Monday, April 19, 2010

Alternative truth, official truth, or honest disagreement?

An article published by IPS today, written by Thelma Mejía, attests to the widespread skepticism about the newly formed Honduran Truth Commission.

Composed of former Guatemalan vice president Eduardo Stein; Michael Kergin, a Canadian diplomat; María Amadilia, former Peruvian minister of justice; and Honduran members Julieta Castellanos and Jorge Omar Casco, assisted by Sergio Membreño as technical secretary, the Commission will begin its work on May 4.

As Mejía points out, conservative forces in Honduras-- notably the
Unión Cívica Democrática (UCD)-- are opposed to including Julieta Castellanos. In addition, Mejía points out, "human rights groups criticised the inclusion of Casco, whom they link with the most radical fringe of the political right". Meanwhile, the Human Rights Platform notes that the Truth Commission has been established without following international norms.

The selection of the international members of the commission appears to have been constrained by the need to avoid participants from countries that have been critical of the coup. Since few governments in the world refrained from expressing outrage about the de facto regime, and many governments have not yet recognized the Lobo Sosa administration, the range of candidates was restricted from the outset. While
Mejía cites Minister of Foreign Relations Mario Canahuati as saying the selection was made from a group of 15 competitive candidates, she quotes Reina Rivera of the Human Rights Platform as saying that
We believe that the selection of the international members was made more on the basis of their nationalities than their competence and abilities. The representatives from Canada and Peru are not well looked upon in some sectors, which is why some reject the Commission, while others view it with reservations.

Among those skeptical others: pro-coup businessman and ANDI president Adolfo Facussé, who reportedly said
this Truth Commission is a demand of the international community and we already know what its findings will be.... [These] will be geared to what the world wants to hear, and not to what really happened in Honduras. I don't have very high expectations regarding this question. It won't contribution to reconciliation; on the contrary, it will create greater division.

Finally, something on which both sides can agree! But surely even if it doesn't heal the wounds, finding out the truth will help? well, not so fast:

As we previously pointed out, the fact that the commission will seal records for ten years suggests the search for truth in Honduras is premature, if the committee thinks the country cannot handle hearing what it expects to discover. The report that Stein suggests will be complete in eight months is hard to imagine, if it has to avoid sensitive topics.

On the positive side, Mejía reports plans for an "
Alternative Truth Commission", reportedly with the backing of Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, to "monitor the process and the conduct of those who make up the Truth Commission".

So, while we may share the skepticism of the left, right, and pro-business sectors in Honduras about the official Truth Commission, there is a chance that opposition to the proposed whitewash will keep a focus on the actual events of the coup and its aftermath and give human rights groups a chance to call attention to ongoing repression.


David said...

RAJ, although I do not know the specifics, I think there may be a misunderstanding here. It is often the case with Truth Commissions that confidential testimony is kept in reserve for many years (e.g., El Salvador and Guatemala). It is not that the commission will avoid sensitive topics, but rather the degree to which they will name sources or names on some of the issues. Even though I'm wary about a truth commission which seems to have no domestic support from any side, I do recall very clearly when the mandate of the truth commission in Guatemala was announced, and that every single human rights group felt deflated because it was not going to "name names," like the Salvadoran report. When it was finally released, it was much embraced by civil society. It could be that the Commission in Honduras will not be able to achieve any kind of widespread acceptance. But the point I mention above -- i.e., clarifying what Stein meant about the 10 year period -- is a separate issue.

RAJ said...

Our previous post on the sealing of Truth Commission records addresses this point. Eduardo Stein projects releasing the final report in eight months, while sealing records for ten years. In that previous post, we comment on how this manner of proceeding compares to the ideal outlined by the UN.

Perhaps worth underlining is that the reception in Honduras was summarized by a newspaper headline "We will know the truth in ten years". The implication seems clear to us: Honduran skepticism about what the outcome of the Truth Commission will be extends across the entire political spectrum.

So, we do not see the ten-year moratorium as separate from the skepticism about the process, because the two are linked by Honduran media. And it is clear that there is no Honduran constituency for a Truth Commission at present.

David said...

Look, I'm skeptical myself, but I think you do a disservice by (1) taking newspaper accounts of the 10-year "moratorium" at face value, and (2) misrepresenting what international "ideals" are regarding truth commissions. There will be no interim reports, meaning nothing before the 8 months are out -- that is standard for truth commissions. Confidential materials will be held for 10 years, again quite standard (I beg you to tell me who has gained access thus far to the Salvadoran and Guatemalan archives?)

