Preliminary Human Rights-report on Honduras

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, or in Spanish Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH), has now presented their preliminary report in Spanish from their visit to Honduras on August 17 to 21, 2009.

In the introduction they mention the point of view of the international community that the events of June 28 constituted a coup d’état (“golpe de estado” in Spanish), along with the legal opinion of the competent authorities of Honduras that it was a constitutional succession. They go on to say that regardless of the constitutionality of the events of that date, the human rights of all persons should be guaranteed by the state. The human rights are of course also guaranteed by the Honduran Constitution, which the government in Tegucigalpa claims to follow. There is thus no disagreement as regards the objectives.

The CIDH commission keeps referring to the events of June 28 as a “golpe de estado”, but without using quotation marks. Given that it is not considered a “golpe de estado” in Honduras, by the democratically elected and appointed constitutional authorities, it is somewhat remarkable that they use such biased language.

They mention that the whereabouts of two persons is still unknown. One was last seen at a demonstration on July 12, the other was kidnapped from her home on July 26. For a foreign reader the latter might seem suspicious, so let me just point out that kidnappings are rampant in Honduras, and chances are that it was just an ordinary criminal kidnapping. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of those every year (and almost 10 murders per day in average).

They go on to write that “the golpe de estado executed by removing the constitutional president has an immediate impact on the Rechtsstaat and the human rights in Honduras. The Commission could observe during its visit that the break of the constitutional order was accompanied by a strong military presence … and the inefficiency of the legal resources to safeguard the essential rights of persons.” That analysis is of course based in the opinion that it was a coup d’état in the first place, which again makes their report biased.

Another observer might instead conclude that the violent and illegal mass actions undertaken by the supporters of Manuel Zelaya, starting with the storming of the Air Force base some days prior to June 28, and continuing virtually uninterrupted until today, has strained the police and court system to beyond their abilities. In fact, the police was strained beyond their capacity already in 2006, the year in which Zelaya himself started using the military for pure police work. It does not take a whole lot of imagination to see that the very strategy of Zelaya, and his supporter and financier, Hugo Chávez, has been all along to wear out the Rechtsstaat (the constitutional institutions responsible for the rule of law), so that it reaches the point of desperation where it has to suspend certain rights in order to defend itself – and then to attack it diplomatically for doing so. It is weak by CIDH not to offer this alternative view in their report.

The fact that there are (military) police in the schools and that ether media was closed during the arrest of Zelaya is brought up as evidence, but in the light of an informed view of what has transpired, all of this has a perfectly logical explanation within the Rechtsstaat.

The commission expresses concern that the military participates in controlling demonstrations, but fails to mention – or realize? – that the blame for that falls on ex-president Zelaya, since he gave the military that role rather than giving the police the resources they required for upholding public order and guaranteeing the rights of the citizenry.

[Continuation added Aug 24, whereas the above was published Aug 23:]

The report mentions that the suspension of civil rights, such as curfew, is allowed under certain conditions. It can be noted that if the events of June 28 are interpreted as a golpe de estado, it would not be permissible, but if the events are regarded as a legitimate succession in accordance with the constitution, it would be. However, the report also points out that the curfew was not published in the official journal of the state except for 72 hours, whereas in reality it lasted for almost a month (they erroneously write for over a month).

They also mention the special curfew on the eve of July 5th in Tegucigalpa. However, they fail to mention the fact that a foreign state, Venezuela, has been reported by Honduras to the Security Council of the United Nations for their part in instigating violence on that date in Tegucigalpa (the UN ignored the filing since they do not recognize the government of Honduras, but it does not make the facts any less factual). Given that a foreign state was supporting the violence, Honduras was in a sense in a state of illegal and asymmetric war, and as we all know, in self defense a nation is allowed to take extreme measures to protect its citizens.

In the paragraph starting with “Aún dentro…”, CIDH criticizes the fact that the curfew was not applied equally in all the territory, while at the same time pointing out that it has to be justifiable in all its parts. They are thus contradicting themselves, which suggests that they may be on a mission, that they may have a bias.

In the following paragraph they criticize the lack of legal protection “in the context of the coup d’état”. It is well known that the legal protection in Honduras is wanting. Everyone has a story of extra-judicial actions. This short-coming, the need to improve the judicial security in the country, has been known for decades, so it is flatly disingenuous by the commission to make believe that it only applies “in the context of the coup d’état”. The police and the court system desperately need more resources and training in order to deal with the rampant criminality in the country, which ranks among the 10 most dangerous in the world. The deposed president Zelaya just made things worse by calling in the military for police work since 2006.

When it comes to priorities, I agree fully with the commission that guaranteeing the civil and political rights of all citizens, regardless of political affiliation, should be on the top of the agenda. I would suggest, though, that Honduras might benefit from some specific foreign aid in this field, such as from Scandinavian democracies with a long and strong tradition in the field. Too much of their training comes from the United States of America, a country not famous for their human rights record. Rather than to cut off aid, I would recommend countries like my own, Sweden, to offer concrete assistance in strengthening the ability of Honduras in this important field.

