Friday, August 24, 2012

Questioning the State Department: Human Rights "Progress" in Honduras?

UC Santa Cruz historian Dana Frank, in an editorial in the Los Angeles Times, strongly criticizes the US State Department for its recent affirmation that Honduras is making sufficient progress in correcting human rights abuses to allow disbursal of foreign aid funds sequestered by congressional mandate.

This finding recently received publicity, ironically, because of one small exception: the admission by the State Department that Porfirio Lobo Sosa's hand-picked police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, has a suspect history. As Frank writes:
the State Department did announce that it was withholding all U.S. funds to Juan Carlos (El Tigre) Bonilla, the national chief of police, or anyone under his direct supervision, until an investigation of his alleged death squad activity has concluded.

You would think that the fact that the president of Honduras appointed, and continues to support, someone with such a tainted history during a period when in theory the government is committed to clearing up corruption in the police would have raised questions about the Lobo Sosa administration, not just Bonilla. But apparently not: the vast majority of US funding that was subject to withholding has now been approved for release.

Why? Frank, in her final paragraph, reaches the same conclusion as most other observers of the situation; the US administration
is obsessed with an unwinnable, militarized drug war in Latin America, and as result appears to be willing to back almost any government that will allow it to expand its military presence in the region.

Frank cites the almost unbelievable numbers that have been tallied since 2009, when Honduran rule of law was disrupted by a coup, boundaries between military and policing began to be blurred, and the security forces were unleashed by the government to silence dissent:
  • 10,000 human rights complaints against security forces
  • 23 journalists killed
  • multiple reports by international human rights groups about repeated abuses of due process, denial of constitutional rights, and violation of human rights.

Want to read more details? Start with the links provided by the UNHCR. Or those maintained by Reporters Without Borders.

Too internationalist for you? Then visit the website of Freedom House, generally considered a centrist organization. In a report dated July 4, 2012, Freedom House writes that in the past year,
Honduras continued to suffer from human rights violations, impunity, and corruption.

But none of this convinced the State Department to use the leverage provided by Congressional direction to withhold a small percentage of funding--"20% of a portion of U.S. police and military aid", to quote Frank-- to try to move the Honduran government away from its current posture.

What is that posture?

In June, Maria Antonieta Guillen represented the Honduran government in testimony to the UN.  She argued that the government had to walk a "fine line" to "avoid delinquency by minors" while "preserving the integrity of the diverse centers of rehabilitation". Deadly prison fires over the past year have exposed the reality: overcrowding, large numbers detained without charges, and the criminalization of practices of the young. As sociologist Leticia Salomon wrote, these fires are "evidence of the collapse of the system".

Guillen argued that, since human life is the fundamental human right, policing cannot be said to violate human rights, because it is the prevention of violent crime. Whenever accusations of human rights violations are raised, the Honduran government's response is either that the crimes were private (explaining away the systematic and unprecedented increases in crimes against activists and journalists); or that the security forces were acting to combat crime. These justifications betray a fundamental difference in how the Honduran government understands the role of security forces and the status of human rights.

It would be one thing for the State Department to admit that Honduras has not improved its record, and make a case-- however it might want-- that US national security interests outweigh this failure. That at least would not involve giving a blessing to a regime uninterested in improving actual human rights, and incompetent to do so in any event.

What is tragic is that, by certifying progress that no one else sees, the US State Department is lending support to assertions about what is needed for social order in Honduras that are directly at odds with values the US espouses.

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