The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Honduras is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Honduras is also a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Honduras is a State Party to the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. Article 15 governs the right of assembly:
The right of peaceful assembly, without arms, is recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and necessary in a democratic society in the interest of national security, public safety or public order, or to protect public health or morals or the rights or freedom of others.
Honduras has accepted the competence of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hear complaints by individuals under the jurisdiction of the State that their rights under the 1969 Inter-American Convention on Human Rights have been violated.
On 26 March 2020, Honduras informed the OAS that the President had issued Executive Decree PCM/022/2020 of 21 March derogating from certain constitutionally guaranteed rights, including of assembly, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic. Also on 26 March 2020, Bolivia informed the OAS that Supreme Decree 4196 of 17 March had prohibited all gatherings across the territory. Derogations have continued since.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Article 78 of the 1982 Constitution of Honduras (as amended) guarantees freedom of assembly "provided its exercise is not contrary to the public order or to public morals". Article 79 provides that:
Everyone has the right of peaceful assembly, without arms, in a public demonstration or temporary assembly, in connection with their common interests of whatever nature, without the need of notice or special permission.
Outdoor meetings and those of a political nature may be subject to a system of special permission, with the sole purpose of ensuring public order.
There is no dedicated legislation regulating the right of peaceful assembly in Honduras, but under the Municipalities Act notification of a planned assembly in a public place is required 72 hours in advance. The notification must be submitted to local authorities accompanied by a stated pledge to comply with the law regarding the non-use of weapons and that the assembly will not interfere with the free movement of citizens. The organizer must reveal the names of the participants in the assembly. Despite the advance notification requirements, spontaneous assemblies are allowed based on Article 79 of the Constitution. Article 60 of the Law on Police and Social Affairs provides that assemblies should be prohibited when they will "affect the free movement and rights of others".
Honduras adoped a new Penal Code in 2020 which, it was feared, could criminalise protests.
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and proportionate to that purpose.
According to Article 51 of the Law on Police and Social Affairs, the police may disperse protest groups in roads, bridges, buildings and facilities affecting public services where they prevent the free movement or access or to counteract public order, morality and decency and damage public and private property. Article 52 states that:
In the event that the public peace is jeopardized or public safety with weapons or other means of violent action, or free transit is hindered, the police may dissolve the assembly or demonstration and remove obstacles.
A new Organic Law governing the national police was adopted in 2017. It provides that:
In carrying out its functions, the National Police must always make a progressive, differentiated, proportional, equitable and gradual use of force and weapons. The use of force is considered legitimate, only when it is used to the extent strictly necessary for the effective performance of police functions respecting human rights and with the purpose of restoring public order.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
With respect to firearms, the 2017 Organic Law provides that:
The use of firearms is legitimate only when there is a serious, imminent or rational risk to the life or physical integrity of the members of the Police Career, of a detainee or of third parties and in a dissuasive manner when there are reasonable grounds to assume that there is a serious disturbance of public order or is necessary to prevent the commission of a crime and other effective and less dangerous means are not available, as well as to repel an attack in the circumstances established by the Criminal Code, according to the causes of justification and causes of inculpability that are applicable to the case.
This is more permissive than international law allows.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views and Concluding Observations of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2017 Concluding Observations on Honduras, the Human Rights Committee expressed its concern about
the excessive recourse to provisions on defamation and other criminal offences against persons exercising their rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly and freedom of association and about the continued stigmatization of such persons by government officials.
The Committee was further concerned
by the conviction on 7 June 2017 of three students of the National Autonomous University of Honduras and by the criticism that members of the Government, among others, levelled at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the Office of the National Commissioner for Human Rights in relation to their work promoting respect for the right to peaceful protest.
In March 2018, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report stating that the Honduran security forces, in particular the military police, used excessive – including lethal – force to control and disperse protests that erupted following the disputed presidential election of November 2017. The report found that at least 22 civilians and one police officer were killed during the protests. Of these, at least 16 people, including two women and two children, were shot dead by the security forces. The report also documents the killing of 15 individuals in the run-up to the elections, including party candidates, municipal councillors and activists.
While some of the protesters became violent, the report notes that, “analysis of the type of injuries suffered by the victims indicate that the security forces made intentional lethal use of firearms, including beyond dissuasive or self-defense (legitimate) purposes, such as when protestors were fleeing.” This was illustrated by the deaths of seven individuals who received shots to the head.
Views of Civil Society
CIVICUS has reported that on 25 June 2020, Honduras’ new Criminal Code entered into force despite warnings from civil society that some of its provisions threaten freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly. Human rights organisations have said that the code enables criminalisation of protests.
According to Freedom House's 2019 report on Honduras:
Freedom of assembly is constitutionally protected, but demonstrations are often met with a violent police response. In late 2017, following the elections, 23 protesters were killed in a police crackdown on demonstrations against the results, and hundreds were arrested. Election-related protests continued into January 2018, with police firing tear gas into protesters in Tegucigalpa and opening fire on a demonstration in the town of Saba, killing a man.