Friday, May 25, 2012

The State Department and Human Rights

The United States State Department released its world wide human rights reports on Thursday with much fanfare.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a series of remarks.  After lauding her teams work on "advancing human rights in a twenty-first century landscape" she noted:
Now, every year that we issue this, we take stock of ourselves. We say: What more can we do? Where have we succeeded or are succeeding? Where are we falling short? And we know we have to recommit to the work of advancing universal rights, building the partnerships that will move us forward, helping every man, woman, and child live up to their God-given potential. And we know we have to be able to speak out and speak up for those unable to use their own voices.

It's that taking stock at the State Department that interests us. There's been a blind eye to certain kinds of human rights abuses in Honduras that happen, but don't seem to warrant action by the Secretary or her employees, including the Ambassador. So, we turned with some trepidation to the country report on Honduras

It emphasizes corruption within the national police force, an institutionally weak judiciary, and discrimination and violence against vulnerable populations as the greatest challenges to human rights in Honduras in 2011.

In the executive summary, which is all many people will read, it states:
Police and government agents committed unlawful killings. Vigilantes and former members of the security forces carried out arbitrary and summary killings. There continued to be reports of killings of agricultural workers, private security guards, and security forces related to a land dispute in the Bajo Aguan region. Other human rights problems included harsh prison conditions, violence against detainees, lengthy pretrial detentions and failure to provide legal due process, child prostitution and abuse, trafficking in persons, ineffective enforcement of labor laws, and child labor.
The government took important steps to strengthen respect for human rights and promote national reconciliation, as well as to prosecute and punish officials who committed abuses. However, corruption and impunity were serious problems that impeded the effectiveness of the National Police.

So that's the State Department's conclusion.  There are very few human rights triumphs recorded in the Honduran report, but they state "there were no acts of anti-semitism" in 2011.

Obviously, we would take issue with their statement that in 2011 the government took important steps to strengthen respect for human rights.

They didn't.

What Honduras did do was create a cabinet level position for a Minister of Justice and Human Rights, and appoint Ana Pineda to the post.  But it is at best a symbolic nod to human rights, without effect in the real world, and at worst-- as here-- serves as a kind of blind to serious assessment of the government's abysmal human rights record.  When Pineda has criticized Congress for proposing laws that tread on human rights, or criticized the police for their handling of protests, she's been ignored.  Congress extended the period in which an arrested person may be held without charges from 24 to 48 hours despite Pineda's criticism of the change, as they have ignored her every time she protests their actions.  Her position lacks any kind of authority to actually compel observance of human rights.

Pineda did manage to get a government statement that Ricky Martin should be admitted to the country and allowed to perform his show, after immigration authorities and the government censorship committee threatened to ban him.  The State Department report also credits her as instrumental in getting an LGBT crimes investigation squad created, though its actual accomplishments are small: according to the State Department, they have filed a couple of cases, although nothing about these has appeared in the Honduran media, and none have come to trial. So we think we can reserve judgment: neither of these are significant antidotes to the wave of killings of LGBT activists, the most recent, the murder of journalist Erick Martinez. 

We won't dwell in detail on the many human rights violations the State Department country report describes because as a reader of this blog, you're familiar with many of them, but we would like to linger on the mention of police harassment through arrests, especially in light of events that happened on Thursday, the same day that the State Department released its human rights reports.

The State Department report on Honduras gives a good summary of Honduras's arrest laws, what police can and cannot do:
The law provides that police can arrest a person only with a court order, unless the arrest is by order of a prosecutor or is made during the commission of a crime, when there is strong suspicion that a person has committed a crime and may try to evade criminal prosecution, or when the person is caught with evidence related to a crime. 

 They add, "but authorities at times failed to observe these prohibitions (against arbitrary arrest)."

That's what happened to yet another group of campesinos involved in the dispute over land in the Bajo Aguan yesterday.

The government still has not paid Miguel Facussé for the land it agreed to compensate him for in the Bajo Aguan. Facussé issued an ultimatum this last week, saying that he would go to court and get the campesinos thrown off the land if he was not paid by June 1.

Thursday, more than eighteen campesinos, both directors and rank-and-file members of Movimiento Unificado Campesino del Aguan (MUCA), were arrested in the Bajo Aguan and El Progreso, Yoro.  Their only apparent crime, being members of MUCA.

In the Department of La Paz, sixteen or more members of Consejo Civico de Organizaciones Populares e Indígenas de Honduras (COPINH) were arrested while out working on their communal lands. Children who were part of this group were forced to perform yard work and clean out the latrines of the police post before being freed.

So, yeah, "authorities at times failed to observe the prohibition" against arbitrary arrest.

And that's just some of the evidence that Honduras has a long way to go, and why it will be interesting to see what changes in US policy towards Honduras come out of the State Department's process of "taking stock" of what's in their own country report on human rights in Honduras.

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