The commission has got information from all sources that the majority of Habeas Corpus cases are resolved quickly. The only complaint was that in some cases too many people are kept in too small a cell for several hours. On the other hand, they did acknowledge that some judges have been prevented from executing these cases by the use of violence, or the threat of it, which may have contributed in creating longer detentions than necessary.

When it comes to the serious issue of the right of education, the commission avoids giving an opinion. The problem is that the teachers union has decided to go on strike, which means that many children have not got any education for weeks. Instead of denouncing this illegal strike, the commission vaguely blames the situation on “the closing of the democratic space” (as a geographer I’d like to know where that is located) and promises to evaluate all the complaints it has received and to inform about its conclusions at some opportunity.

Under the heading “Violations of human rights” they list a number of acts, but fail to mention the wanton destruction of private property in central San Pedro Sula that I personally witnessed through a webcast, in an area that the illegal demonstrators had sealed off with barricades so the police could not enter. Within that area the unions failed to maintain public order. Windows were smashed on banks, the cathedral was vandalized, and eventually a hardware store was burned down to the ground. Only when the vandalism got completely out of hands the military was called in to arrest the vandals, and to protect the human rights of the property owners in the downtown area.

They also mention acts against elected officials supporting Zelaya, but fail to mention that all of those who violated the court order of May 27, and actively participated in preparing the illegal referendum, could be legally removed from office according to §239 second paragraph in the constitution. Considering how many election localities were involved, that must surely be hundreds of officials who could be legally charged, but who have been allowed to stay in office.

Under the heading “Excessive use of force at public demonstrations”, they say that they have received reports that the majority of demonstrations have been peaceful, with some exceptions, some of them serious. However, the cases they mention are not conclusive. The level of violence in the illegal street protests (as it correctly should be labeled, and not “public demonstrations”) has been much higher than what the report suggests. The cost for individual private citizens and the national economy has also been very high. Their claim that excessive force has been used routinely does not square at all well with the photo below. In fact, the Miami police used a much higher level of force (and they started it, at that) in connection with the union’s legal demonstration against FTAA in downtown Miami in 2003, than what seems typical for the Honduran police and military. Having said that, I do not in any way condone the methods used by the Miami police – but where is the CIDH report on that?

Protests in the streets of Tegucigalpa

Protesters in the streets of Tegucigalpa throwing rocks at the police.

Just like in Miami, there are a number of reports of violations by the police in Honduras. These are unacceptable, and should be investigated and – if justified – prosecuted. The fact that it was not done here in Miami should not be used as an excuse not to do it in Honduras.

When it comes to the media, CIDH observes that they have become polarized after June 28th (although I suspect they really became polarized in the time preceding that date), and that media on both sides of the issue have been the target of attacks and intimidation. However, although they mention specifically the capacity of the Honduran government to intimidate, they fail to mention the evidence for Venezuelan government involvement on the other side.

In a specific case, a photographer of Tiempo is said to have been beaten by members of the police when he was photographing the demonstration outside UNAH. According to the police, the demonstrators broke cameras of some photographers from media they did not like, but this claim is not mentioned in the CIDH report, even though they mention some other attacks and even death threats originating from the apparently Chávez-supported thugs that operate in Honduras.

The committee quite correctly recommends that the state protects all media of communication, and – naturally – refrains from interfering in editorial decisions.


In conclusion, the committee claims to have noted during its visit that “the coup d’état of June 28 has created a state of democratic illegitimacy”. However, having read the entire report, there is only one paragraph that even mentions the decisions of the two branches of government in Honduras that remain unchanged: The Supreme Court of Justice, and the National Congress. Their decisions are mentioned, but subsequently ignored.

The whole report is thus biased. It is based on a pre-formed opinion, and it fails utterly in evaluating the legality of the presidential succession of the country. Not that the commission reasonably would be competent or capable of doing so, since it is not formed as a court of law. However, for this very reason it would have been becoming for the commission to use a neutral language in the report, and to evaluate all ambiguous facts from both points of view.

In other words, their report ought also to evaluate how the acts of the government would be interpreted, in terms of human rights, if one looks at the course of events as the Honduran state is looking at them. I would strongly encourage the CIDH commission to add this point of view, and this is the reason:

The whole purpose of the report is to improve the Human Rights conditions on the ground, not to get into politics. For the state of Honduras to be able to accurately interpret and relate to the report, it has to be framed in the way that they see reality. The way it is written now, it risks getting misinterpreted, and important advice in it may be obscured and overlooked.

Thus, CIDH would do the people of Honduras a favor if they ignored politics and just wrote a report – or an appendix to the report – that focused on advising the actual government in Tegucigalpa – call it de facto or interim as they want – on how they best can proceed, without pointing any finger. This re-writing should include the right of property and of making a living. The police has an obligation to protect these rights, but that justification for breaking up mobs committing illegal acts has not been touched upon at all so far.

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