(New York) – The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in a landmark ruling on June 26, 2021, held that Honduras violated the rights to life and personal integrity of a transgender woman killed in 2009, Human Rights Watch said today. The decision upholds the principles of equality and non-discrimination and is an important vindication of the rights of trans people in the region.
Vicky Hernández, a sex worker and an activist with the trans rights group Unidad Color Rosa, was killed on the streets of San Pedro Sula in June 2009, at the time of a military coup. Cattrachas Lesbian Network, a Honduran LGBT rights organization, filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2012, alleging state responsibility in Hernández’s killing. The Commission found Honduras responsible, but submitted the case to the Court in April 2019 because Honduras failed to comply with the commission’s recommendations.
“This landmark ruling offers a beacon of hope in a country with one of the highest rates of transgender murders in the world,” said Cristian González Cabrera, LGBT rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Honduras should carry out the decision by training security and investigative officials to prevent anti-LGBT violence and carry out the order for legal gender recognition.”
The finding of a violation of the right to life rested on the fact that police harassed Hernández the night before she was killed and, due to the coup, the military and police had effective control of the streets on the night she died. The court also noted the uptick in violence against transgender people at the time of the coup, as well as the generalized violence that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people face in Honduras and the prevailing impunity for such violence.
The court also found that Honduras violated the right to life because the authorities did not comply with their obligation to effectively investigate Hernández’s death. Human Rights Watch argued this legal point in an amicus brief it submitted to the Court in November 2020, noting that effective investigations into possible violations of the right to life are crucial to protect the right and deter violations.
Human Rights Watch has found that lack of effective investigations is a serious challenge to the rights of LGBT people in Honduras. In May 2009, shortly before Hernández’s killing, Human Rights Watch published a report, “Not Worth a Penny”: Human Rights Abuses Against Transgender People in Honduras, for which it interviewed 35 people in Honduras who were victims of or witnesses to harassment, beatings, and ill-treatment of transgender people by the police. Human Rights Watch found that police failed to investigate complaints from transgender people and LGBT organizations.
In November 2020, Human Rights Watch published another report, “My Life Passed Before My Eyes”: Violence and Discrimination Against LGBT People in Honduras, for which it conducted 25 additional interviews with LGBT people. Many LGBT Hondurans described a complex web of violence and discrimination, including from state and non-state actors, that threatens their physical safety, limits their life choices, and in some cases leads them to flee their country. Human Rights Watch found that Honduras has not taken sufficient steps to address anti-LGBT violence and discrimination, including undertaking meaningful investigations.
The court ordered Honduras to train security forces on how to conduct investigations of anti-LGBT violence within two years and to improve data collection on cases motivated by anti-LGBT bias. The court said Honduras’ investigation of the Hernández case was inadequate and discriminatory in part because it did not take into account Hernández‘s self-perceived gender identity.
As such, it ordered the government to adopt a procedure for the legal recognition of gender, allowing people to change the gender listed on their documents to match their identity, within two years. The court also ordered financial reparations for Hernández’s family, as well the creation of a scholarship program for trans women.
The court held that Honduras violated a series of other rights, such as the rights to private life, judicial protection, and freedom of expression. Notably, it found a violation of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women (better known as the Belém do Pará Convention). It reasoned that violence against transgender women on the basis of gender identity or expression “is also based on gender, as a social construction of identities, functions and attributes socially assigned to women and men,” and is therefore applicable.
“The Inter-American Court took a holistic and comprehensive approach to address Vicky Hernández’s murder and the root causes of anti-LGBT violence in Honduras,” González said. “Honduras should take immediate steps to carry out the court’s ruling, recognizing the needs and capacities of trans people in society.”