HONDURAS: Rights Situation Deteriorates

  • by Jim Lobe* (washington)
  • Thursday, July 29, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

'Threats and attacks against journalists and the political opposition have fostered a climate of intimidation, while impunity for abuses remains the norm,' according to a short report released by Human Rights Watch Thursday.

Such attacks 'have had a profound chilling effect on basic freedoms in Honduras,' said HRW's Americas director, Jose Miguel Vivanco.

'When journalists stop reporting, citizens abandon political activities, and judges fear being fired for their rulings, the building blocks of democratic society are at grave risk,' he added.

HRW's assessment came two days after the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a 13-page report detailing the murders of seven journalists so far this year.

The report, 'Journalist Murders Spotlight Honduran Government Failures', accused the Lobo government of 'fostering a climate of lawlessness that is allowing criminals to kill journalists with impunity'.

The two reports were published on the eve of the release of an assessment by a special commission of the Organisation of American States (OAS) regarding the possible end of Honduras's suspension from the hemispheric group.

The OAS suspended Honduras immediately after the Jun. 28, 2009 military coup d'etat against then-President Manuel Zelaya.

Knowledgeable sources told IPS the report, while commending a number of steps taken by the Lobo administration, including the establishment in May of a Truth Commission to investigate the events surrounding the coup, would not recommend Honduras's full re-instatement at this time

The coup, which set off a protracted political crisis that many had hoped would end with Lobo's inauguration last January, resulted, among other things, in a sharp decline in aid from Honduras's major donors, including the United States, the European Union (EU), multilateral financial institutions, and Venezuela, which provided the country with heavily subsidised supplies of oil.

Much of that assistance has since been restored, but the Honduran economy remains in dire straits, according to experts here. The country's Labour Ministry reported earlier this week that more than 50,000 people had lost their jobs during the first of 2010. Altogether, about four million of the country's working-age population are either unemployed or earn their living in the informal sector.

'The country is on the verge of an economic collapse, largely as a result of the coup's repercussions, but also due to pervasive corruption,' according to Vicki Gass, a Honduras specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who noted that recent storms have also created significant damage.

As a result, Lobo has focused much of his efforts as president on restoring aid flows and normalising Honduras' international position, particularly in the OAS.

The hemispheric body, however, has been divided on Honduras's continued suspension.

Led by the United States, some countries, notably most of Honduras's Central American neighbours, Colombia, and Peru, have argued since Lobo's election last November that the suspension should be ended.

Led by Brazil, other members refused to recognise the election as legitimate because Zelaya had not been restored to office before the vote, as had been demanded by the OAS after the coup consistent with the body's Democratic Charter.

The latest human rights reports, which also include an assessment by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued Jul. 7, are likely to bolster the case for those countries that oppose Honduras' quick re-instatement.

HRW said at least eight journalists and 10 members of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), a coalition that opposed the coup and demanded Zelaya's re-instatement, have been killed since Lobo's inauguration.

It also reported what it called 'a significant increase in threats against journalists and opposition members' during the same six-month period.

It noted that the IACHR had issued 26 'precautionary measures' that urged the government to take to ensure the protection of specific individuals and their families. Efforts to comply with the Commission's appeals, however, have been 'few, late in coming, and in some cases non- existent', the IACHR itself reported last month.

In one case, Nahun Palacios, a television station director in Tocoa whose protection the IACHR had sought after he had received numerous death threats, was killed by unidentified assailants as he drove home Mar. 14.

HRW stressed that not all of the attacks were necessarily politically motivated. Some victims, especially among the journalists, had spoken out against corruption and the activities of drug cartels or other mafia whose power and operations were on the rise even before the coup.

'The political crisis has created a vacuum and uncertainty in the government, and that's been good for the mafias,' said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based hemispheric think tank.

'It's a mistake to see the current human rights situation as the result of an anti-democratic regime,' he added. 'It's the result of a long-term deterioration in the government's capacity to cope with lots of stresses.'

Shifter said he favoured Honduras's re-instatement in the OAS for precisely that reason. 'Its harder to bring them back in with a serious and deteriorating human rights situation, but keeping them marginalised can make things worse. They obviously need a lot of help.'

The climate of intimidation that prevails in Honduras has been compounded by the lack of accountability for abuses committed after the coup, according to HRW, which noted that there has not yet been a single conviction of those responsible for well-documented violations. Moreover, a Jan. 27 amnesty decree could make any prosecutions more difficult, it added.

HRW also objected to the dismissals by the Supreme Court in May of four lower-court judges who had challenged the legality of the 2009 coup. That action, it said, will likely intimidate other judges.

The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama, which initially denounced the coup but then unilaterally decided to back the November elections without insisting on Zelaya's re-instatement, has publicly condemned abuses in Honduras since Lobo took power.

'President Obama expressed his concern to President Lobo regarding the human rights situation in Honduras...,' a State Department spokesman told IPS Thursday.

Undersecretary of State for Global Issues, Maria Otero, and the deputy assistant secretary of state for Central America and the Dominican Republic, Julissa Reynoso, are due to travel to Honduras Aug. 3-4. They are scheduled to meet, among others, with members of the Resistance Front and human rights groups.

'Human rights will be high on the agenda,' the spokesman added. It will be the highest-level U.S. delegation to travel to Honduras since the coup. The Bolivian-born Otero lived for a number of years in Honduras.

Lobo's adviser for human rights, Ana Pineda, and the government's special human rights prosecutor, Sandra Ponce, spent three days meeting with U.S. officials here last week, according to the State Department.

*Jim Lobe's blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.lobelog.com.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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