiving international attention. Not surprisingly she sees this as an attempt to intimidate her into not covering the trial. Nevertheless, when it reopens on October 25, she is there. The trial reveals a weird mix of diligent police work and careful forensic evidence, together with the investigation’s obvious gaps. Not the least of these was the absence of Gustavo Castro, the only witness, whose return to Honduras was obstructed by the attorney general’s office. Castillo, though by then charged with masterminding the murder, was not part of the trial. Most of the evidence was not made public or even revealed to the accused. The Cáceres family’s lawyers were denied a part in the trial.

The who did what, why and how was missing,” says Lakhani, “until we got the phone evidence which was the game changer.” The phone evidence benefitted from an expert witness who explained in detail how it implicated the accused. She revealed that an earlier plan to carry out the murder in February was postponed. She showed the positions of the accused on the night in the following month when Berta was killed. She also made clear that members of the Atala family were involved.

When the verdict was delivered on November 29 2018, seven of the eight accused were found guilty, but it wasn’t until December 2019 that they were given long sentences. That’s where Nina Lakhani’s story ends. By then Honduras had endured a fraudulent election, its president’s brother had been found guilty of drug running in the US, and tens of thousands of Hondurans were heading north in migrant caravans. David Castillo hasn’t yet been brought to trial, and last year was accused by the School of Americas Watch of involvement in a wider range of crimes. … Daniel Atala Midence, accused by COPINH of being a key intellectual author of the crime as DESA’s chief financial officer, has never been indicted.

...And a full answer to the question “Who Killed Berta Cáceres?” is still awaited.

http://www.coha.org/nina-lakhanis-who-killed-berta-caceres-on-the-life-death-and-legacy-of-a-courageous-honduran-indigenous-and-environmental-leader/

Rescuing Human Rights – another way of re-assessing human rights

November 17, 2019

I wrote abut Hurst Hannum’s book ‘Rescuing Human Rights’ earlier [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/04/20/hurst-hannum-wants-a-radically-moderate-approach-to-human-rights/]. On 30 July 2019, Peter Splinter wrote for ISHR a book review “Rescuing Human Rights – Making the case for a reassessment of the scope of human rights advocacy”

 
Hurst Hannum, Rescuing Human Rights: A Radically Moderate Approach, Cambridge University Press, 2019. 223 pp.

Hannum argues the case for a hard-headed reassessment of what human rights are and what they can achieve, done with the aim of preventing unrealistic expansion or overreach that undermines their legitimacy and universal acceptance.

Hannum expresses a firm conviction in the durable value of human rights. He brings to Rescuing Human Rights a lifetime of rich and diverse experiences as an observer, teacher and practitioner of human rights in numerous capacities and settings. While conservative, Hannum’s thesis does not hark back to a golden age of human rights. He recognises that human rights law has evolved and will continue to evolve. He also accepts that “pushing the envelope of human rights norms may sometimes be a legitimate [advocacy] tactic.”

Hannum’s principal concern is with human rights ‘overreach’ – efforts to resolve contentious political issues by trying to make them into technical human rights matters that they are not. He is not a fan of a widespread inclination to advocate for human rights of the next good cause.

“Attempting to regulate ever more narrow slices of life under ever more diverse circumstances through promoting new human rights runs a serious risk of undermining both the legitimacy of human rights and their universality. The result may be to simply expand the number of rights that are routinely ignored rather than to bring real help to those whose rights, no matter how narrowly construed, are already being violated.” (p. 79)

He perceives that human rights activism based on an expansive concept of rights as the primary means to effect domestic social and political change is feeding a global backlash against human rights. He is concerned that this will undermine the legitimacy and effectiveness of human rights advocacy to protect universally recognised rights, which “facilitate the development and influence of other socio-economic-political-moral change agents in ways that are likely to respond to the needs of most people of the world.” (p. 10) While acknowledging that human rights are inherently political, as they constrain government behaviour, Hannum suggests that the more that human rights advocacy approximates politics, the less rights will be able to effectively set the boundaries for the open, inclusive, democratic politics required to effectively address major contemporary social, political and economic issues by ensuring that political decision-making takes account of the needs and preferences of all relevant parts of society.

“This book is an appeal for radical moderation, which values and promotes human rights norms without distorting or deifying them. …  Underlying many of the book’s arguments is the belief that human rights cannot provide dispositive answers to all of the world’s problems, although they may be a necessary precondition for resolving many of them.” (p. 157)

Rescuing Human Rights focusses on human rights as universal legal norms embodied in public international law, particularly universal and regional treaties. Hannum assumes a universal consensus over the core content and legitimacy of most human rights. He distinguishes human rights from moral and political standards, while acknowledging their complementarity as forces that shape societies.

While Rescuing Human Rights discusses human rights primarily as they are shaped and invoked at the international level, Hannum emphasises that they are applied in national contexts where the relationship of the State and rights-holders is played out. Human rights promotion and protection are essentially a national project that is shaped and constrained by national governments’ voluntary acceptance of universal legally binding human rights standards. An important chapter is devoted to arguing for flexibility in the application and prioritisation of human rights norms on the grounds that universality is not uniformity. This recognition points to the need for further examination of Hannum’s thesis in specific national contexts. Are the dangers of human rights expansion and overreach at the international level mirrored by developments at the national level in individual countries?

