Members of the U.S. Congress are keeping a close watch on Honduras’ upcoming general elections. In June of this year, 24 U.S Senators signed a letter expressing concern about the human rights situation in Honduras and requesting that Secretary of State John Kerry “make every reasonable effort to help ensure that Honduras’ upcoming November 2013 elections are free, fair and peaceful.” On October 15th three members of the House of Representatives chimed in with their own letter to Kerry stating that:
the freedom and fairness of [the November 24] election is very much at risk, as human rights abuses under the existing government continue to threaten basic civil liberties, opposition candidates do not enjoy a level playing field, and state security forces are taking on an increasingly central, and ominous role in context of the election.
The House letter, signed by Representatives Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Mike Honda (D-CA), noted that the U.S. Embassy in Honduras “had not spoken forcefully about the militarization of the police under the impetus of one of the candidates [or] expressed concern with the National Party’s concentration of institutional power through illegal means.” The letter focused in particular on “the acts of violence and intimidation against leaders of opposition parties, especially members of LIBRE”, a new left-leaning political party that sprung from the movement of resistance against Honduras’ 2009 coup. Grijalva and his three colleagues requested that the Department of State “speak forcefully” against these attacks and noted that:
According to COFADEH, Honduras' leading human rights group, at least sixteen activists and candidates from LIBRE have been assassinated since June of 2012. Furthermore, it has been brought to our attention that the Honduras government has failed to effectively investigate and prosecute those responsible for these assassinations.
A few days later Agence France Presse (AFP) published an article that included an initial, albeit anonymous, U.S. government reaction to the Grijalva letter. Unnamed State Department officials told AFP that they were also concerned about the police militarization taking place in Honduras, in the form of the new Military Police, launched with great fanfare by National Party presidential candidate Juan Orlando Hernández, in his capacity as president of the Honduran Congress. The Military Police actually appears as one of Hernández’s five key electoral proposals on his campaign web page. “In our view”, said one of the anonymous officials, “the creation of a military police distracts attention from civilian police reform efforts and strains limited resources.” The State Department stated that it was not providing assistance of any kind to the new force.
The State Department officials also “called on all candidates, as well as party and electoral officials, to ensure that Hondurans’ democratic engagement is fully respected through a fair and transparent electoral process.” They did not, however, take into account the House members’ request to “speak forcefully” against the attacks and intimidation directed at Honduran opposition leaders.
The U.S. government has so far failed to denounce attacks against Honduran opposition figures, though these attacks have been documented by various media outlets and human rights organizations. On October 21, the same day that AFP published the anonymous officials’ statements, the human rights organization Rights Action released a detailed compilation of documented killings and attempted killings targeting political candidates, their families and campaign leaders throughout the country. Rights Action’s report indicates that attacks against LIBRE candidates far outnumber those targeting candidates of other parties.
The report, authored by Karen Spring and entitled “Incomplete List of Killings and Armed Attacks Related to Political Campaigning in Honduras,” shows that since the beginning of this election cycle’s campaign season, LIBRE’s candidates, pre-candidates, candidates’ close relatives and campaign leaders have suffered 18 killings and 15 armed attacks. In the same period – from June 2012, six months prior to the November 2012 party primaries, to today – the number of killings of all eight other parties combined total 17 and the number of armed attacks total nine. The report notes that the lack of judicial action makes it difficult to say for sure how many of these killings and attacks are politically motivated:
The Honduran judicial authorities’ failure to carry out investigations of these cases, which appears to stem in part from a lack of political will, makes it impossible for family members, the victims and human rights organizations generating [this] type of list […] to understand the reasons and roots of the armed attacks and killings. Without a proper investigation it is difficult to determine which attacks had political motives.
But the attacks against LIBRE leaders fall into a disturbing pattern of targeted repression observed by human rights organizations in the months and years following the 2009 military coup which deposed democratically elected president Manuel Zelaya, husband of LIBRE’s presidential candidate Xiomara Castro. Castro is currently leading in most polls but, as Spring points out, these attacks raise “significant questions about how democratic and fair voting and election campaigning can be held in a context of on-going terror, violence and impunity affecting candidates and their families throughout the country.”
Spring also emphasizes the fact that the list of attacks and killings that she has compiled is “undoubtedly incomplete,” and that the real number of attacks targeting party activists may be much higher.
[The list] relies almost entirely upon reports from the Honduran media that generally underreport human rights abuses and are likely to under-report politically motivated violence. The list lacks background and circumstantial details regarding each case and does not include reports of politically motivated attacks in the form of death threats, attempted kidnappings, persecution, criminalization and attacks often classified by the Honduran state and Honduran National Police as “common crime”.
Many other cases are not documented because the victims and their family members, for fear of persecution, have not come forward to publically denounce the attacks. Bertha Oliva, a prominent Honduran human rights defender at the Committee of the Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared (COFADEH) has noted that there has been significant underreporting of politically–motivated attacks and murders of LIBRE activists due to fear of further persecution.
Despite these limitations, Spring’s report provides abundant evidence that violence is a significant problem in these elections and that the violence is disproportionately affecting candidates from the LIBRE party. The U.S. Congress is beginning to react with concern – when will the Obama administration do the same?