By Matthew Ponsford
LONDON, June 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Honduras promised on Thursday to turn a new page in human rights - protecting everyone from indigenous activists to gay rights campaigners - in a declaration of intent backed with the creation of the country's first dedicated rights minister.
Rights watchdogs consider Honduras one of the most hostile and dangerous countries for human rights defenders, saying violence and impunity for abuses are the norm.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez announced the new office during a speech in May for Honduran journalists.
When asked by the Thomson Reuters Foundation for follow-up, senior government official Jorge Ramon Hernandez Alcerro said:
"Our work in the area is entering a new phase."
The new Honduran human rights minister will take a seat in the cabinet and will be responsible for new funding aimed at strengthening government protection of rights activists, said Alcerro, secretary general of government coordination.
Honduras has been the subject of international scrutiny since the murder of activist Berta Caceres, a winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, in March 2016 over her opposition to a $50 million hydroelectric dam project.
The Central American nation is the deadliest in the world for communities fighting to protect lands against development, with about 120 activists killed since 2010, according to British-based watchdog Global Witness.
Rights organisations this week criticised the government's support for the U.S.-led Alliance for Prosperity, an initiative to stem U.S. immigration by funding infrastructure megaprojects and crackdowns on gangs in Central America.
Civil society organisations fear the programme will result in an erosion of land and workers rights to encourage investment. But Acerro countered their concerns, saying it will create new opportunities to bolster human rights.
"One of our principal priorities under the Alliance for Prosperity has in fact been the strengthening of human rights protections and of the institutional frameworks that support these," Alcerro said.
The government has been working with the European Union, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and rights charity Freedom House to develop policies that protect human rights and their advocates, he said.
"This encompasses not only indigenous rights defenders, but also LGBT, political activists, journalists, and all Hondurans that work to promote and protect human rights," he added.
A spokesman for the U.S. State Department said U.S. funding across Central America for the alliance, including $750 million pledged by the previous administration, will contribute to human rights training for the army and police, and to upholding the rule of law.
Alcerro said that Honduras cannot directly control how U.S. agencies spend aid and investment but pledged that the regime would urge the U.S. government to align its spending with Honduran policy priorities, including rights.
U.S. and Honduran rights organisations, including the religious charities Sisters of Mercy and the Jesuit Migrant Service for Central America (JSMCA), have criticised continued U.S. support for the Hernandez regime.
Hernandez came to power after a military coup in 2009 overthrew the government of President Manuel Zelaya.
His government plans to improve the country's infrastructure and communications, mostly through concessions to private industry, which have resulted in displacement of indigenous communities and small scale farmers, Sisters of Mercy said.
"With regards to indigenous land rights, the Hernandez administration has already made unprecedented actions to ensure many indigenous groups hold communal land titles in accordance to their own customs," said Alcerro.
"Last year, the government granted indigenous groups communal land titles covering 1.1 million hectares - 8 percent of the national territory," he added.