Rescuing Human Rights focusses largely on what human rights are not and should not be made out to be. Hannum’s thesis would also benefit from further exploration of how human rights can be used better to contribute to efforts to address major contemporary social, economic and political issues at the international and national levels. If one accepts that human rights cannot determine the outcomes for issues such as development, climate change and corruption, then what are the contributions that specific rights make in specific contexts to political, economic, cultural, moral and technological efforts to meet those and other challenges? Any recalibrating of human rights promotion and advocacy in accordance with the approach Hannum proposes would benefit from robust exploration of the important contributions that human rights do and can make, such as ensuring that climate change policies are developed in consultation with representatives of all persons whose rights might be affected and have regard to their human rights impacts, including for the most marginalised communities and groups.

Today, while human rights are increasingly invoked in connection with efforts to address a growing range of global and national challenges, they are also increasingly flouted or questioned in many parts of the world. This includes in some countries where until recently human rights appeared largely beyond challenge. Many governments are demonstrating a renewed brazenness in violating their international human rights obligations. In many countries, there is widespread apathy, popular disillusionment and even hostility for human rights. This current state of human rights has led to calls from civil society organisations, academics, governments and inter-governmental organisations for urgent stocktaking about what is to be done to defend and reinforce the post-1945 human rights achievement. Some call into question the human rights project, and others call for its reinvention. Some appeal to humanity’s better angels, and others buckle down on business as usual. Some pursue novel organisational approaches to human rights advocacy, and others look to human rights to provide solutions for ever more matters of concern.

The way forward is not clear. However, Hannum’s lucid argument for greater focus and humility in recourse to human rights and his call for the recalibration of the scope of human rights advocacy should form part of any discussion about the future of human rights. Rescuing Human Rights merits reading and reflection by all who study, defend or promote human rights.

Peter Splinter is an international human rights consultant and was Amnesty International’s Representative in Geneva from 2004 to 2016. Follow him on Twitter at @pgsplinter.

http://www.ishr.ch/news/book-review-i-rescuing-human-rights-making-case-reassessment-scope-human-rights-advocacy

The killing of Oscar Romero – El Salvador’s ‘turbulent priest’ – written up after 36 years

January 18, 2017

Tom Sandborn wrote in the Vancouver Sun of 7 January 2017 review  of the book “Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Oscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice“, by Matt Eisenbrandt, published by University of California Press.

Sainthood and civil torts
Book cover: Assassination of a Saint: The Plot to Murder Oscar Romero and the Quest to Bring His Killers to Justice

It took a single bullet to kill Oscar Romero, but his legacy has outlived many who plotted his murder and he may soon be officially named a saint by the Catholic Church. Assassination of a Saint is an exciting, dramatically paced account of his murder by a right wing death squad and the painstaking and eventually successful efforts to expose some of the men behind the Archbishop’s death.

In El Salvador in 1980, Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, had been elevated to his position in part because the cabal of land owners and politicians that controlled the tortured Central American state saw him as unlikely to pose uncomfortable moral challenges to their power. But Romero was fast becoming a problem for the elites…. he was condemning the war of right wing terror being waged against the Salvadoran people by the army, police and paramilitary death squads, all of whom took orders and funding from the country’s ruling class and inspiration from a particularly bloody minded brand of Cold War anti-Communism….

During the three years he spent as Archbishop, Romero was gradually radicalized by the suffering inflicted on the poor of his country by the official and unofficial death squads. In the end, he condemned the state and ruling class sponsored murders and called on soldiers and policemen to refuse the orders to turn their guns on Salvadorans standing up for their freedom. “No soldier,” he thundered from the altar, “is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God.” That call for conscientious disobedience was the last straw. The decision was made that the “turbulent priest” must die.

On March 24, 1980, a sniper in a van parked outside the church fired a rifle once, striking Romero in the chest as he said mass and killing him. The assassination made the Archbishop a beloved martyr among the poor, and kicked off a new round of civil war and bloodshed. For decades, no one was held to account for the public murder.

The Assassination of a Saint is the compelling story of how a rag-tag band of idealistic lawyers collaborated with Salvadoran exiles to identify one of the killers, Alvaro Saravia. Because the assassin was found to be living in the United States, the legal team, working out of the San Francisco offices of the Center for Justice and Accountability, was able to file a civil suit against him under an obscure American law, the Alien Torts Act, for damages incurred by Romero’s killing. In the course of that effort, they brought to light much of the hidden history of the Romero murder, meeting with witnesses and accomplices in the crime and uncovering much more about the archbishop’s death than had been known before.

Matt Eisenbrandt was a member of the legal team, and he has written a fast paced, informative and dramatic account. …Before they were successful in that effort in 2004, the crusading lawyers experienced a series of dramatic meetings with perpetrators and potential witnesses, tense moments, mysterious phone calls, frightening visits to El Salvador and years of exhaustive research. Their win was a triumph for human rights defenders, and this book is a powerful account of how that victory was won. 

Tom Sandborn lives and writes in Vancouver. He has been involved in human rights activism for over five decades. He welcomes feedback and story tips at tos65@telus.net.

Source: Sainthood and civil torts