Human rights in Honduras: State Department looks the other way

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Human rights in Honduras: State Department looks the other way
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the U.S. State Department says the Honduran government is taking adequate measures to address congressional concerns about human rights.

By Dana Frank
August 24, 2012

Honduras is under siege. Its judicial system is almost completely dysfunctional, and more than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses by state security forces have been filed in the last three years, according to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras. At least 23 journalists have been killed since 2009. The United Nations, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have all raised grave concerns about the country's dire situation.

But despite all of this overwhelming evidence, the U.S. State Department this month reported that the Honduran government is taking adequate measures to address congressional concerns about human rights. This clears the way for U.S. funds to flow to the repressive government of President Porfirio Lobo, who came to power in 2009 in a military coup that deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.

In its 2012 appropriations bill, passed in December, Congress required that before 20% of a portion of U.S. police and military aid to Honduras can be released, the State Department has to report that the Honduran government is implementing policies to ensure freedom of expression, freedom of association (including labor rights) and due process of law, and to ensure that military and police personnel who have violated human rights are being investigated and prosecuted. According to an official statement just issued by the State Department, Honduras has met most of those criteria. Now more than $50 million in U.S. security and development aid can be released to Honduras.

What was the State Department thinking? The Lobo regime is corrupt from top to bottom, as even some of its own officials admit, interlaced with drug traffickers and organized crime. The police have been accused of criminal activity and have been implicated in prominent killings. The police, together with others that serve the country's elites — the military, paramilitaries and private security guards — continue to wage a vicious war on the political opposition.

Freedom of expression? This week, campesino (small farmer) activists, including women and children, seeking legal action to guarantee their land claims were brutally beaten and tear-gassed in Tegucigalpa, the capital, in a union hall where they had taken refuge. Police rounded up and detained 27 campesinos, including top leaders and their lawyer, and sought to transfer them to a maximum security prison, despite a judge's order for their release. On July 25, Father Ismael Moreno Coto, the Jesuit director of the opposition station Radio Progreso, testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the U.S. Congress about media freedom in Honduras since the coup. He spoke eloquently of the repression and intimidation of independent critical voices, as well as the outright killings of journalists. A week and a half later, police entered the station and harassed the staff, accusing it of "harboring" campesinos.

Freedom of association? In March, the AFL-CIO filed a complaint under the Central American Free Trade Agreement documenting widespread abuses of labor rights in Honduras since the 2009 coup, including firings of those who signed union petitions and assassinations of trade unionists active in the resistance. Three activists in LIBRE, a new political party of the opposition, were assassinated in May and June.

The rule of law? Widespread observers have concluded that the legal system doesn't function. The United Nations in February cited "pervasive impunity and absence of effective investigations of human rights violations."

In the face of overwhelming evidence of massive and ongoing human rights abuses and of a dysfunctional judicial system, the State Department has chosen to look the other way, as if it can erase the horror by signing away its very existence.

In its report, the State Department did announce that it was withholding all U.S. funds to Juan Carlos (El Tigre) Bonilla, the national chief of police, or anyone under his direct supervision, until an investigation of his alleged death squad activity has concluded. Meanwhile, the millions of U.S. dollars are free to flow to other units.

The State Department held back funds to Bonilla, though, not because it wanted to, (U.S. ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske in fact publicly welcomed his appointment in May). Instead, it did so only because of serious pressure from Congress, which was itself responding to a broad network of grass-roots activists, academics and non-governmental organizations alarmed by the human rights situation.

In March, 94 members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanding that all police and military aid to Honduras be suspended immediately. Key senators, led by Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), have raised repeated concerns over the human rights issues.

The Obama administration, though, is obsessed with an unwinnable, militarized drug war in Latin America, and as result appears to be willing to back almost any government that will allow it to expand its military presence in the region. To its shame, it continues to enthusiastically shore up the Honduran coup regime, with increased military funding in the last year. Enough! It's time to certify that the State Department is dead wrong in Honduras and to honor the dead Honduran victims by suspending this aid immediately.

Dana Frank is a professor of history at UC Santa Cruz whose work focuses on modern Honduras.