In fact, the same report you cite (and it's worth noting that the citations you make are all about the future, its distribution and impact, not about circumstances in which they are created), there is the following on page 32 about what to do with the files:

Advance thought should be given to what will happen to the archives of a truth commission, including the thousands of statements and the many investigative files that go into the preparation of the report, as well as to how these records can be protected for possible future reference. Ideally, there should be some form of public library or other public access, perhaps a historical memory library. However, this requires confidential information to be removed or blocked from access, be it the names of deponents, the names of those accused or other facts and details, depending on the arrangements made by the commission in relation to this information. The commission should give thought far in advance to the question of long-term use; this may lead to statement-takers asking permission for the statement to be made available to the public after the commission has concluded, for example. (emphasis added)
As I said previously, history in other cases demonstrates that initial skepticism about the impact of a report does not necessarily play out in practice in terms of predicting its actual impact. My point is that skepticism is not the same as determinism -- even though no one seems to want the report now does not a priori doom it to failure.

RAJ said...

Again, the point we are making is that Hondurans on both right and left are skeptical about the possibility of this Truth Commission arriving at an account that will be satisfactory. In that context, the way the news media in Honduras cover this issue is, frankly, more important than you seem to be crediting. When Eduardo Stein says that information will be sealed for ten years, what Honduran media and public hear is that the truth will be concealed for ten years. For us, that is diagnostic of the fact that this Truth Commission is not taking place in a country prepared to arrive at any understanding of what happened. People on all sides are still fighting out the conflict.

Our concerns are not addressed by citing other instances of such investigations-- successful or unsuccessful (and there are examples of both). We do think that the rawness of the situation in Honduras is something that has not been taken into account. And that the skepticism from multiple perspectives expressed by Hondurans is somewhat more important than the inflated claims of significance placed on this step by some international observers.

Finally-- to whom are we doing a disservice? There are plenty of people in the international community who are hailing the formation of this very fragile body as some major step forward. Our goal, and we think noting the resistance to the Truth Commission follows from this, is to represent how Hondurans are thinking, talking, and acting.

RAJ said...

Or to reiterate the conclusion of our post:

So, while we may share the skepticism of the left, right, and pro-business sectors in Honduras about the official Truth Commission, there is a chance that opposition to the proposed whitewash will keep a focus on the actual events of the coup and its aftermath and give human rights groups a chance to call attention to ongoing repression.

David said...

A disservice to your readers, who now are somewhat numerous, thanks to your commitment to covering Honduras so assiduously since the coup.

I've just gotten confused in reading your posts (perhaps my fault) in thinking that you also accept the Honduran media's interpretation of the 10-year issue as undermining the entire significance of the truth commission, and not meeting international standards. That seemed to be the thrust of your first post. And you call it a "proposed whitewash" in your last comment, the point of which is otherwise well-taken. Enough said.

RAJ said...

Sorry for the confusion. The blog medium is challenging because-- especially as we are committed to trying to get Honduran news coverage out in a timely way, while maintaining a critical stance on both Honduran and international media-- we often post as events are unfolding.

To clarify our own position: we are immensely skeptical about the Truth Commission, for three reasons:

(1) the Truth Commission is not-- contrary to statements made in some otherwise excellent coverage, such as Daniel Altschuler's current post in America's Quarterly, who writes that The demand for the truth, far from an international imposition, is Honduran in origin-- an organic development from Honduran communities. It was first proposed in the San Jose Accords as outlined by Oscar Arias, which were rejected. It has remained in all subsequent transformations of those accords, but with skepticism being the continual perspective from both left and right in Honduras.

(2) The polarization of the political landscape in Honduras is very clear in the reactions to the naming of the commission members, the expectations-- or lack thereof-- for the process, and in our view, this indicates that Honduras is not yet ready to explore the truths of what happened. Careful reading of statements by Honduran politicians reveals echoes of the rhetoric of the Micheletti regime, in calls for the Truth Commission to demonstrate that the Zelaya administration had so violated the law that the coup was a necessary reaction. Meanwhile, in the wake of the hastily passed amnesty law, many people who suffered from human rights violations do indeed see this as a whitewash of crimes.

(3) That leads to our conclusion that this is a premature imposition of the form of a Truth Commission on a country that, far from having put the coup behind, is still living the coup. I spent considerable time in the last few weeks in the company of Honduran and Honduranist colleagues. Even the ability to project what one might be doing in a few months is limited; killings of journalists continue; the violence threatened in the Bajo Aguan remains a cloud hanging over the region and country.

And there is the Frente de Resistencia, no matter how much the international community appears to want to ignore it. To us, finally, the failure to engage with the Frente and its constituent organizations makes it hard to see how the Truth Commission can represent the necessary range of Honduran views on what happened.

Sorry to take the last word. Thanks for reading thoughtfully, and apologies for confusing you. We do try to be responsible, but in the end, we caution that these are opinion pieces, not just reporting; they are interpretations through our lenses as academics, and that means they have a POV.