Like all other parts of public life, the administration of justice and access to legal remedies and dispute resolution have been severely disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The notes series ‘Rule of Law in the time of COVID-19’ provides a perspective from the field of how the justice system has been affected by the pandemic and how national justice actors are responding and adapting to the situation. By documenting responses and practices by those working in some of the world’s most complex environments, the notes seek to provide a better understanding of opportunities and challenges for promoting the rule of law during this extraordinary time.
The notes series aims to provide an in-country snapshot from the perspective of IDLO’s country offices.
In Honduras, the COVID-19 outbreak is causing unprecedented disruption and worsening vulnerabilities. With a population of more than 9 million people, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. According to official data, almost half of the population lives in poverty. Inequality is among the most pervasive in the region and the world. The health emergency – combined with a health system that was already struggling to provide basic services to the population, weak institutions and governance, shortages and privatization of water resources, and exploitation of natural resources – is impacting disproportionately the most vulnerable in Honduran society, including women, children, prisoners and detainees.
The urban areas of Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, a major focus of IDLO’s work, were hit the hardest by the pandemic. The health system with its limited capacity to handle critical cases of COVID-19 is under severe pressure. There are only 20 ventilators available for a population of more than 9 million, putting vulnerable people in particular at risk. The system will be unable to handle a surge in demand for treatment of severe COVID-19 cases or of any illnesses that require medical attention. According to the Global Health Security Index, the country’s health system is classified as “least prepared” to respond effectively to a pandemic as it suffers from a chronic lack of resources, resulting in inadequate hospital conditions as well as a lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) and basic supplies for health personnel.
As Honduras registered its first cases of COVID-19, the Office of the President declared a state of emergency on 16 March 2020 for an initial seven days, and two days later imposed a nationwide lockdown, which is currently still in place. This decree also revoked several articles of the Honduran Constitution, including the right to freedom of movement, the right to organize social gatherings and the right to freedom of expression. In addition, the government announced the closure of all borders (air, land and sea). In compliance with Article 186 of the Penal Code, which prescribes six months’ to two years’ imprisonment for “whoever violates the measures adopted by the health authority in order to prevent the introduction or spread of an epidemic”, the government deployed the national police and the army to monitor compliance with measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The armed forces are also employed in delivering food aid and hygiene materials in deprived neighborhoods. According to the government, more than 100,000 people have received support; the objective of the operation is to reach 800,000 families, representing 3.2 million people.
Impact of COVID-19 on the justice system
Functioning of the justice system
In response to the pandemic, the judiciary issued Accord No. CSJ 1-2020, which temporarily suspended judicial activities at the national level, with the aim of protecting the health of judicial officials and employees. By way of exception, a small group of staff remains on standby, working in shifts to provide essential services that include matters involving children, survivors of domestic or intrafamilial violence; prisoners and detainees and matters regarding arrests in response to in flagrante delicto; habeas corpus claims; and early release, among others. Very importantly, the lower court judges of 298 municipalities have been authorized to settle cases of domestic or intrafamilial violence. Indeed, during the national emergency there has been a rapid increase in violence against women.
Court hearings have been suspended, and many terms of preventive imprisonment have expired or are about to do so; consequently, steps are being taken to release prisoners or extend terms in observance of their rights (Accord No. PCSJ 16-2020). Further efforts would be needed to ensure that release of prisoners and detainees does not jeopardize the integrity of the judicial process.
Detention centers for adults and minors
After a series of incidents in 2019, in which 37 inmates died, the Government of Honduras ruled in January 2020 that the military should temporarily manage the prison system. When an increasing number of COVID-19 cases was reported among prisoners and detainees, measures to alleviate overcrowding in prisons were reactivated. The National Congress, in its first virtual meeting held on 24 April 2020, reformed the probation and pre-trial detention provisions contained in Articles 183 and 184 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and adopted emergency rules on the release of detained persons. For children in conflict with the law, the wait time for hearings is shorter (six months) than in the adult system (two years and six months), and just as in the system for adults, there is no mechanism for holding virtual hearings. Both adult and minor detention centers suspended family visits; authorities in detention centers for minors are trying to enable video calls with families to help children cope with anxiety arising from this situation. In May 2020, the first inmate died of COVID-19 and another six tested positive.
Local government of San Pedro Sula
The central government scheduled financial transfers for municipal corporations to implement prevention programs for their inhabitants. The delivery of food and personal care products are to be prioritized. The Municipality of San Pedro Sula, in conjunction with other institutions, established an Emergency Operations Center to coordinate efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19. The center is located in the premises of the municipal police, where there is an operations room with space for 20 institutions, an executive committee, a coordinator and a decision-making committee.
To support the government’s efforts to strengthen the rule of law, IDLO is taking immediate and effective action to support its national counterparts to protect citizens, safeguard human rights and promote justice. At the same time, IDLO is continuing to implement its program on Reducing Homicide through Access to Justice, which focuses on strengthening institutions and promoting access to justice for vulnerable groups. Where possible, IDLO has rapidly adapted its program delivery during the COVID-19 crisis by increasing web-based activities and remote capacity-building sessions.
In early April, IDLO carried out a virtual consultation with justice actors on the impact of the pandemic. It provided insights into the challenges faced by partner institutions and could inform future programming efforts.
IDLO also facilitated a participatory process with the National Mechanism for the Prevention of Torture, Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment (MNP-CONAPREV) to develop a road map to strengthen human rights protection mechanisms within the penitentiary system. IDLO has donated PPE to enable MNP-CONAPREV to carry out monitoring visits to penitentiary and detention centers safely, with a view to strengthening prevention and protection measures for prisoners and detainees.
IDLO has prioritized the extension of the partnership with the Pastoral Penitenciaria to guarantee adequate legal and psychological assistance to people deprived of liberty. In addition, this partnership will continue to advocate for hearings to be scheduled to facilitate decisions on early release measures, in close collaboration with enforcement judges.
In the context of IDLO’s research on children in conflict with the law, which includes a qualitative study to ultimately propose a set of recommendations on early warnings, IDLO has expanded a section to include learnings about the main post-COVID-19 challenges identified by officers from detention centers for juvenile offenders.
At the local level, IDLO is providing technical assistance to the local government of San Pedro Sula in designing an emergency plan to protect children’s and adolescents’ rights in the Municipality, with particular emphasis on infection prevention for street children.
IDLO is at the initial phase of the dissemination of the Model for Response to Violence campaign that seeks to promote municipal services for vulnerable people and consequently to enhance respect for their rights. In view of the COVID-19 outbreak, IDLO is developing a communication piece to be included in the campaign to raise awareness about the importance of non-discrimination, with an emphasis on COVID-19.