A Year After the Coup: U.S. Honduras Policy Failing the Honduran People

Twenty-seven Members of Congress have asked Secretary of State Clinton to send a member of her team on a human rights mission to Honduras. As we mark the first anniversary of the coup which toppled the democratically elected president Mel Zelaya from office, it is critical that she take this step now for the sake of the Honduran people and our credibility in the region.

Honduras is now ruled by a president named Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo, who won his office last year in an election that took place under the auspices of a de facto government put in place by a coup, an election therefore inevitably contaminated by fear, restrictions on movement and the press, and a lack of confidence in the rule of law. Unsurprisingly, President Lobo wants to forget or bury the past -- his words -- and argues that his country's isolation from the region and institutions like the Organization of American States should end. Surprising to many, however, Secretary Clinton and other U.S. officials agree with him, and are campaigning in Latin America to reintegrate Honduras into the region's political life -- as if nothing happened.

Their case might be more credible if Honduras had been transformed in the five months of Mr. Lobo's administration into a functioning democracy where the rule of law prevailed. It hasn't.

After visiting Honduras on three occasions since the coup, with delegations that included Members of Congress and experts on human rights, my organization has documented a number of issues that we believe must urgently be investigated and addressed.

Among the problems that continue to face Honduras are:

Human rights violations that have persisted long after the coup and inauguration of the Lobo government: According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, beatings and killings of members of the resistance, the murder of journalists (nine this year), arbitrary arrests, and politically motivated threats and harassment continue to take place. The commission found that "the murders, threats and harassment are not being properly investigated by the judicial system," which has resulted in an atmosphere of impunity and a sense of empowerment for human rights violators. Despite thousands of documented human rights violations over the last year, only one person is being held in custody for human rights violations.

The rule of law continues to be undermined: Honduras's public institutions remain deeply politicized and, in many instances, are being used to protect those involved in the coup, punish those in opposition, and prevent genuine investigations into crimes committed. While the Supreme Court has dismissed charges against military officials involved in the coup, it has also used its authority to fire judges who argued against the legality of the coup. Four judges and a law professor were removed from their posts by the Supreme Court on May 12, 2010 for participating in public demonstrations, writing articles against the coup, and filing legal motions.

There is a lack of accountability for those who supported the coup: Another cause for concern is the number of Army officials suspected of being involved in the coup who have been appointed to executive positions in the Lobo government. Most notably, General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces at the time of the coup, is now the head of Hondutel, the national telecommunications company. The appointment of Velásquez, a primary actor in the coup, is particularly troubling because in his new position, as the Members of Congress told Sec. Clinton, he controls the country's telephone, Internet and fax lines at a time when Hondurans are under great stress and are fearful of being systematically persecuted.

President Lobo is not acting on the need for national dialogue or reconciliation. Instead, his goal of "forgetting the past" in order to move forward cannot lead to accountability and justice, but will strengthen the climate of impunity, and make reconciling the country an impossible goal to realize under current conditions.

Against this backdrop, it is unfortunate that the United States is leading an effort in the region to normalize relations with the Lobo government.

International pressure is essential, since President Lobo faces extreme pressure from the right in his country to maintain the status quo -- keeping backers of the coup safely in power and immune to the rule of law --a status quo which also delays the hard but necessary work of national dialogue, reconciliation, and democratic reforms which are supported by our allies in the region.

U.S. policy needs to be retooled to advance those reforms, and help the Honduran people challenge those in who are responsible for the country's political and human rights crisis.

To do that, Secretary Clinton needs to respond to the urgent and timely letter from the Congress, and send Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary who heads the State Department's human rights bureau, to Honduras to make an independent assessment of the situation.

The Members argue this: without reliable information about what is occurring on the ground, and the steps that the Lobo government is willing to take in order to restore the rule of law, they cannot accept the unconditional support that the Obama administration is currently providing Honduras.

While we do not minimize the complexity and difficulty that faces either President Lobo or U.S. policy makers as Hondurans seek to emerge from the wreckage of their society left by the coup, the Members are absolutely right: U.S. policy can and must do far more to provide the political incentive Honduras needs to address its problems going forward.

Even if we forget the past, and we shouldn't, we cannot bury the present.