The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organisations of Honduras (Copinh), along with the Cáceres family, announced the suit against the Dutch development bank FMO, one of the backers of the Agua Zarca dam on the Gualcarque river, in the Netherlands on Thursday.
The lawsuit says the bank failed to observe the human rights of local people affected by the project and disregarded warnings about human rights violations perpetrated in the area, and raised by Cáceres before her death in 2016.
FMO suspended loans to the company after Cáceres’ death, pending a review. Last year, following protests by members of Copinh, the bank, along with the Finnish Fund for Industrial Cooperation, Finnfund, withdrew from the project “to reduce international and local tensions in the area”. FMO and Finnfund had provided $15m (£11m) to the project. A third backer, the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (Cabei), which had given $24m, has also withdrawn support.
Cáceres’ daughter, Bertha, told the Guardian that the legal action against FMO was designed to compel those providing international aid financing to abide by their responsibilities.
“We’ve got to call things by their name: it was negligence that led to violence and even murder,” she said.
“But it could also be a precedent to make sure that these crimes don’t happen again in other communities that are fighting against European companies and European banks, who don’t take these violent situations seriously when it comes to setting up their projects.
“The lawsuit is also intended to make them do something they’ve never wanted to do before, which is to say they’re sorry.”
Channa Samkalden, the lawyer leading the action against FMO in the Netherlands, told a press conference that the bank’s funding provided the company leading the construction work, Desarrollos Energéticos SA (Desa), “with the means and the reason to spread … violence and intimidation in order to break the resistance against the dam”.
Samkalden said: “FMO insists on having fully adopted the different relevant international principles aimed at preventing and mitigating human right violations … On the basis of these principles, FMO was obliged to do a proper and thorough due diligence to prevent any negative impact that may result from its investments.
“So FMO had a duty of care towards Berta Cáceres, her children and the inhabitants in Honduras to make sure that this investment would come to the benefit of the Honduran people and would not lead to human rights infringements.”
Papers are expected to be served in the next two weeks.
In a statement, FMO said: “Berta Cáceres was a highly respected defender of human rights whose murder is a tragedy. We express our deepest sympathies to her family and friends. We reiterate our call on the Honduran authorities to bring those responsible for this terrible crime to justice.
“FMO is a development bank that empowers entrepreneurs to build a better world, sometimes under the most difficult circumstances. FMO commissioned an independent expert mission, acted upon its findings to reduce community tensions, and exited the project.
“We are deeply committed to respecting human rights in all of our projects. FMO recognises the right to a legal process and trusts that the courts will confirm that FMO acted in good faith.”
Cáceres, who won the Goldman environmental prize for her work with Copinh, which she co-founded 25 years ago, was murdered in her home in the early hours of 3 March 2016. She had led the protest against construction of the dam along the Gualcarque river in Río Blanco, which is considered sacred by the Lenca people. Mexican activist Gustavo Castro Soto was injured in the attack.
Eight men have been charged with her murder, two of whom worked at Desa.
Desa has always denied any involvement in the death of Cáceres and in November dismissed a report by an expert group of lawyers that alleged senior management involvement. The company said information in the report had been taken out of context and “does not reflect reality”.
Last week, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, called for “strong, urgent action” to be taken to protect activists in Honduras.
“Impunity, lack of active participation and collusion between powerful interests are deadly ingredients that have turned Honduras into a dangerous place for human rights defenders,” he said in a statement after visiting the country.
“I am extremely worried by the absence of a safe and enabling environment for all human rights defenders, especially those working on sexual and reproductive rights, sexual orientation and gender identity, journalism, land and indigenous rights, and those advocating on education issues.”
Cáceres’ daughter, who now leads Copinh, survived an armed attack on herself and two colleagues last year.
Figures published this week show there were 2,197 attacks on female rights activists registered in 2015 and 2016 across Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua. Twenty-one were murdered and 44 suffered an attempt on their life.
More than 50% of attacks were carried out by the police, armed forces or the authorities, and fewer than 40% were reported to the police, according to a report published by the MesoAmerica Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders (IM-Defensoras).
Women defending land and the environment were subject to the greatest number of assaults, and 10% of attackers were linked to companies and security agents, found IM-Defensoras, a coalition of seven organisations.
Liz Ford and Sam Jones