Demanding the Truth in Honduras

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

April 19, 2010

The deposition of Honduras’s former President Manuel Zelaya on June 28, 2009, and its turbulent aftermath configure probably the most important episode in inter-American relations in the past year. For many observers, the election of President Porfirio Lobo in a free and fair contest in November 2009 provided a blissful ending to the crisis. This is questionable. While there is no doubt that the election of Lobo and the recognition of its government by a critical mass of countries, particularly the United States, were decisive steps in pulling Honduras from the brink, a return to political normalcy in this small country takes more than this. In particular, it requires a genuine effort –led by President Lobo—to foster national reconciliation after the trauma of 2009.

The basic road map to do this is laid out in the texts of the San Jose/Tegucigalpa Accords, signed by negotiators appointed by former President Zelaya and his interim replacement Roberto Micheletti. Implementing in good faith these agreements is the key not just to bringing back into the political system the groups that felt aggrieved by the interruption of Zelaya’s term, but to normalizing Honduras’ relations with the rest of the world.

President Lobo’s record of implementing these agreements is mixed. He made a commendable effort to integrate a national unity government and played a decisive role in pressing for a controversial but necessary amnesty for political offenses. Another key clause of the agreements, i.e. installing a Truth Commission to inquire into the events before and after June 28 has proved more problematic, however. The concern here is the adamant opposition from very influential right wing sectors, closely linked to Micheletti, to allowing the Commission to investigate the human rights abuses that took place after June 28. These abuses have been documented and denounced by the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (IACHR), among many organizations. As late as February of 2010, after the swearing in of the new government, the IACHR identified at least 50 cases of illegal detention, 8 cases of torture, 2 kidnappings and 2 rapes perpetrated against journalists, trade union leaders and members of groups supportive of former President Zelaya. Despite his genuine support for the Commission, President Lobo has not dispelled the doubts about its mandate.

There is no justification for leaving Human Rights abuses outside the Truth Commission’s purview. It is serious enough that some of these abuses may go unpunished by cloaking them under the figure of “abuse of authority” covered by the amnesty voted by Honduras’s Congress. But at the very least these violations must not be hidden behind a wall of secrecy. The current reluctance from very influential political actors in Honduras to accept the natural mandate of the Truth Commission is a deviation from the spirit and the letter of the San Jose/Tegucigalpa agreements, and, as such, must be rebuked by the international community.

There is no doubt that when the U.S. decided to recognize the November 2009 election, it forewent much of its power to nudge Honduran political actors towards dealing with the task of reconciling their country. One important lever does remain, however. The stand-by agreement that, very likely, will be negotiated in the next few weeks between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Government of Honduras presents an interesting opportunity. If signed, this agreement would ease Honduras’s access to external credit and its path to economic recovery. It is desirable that the U.S., as well as the European Union member states, use their leverage in the IMF to block any agreement until the Truth Commission is guaranteed an untrammeled mandate to inquire on the events leading up and following June 28, including the human rights abuses perpetrated after that date. No normalization of economic links should take place until the Honduran authorities explicitly guarantee the full cooperation of their state with the Commission’s work.

This would be a major and timely contribution to Honduras’ long-term political health by the U.S. and the international community. Proclaiming that the crisis is over is simply a poor service to the Honduran people and an invitation for future democratic breakdowns and human rights transgressions.