Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter regarding “egregious violations of human rights” in Honduras signed by 108 members of Congress. The letter represents the latest in an ongoing effort by social movements and citizens’ organizations in Honduras, diaspora community groups, U.S. solidarity activists and many others to reverse the trend of political repression and human rights abuses since the 2009 coup ousting President Manuel Zelaya.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D- IL), who circulated the letter, and early signers Rep. “Hank” Johnson (D- GA) and Rep. Sam Farr (D – CA) have all been engaged on this issue for years. The signers are concerned with human rights violations that have been documented under the National Party governments of President Porfirio Lobo and the current president, Juan Orlando Hernández. In terms of U.S. foreign policy, the most important change they are calling for is an end to U.S. government support and training for groups and individuals responsible for these human rights abuses.
The situation in Honduras is alarming. That country has the highest homicide rate in the world, with an average of 19 murders each day in 2013. Since targeted and politically-motivated killings have become an almost regular occurrence, people struggling for justice put their lives at risk. Based on the government’s record keeping, at least 33 journalists were killed during the previous president Porfirio Lobo’s term (2010-2014). As the congressional letter says, other targeted groups include “members of the LGBT community and indigenous and campesino activists.” Many lands rights activists have been killed, and the letter to Secretary Kerry explains how the Honduran government has allowed the homicides to take place with impunity:
According to the [Honduran] National Commissioner for Human Rights, during the last administration, dozens of lawyers and journalists were killed and 97 percent of cases regarding these suspected human rights abuses remain unpunished. The non-governmental group Rights Action cites allegations of almost 100 killings of lands rights activists in the area of Bajo Aguán. According to a Human Rights Watch study, there is “virtually complete impunity for crimes” believed to be associated with land conflicts in that region of the country.
In response to increased violent crime, President Hernández has ramped up militarization of the police. According to the Congressional Research Service, a component of the Library of Congress that conducts research and analysis for Congress, “there are indications that members of the Honduran security forces may have been involved in some of these attacks against journalists and activists.” The militarized police approach relies heavily on our government’s support through training programs, equipment sales and grants, and on-the-ground advising. Earlier this year, Congress made it harder for the U.S. to continue to facilitate corruption and impunity by including human rights clauses in the appropriations bill. Calling attention to these new rules, the letter to Secretary Kerry asks the Obama administration to “strictly evaluat[e] U.S. support and training for the Honduran police and military in accordance with human rights conditions placed in the 2014 State and Foreign Operations Appropriations law.”
The letter also raises concerns “about reports that last year’s election in Honduras was not free and fair” because “at least 18 members of the leading opposition party LIBRE were assassinated in the lead-up to the election, with an additional six LIBRE-affiliated individuals and a well-known progressive journalist killed in the weeks after.” This information is easy to find with a simple web search, and the pattern was evident before election day. Senator Kaine (D - VA) and 12 other senators sent a letter to Secretary Kerry ahead of last November’s elections to “raise serious concerns over the Honduran government’s ability to conduct free and fair elections.” The actions of the Obama administration suggested they had a different assessment: even before a winner was declared, the State Department released a note congratulating “the Honduran people for their peaceful participations in elections” and reporting that “the process was generally transparent, with strong voter turnout and broad participation by political parties.”
Since the letter first went public and the campaign to get signatures started, several things have happened. First, members of the Honduran congress aligned with the LIBRE party — represented by Xiomara Castro de Zelaya in the most recent presidential elections — were beaten and expelled from the Hall of Congress. The letter to Senator Kerry was amended to reflect this latest act of political repression. Then there were several more targeted murders including those of Hernán Cruz, a LIBRE party member, radio host and former justice of the peace, and Irene Meza, husband of Councilwoman Ada Elizabeth Méndez of the LIBRE party. Finally, the World Bank hosted representatives of Corporación Dinant at an annual conference on “security and human rights” even though this company is owned by Miguel Facussé, Honduras’ wealthiest and most powerful businessman who has admitted the killings of some campesinos by his security forces in land disputes.
The congressional letter represents another important step in the right direction, but more action will be needed to reverse the trend of violence and repression that continues without abatement in Honduras.