Certain elements of the present political crisis can be better understood if knowing the history of human rights in Honduras. The last report from the Swedish government on the issue is from 2007, why it refers to the situation when Manuel Zelaya was president.
Situation in 2007
The level of violence is high, not to say extreme, with almost 10 murders per day in average in a country with about 7.5 million inhabitants. There are reports of arbitrary arrests and disappearances. About 60% of those incarcerated are still awaiting sentencing.
Dozens of prisoners are murdered in prison every year, mostly by other prisoners, and there is a real prison crisis in the country (both main party candidates in the Nov 29 elections promise to build a new prison). There were 14 cases of kidnappings reported in 2006 (knowledgeable sources tell me that most kidnappings go unreported, so the real figure can be estimated to 3 to 4 times higher).
The Rechtsstaat does not function for all groups of the population. The poor cannot afford access to the judicial system, and the rich often buy their way out of it according to the report. The transparency index according to Transparency International is 2.5 out of 10, indicating rampant corruption (Sweden has 9.3, the highest of any country).
The ombudsman for human rights is represented in most parts of the country, and is receiving an increasing number of complaints. The special prosecutor for human rights is also considered an important institution, but with inadequate resources according to the report. Another problem is a fear to report crimes, which may in part be due to the lack of a witness protection program.
The UN report on extra-judicial executions shows that impunity is rampant. Even when police officers are known to have carried out murders they are not prosecuted, in the cases cited in the Swedish report.
Intimidation of media and journalists is a regularly occurring problem. Death threats to reporters are not uncommon, and organized crime is trying to influence media. In 2007 one journalist was murdered and several forced into exile.
Jumping to the section on the right to education, the report states that the teachers have among the highest salaries in Latin America. In spite of that, strikes are common. In measurements of quality of education, Honduras is near the bottom. The proportion of children who started elementary school was 87%, middle school 35%, and high school 9% [NB: these terms in Sweden refer to years 1-3, 4-6, and 7-9, respectively].
Present political crisis
Returning to the present political crisis in Honduras, it should be noted that the teachers’ union is one of the four groups participating in the so-called “resistencia,” that is, those demonstrating for the return of Zelaya and/or the creation of a new constitution (for some the first is more important, for others the second). The teachers have left the classrooms on numerous days and in large numbers, thus depriving the children of the right to education. Furthermore, some teachers have even encouraged the children to demonstrate rather than to go to school, and given extra credits to those who do.
The government has responded by ordering that teachers who do not show up to work should not get their salary. The teachers’ union disagreed with that decision. To make sure the decision is implemented the government has had to physically audit the schools, since the administrators are often on the teachers’ side, not on the taxpayers’ side. Personally I think the teachers’ union is acting shamefully irresponsibly, unpatriotic, and worst of all, they are endangering and violating the rights of the children. [Update 2009-10-07: They are now also abandoning members who are being arrested for sedition for just following instructions from their union leaders. This article illustrates just how irresponsible the union was.]
The second point I would like to make, is that since June 28th, most of the international media coverage of Honduras has been focused on exposing human rights violations. The purpose is to lead the consumers of the news to make the emotional association that since there are human rights violations it must be a repressive regime. That notion reinforces the idea that it was a military coup, and further locks the mind to investigate the truth behind the events.
It is in that context that the Swedish report is so enlightening. It reveals that Honduras has not gone from good to bad in terms of human rights, but it is in the process of going from very bad towards somewhat less bad.
The crisis has, however, led to a realization in Honduras (at least in the present government) that it is a national security threat to have such a poor performance on human rights. The decree on state of emergency published Sept 26 reveals this awareness, in article 4 paragraph 1, in which instructions are given on how to safeguard and document that no detainees are beaten.
Nothing bad that doesn’t have something good with it. This political crisis in Honduras has led to the country taking a giant leap forward in political awareness and democratic participation. I have already blogged on the security risk of having large social inequalities. As argued above, having an inadequate human rights situation has also turned out to be a security threat for the state.
This crisis, when resolved peacefully within the country, will make Honduras stronger. There will be some who will not accept the agreement; some because they are fundamentally opposed to democracy as we know it; some because they have no confidence in the leaders; and some because they have an agenda that is wholly different from that of the state as a whole. But this is normal, and no matter how violent this minority becomes, it must not be allowed to destroy the peace for the majority.