Restoring International Relations With Honduras: A Way Forward

As president of a politically alienated country, it is imperative that Porfirio Lobo take immediate steps to begin to restore confidence in the Honduran government by promoting reconciliation.
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Honduras today is a country divided - both internally and from the international community. Last year's June 28 coup d'état that ousted President Manuel Zelaya did more than disrupt democratic order; it fractured families, communities and political parties. The coup regime has not been recognized by the Obama Administration because of the upending of the constitutional order. Over these last months the de facto government has spurned all international efforts to negotiate a way forward with the legitimately elected president. In the wake of this disruption and the suspension of legal safeguards, the Honduran people have been subjected to serious and systematic violations of human rights and the curtailment of freedom of expression. Despite this infelicitous circumstance, elections were nevertheless held in November. On January 27, the winner of this election, Porfirio (Pepe) Lobo Sosa, will be inaugurated as the new President of Honduras.

As president of this politically alienated and distrustful country, it is imperative that President Lobo take immediate steps to begin to restore confidence in the government by reaching out to disaffected social groups, promoting reconciliation and seeking to rebuild trust in democratic institutions. In addition it will be imperative for the incoming administration to reassure the international community of his intention to promote the rule of law by restoring civil liberties and investigating past abuses. The international community, for its part, will look for tangible signs that President Lobo is taking steps towards reconciliation and addressing the country's vexing economic and governance challenges. Before resumption of full diplomatic relations and the resumption of U.S. economic aid, the Obama Administration, with the support of the Congress, should consider imposing the following conditions:

Restoring Respect for Human Rights. In a January 20 declaration signed with President Fernandez of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Lobo notably pledged to lead a government that respects civil and political rights. Since the Obama Administration has condemned the deterioration of human rights, it should work closely with the new administration to fulfill its stated commitment to both protect due process rights and secure assurances that past violations will be investigated and that the perpetrators will be prosecuted. Technical and logistical support for the administration of justice can help strengthen police investigation units and the judiciary.

Demilitarization of Society. The return of the Armed Forces to the barracks and police units to their posts are essential for human rights to be respected. The military and police have been charged with carrying out the majority of human rights violations in the last seven months including at least 22 deaths, numerous detentions, closures of media outlets and excessive use of force against protesters and detainees - an alarming return to its negative roles of past decades. This demilitarization of society will decrease tensions and distinguish the new government from its illegal predecessor.

Convening a Truth Commission. Regardless of whether the next National Congress passes an amnesty law or not, the establishment of a Truth Commission to uncover the facts of events leading up to the June 28th coup d'état is essential in the early days of the Lobo administration. The Honduran people need to know what happened, who was involved and why it happened so that similar disruptions of the constitutional order can be prevented in the future. This investigation will require diligence by the new government to insure that people of integrity are selected representing people from across the spectrum of Honduran society.

A National Dialogue Process. The development and implementation of a national dialogue process in the communities and departments outside the major cities is critical in order to design sustainable strategies to reduce poverty and inequality, strengthen government institutions, and increase the efficient and transparent use of national and international funds. Recently, President-elect Lobo presented his administration's country plan for the next 28 years and held a few "national dialogues" to discuss the future. While these are promising efforts, they should be the beginning of a process and not the conclusion. The U.S. should encourage the new president to work with civil society groups in Honduras that are based in the communities and the regions and have extensive experience on development and local governance issues.

These are fundamental steps to rebuild democracy in Honduras and promote reconciliation nationally and internationally. With these steps, Honduras can also rejoin the international community of nations and once again receive sorely needed economic assistance. And, if these steps are implemented quickly and thoroughly, the dictum that Hondurans can argue in the morning and embrace in the evening might once again be true.

Vicki Gass is the Senior Associate for Rights and Development at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a non-profit organization that promotes human rights, democracy and social justice in U.S. policies towards the region. Joseph Eldridge is a member of the board of directors at WOLA and adjunct faculty in American University's School of International Service.

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