Things appear to be back to normal in Honduras, a year after the 28 June 2009 military coup that overthrew President Manuel Zelaya. Streets are no longer occupied by the military, media outlets critical of the government are no longer being shut down, and people are not massively repressed or confined in their homes under states of siege and curfews. Plus, a new President took office in January after an election, while diplomatic ties and development aid with several governments and financial institutions have been re-established.
Scratching beneath the surface though, a grim picture emerges. Progressio partner organisations in the country, and international entities such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International, portray a climate of impunity where the police and military officers responsible for widespread human rights violations in the wake of the coup have not been brought to justice.
Furthermore, they report that selective paramilitary-style murders, beatings and torture of teachers, unionists and other coup opponents continue even with an elected government in power. Media outlets are no longer cracked down on, but eight journalists have been killed since March 2010 and many more have suffered threats and harassment.
Our partners describe a country that is still split, with an ousted President living in exile and with a new President, Porfirio Lobo, seeking legitimacy so as to restore some of the country’s international standing. But can Honduras pass the legitimacy test?
“The fact that those State actors who backed the coup remain in their seats undermines the legitimacy of our rule of law,” says María Elena Méndez of the Honduras Women’s Studies Centre, a Progressio partner organisation. “State institutions are still weak and biased, and people feel helpless.” As evidence, she notes that the Supreme Court of Justice recently fired five judges and public defence lawyers for criticising the coup - a move that was condemned by President Lobo himself for “going against national reconciliation”.
As part of the “reconciliation” process pushed for by the international community, in April the Honduran government set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But Juan Almendares of the Centre for Prevention of Torture, an organisation Progressio works with and a member of the Honduras Human Rights Platform, fears that “through this commission the right to truth, justice and reparation will not be fulfilled, as victims have not been recognised nor had any participation in it.”
In response, the Honduras Human Rights Platform has set in motion a parallel inquiry, the so-called True Commission (Comisión de Verdad in Spanish). Dr Almendares says: “Unlike the government-sponsored commission, which we do not view as legitimate, the True Commission has international credibility because of the members who make it up, because victims are taken into account, and because it will investigate the human rights violations unleashed since the coup and will try to identify those responsible for them.”
The True Commission comprises legal experts, human rights advocates and committed Catholics, some of them previously involved in similar processes – such as Elsie Monge, a nun and president of the Truth Commission in Ecuador, or priest Fausto Milla, a Honduran long-standing fighter for social justice. In contrast, Progressio partners do not regard the official commission as independent, and stress that its members are former politicians and members from academia without a track record of commitment to human rights.
Meanwhile, the Resistance Front, the broad movement of coup opponents which took to the streets a year ago, has not broken up, but a year on is calling for an inclusive Constituent Assembly that rewrites the Constitution so as to guarantee fairer representation for all Hondurans.
Over a million signatures have been garnered so far in support of holding the Assembly. Yet 12 months ago, President Manuel Zelaya was deposed precisely because of plans to hold a vote on whether such an Assembly should be set up.
“The political divide that split the country a year ago has not been bridged,” says Francisco Gallén of Popol Nah Tun, a Progressio partner in northern Honduras. On the contrary, “it is getting deeper and will continue to deepen as the Resistance Front develops its political agenda and the country’s ruling elites backlash by trying to stifle this agenda.”
Gallén finds the government, in its quest for reconciling the country, is “walking a tightrope, trying to please everyone, patching up some day-to-day problems but avoiding tackling those structural problems that are bound to trigger social confrontation in the country, such as land reform and others.”
“After long decades of dictatorships,” he explains, “Honduras is still in a process of building democracy. What we have now is a fictitious democracy with institutions being dominated by a few power groups looking after their interests. Yet our democracy needs to be improved with a participative model where development responds to people’s demands and actual problems.”
Photo: Protesters calling for a new constitution that guarantees fairer representation for all Hondurans face riot officers.