The Obama administration has been outspoken recently about human rights, but some statements are somewhat disconnected from actual policy.
Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough visited Honduras this week, meeting with President Lobo, “members of his cabinet, and civil society representatives.” At the conclusion of his visit, he issued a statement, saying among other things that
I …extended my congratulations to the Honduran people on their strong participation in a peaceful, democratic, primary election process on November 18, recognizing the commendable work of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
“Peaceful” and “democratic” perhaps, aside from the various assassinations of opposition candidates and members belonging to the LIBRE party this year, and other political repression recently submitted to the International Criminal Court as evidence of “crimes against humanity and impunity in Honduras.” These murders represent another serious threat to Honduran democracy in the wake of the 2009 coup, and have led some analysts to conclude that “free and fair” elections next year are all but impossible. But the Obama administration seems to pretend the repression is not happening by describing the process as “peaceful.”
U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, meanwhile, also has become a vocal champion of human rights - on Twitter - reminding followers of significant dates in U.S. history for labor and civil rights, for example, and decrying attacks on women, and other serious rights abuses in Honduras.
On Wednesday, Kubiske Tweeted:
One in every 5 women is the intended victim of rape or will be raped during her lifetime.Stop violence against women.— Ambassador Kubiske (@USAmbHonduras) November 28, 2012
And yesterday Tweeted this:
Over 300 femicides in 2012 per the Honduran Special Prosecutor for Crimes Against Women. Help stop gender based violence.— Ambassador Kubiske (@USAmbHonduras) November 29, 2012
As Francisco Pavon Media and Maritza Gallardo wrote for Oxfam GB last week, “human rights activists and academics blame the institutionalised and extreme gender discrimination in Honduran society, government ministries, the judiciary and law enforcement authorities,” noting that
Since the 2009 coup, the public credibility and legitimacy of these same security and judicial national institutions has plummeted.
"The government of Honduras says one thing and does another, although it talks about its concern for the levels of violence in the country in general, it doesn't even mention violence against women. When it comes to action, it does nothing." Gladys Lanza, Women's Tribunal Against Femicide.
Sounds familiar. If the Obama administration has put pressure on the Honduran government to stem the wave of femicides and gender violence that has exploded since the coup, it has kept it secret. Some of the gender-based violence is of course political, targeting women who opposed the coup. A report [PDF] last year from Just Associates and a coalition of other groups links attacks on women to the coup’s legacy, and rampant impunity:
In Honduras, the elections – strongly questioned by the international community and Honduran civil society – have not reinstated the political rights of the population. On the contrary, after the elections, attacks against organizations and people critical of the current regime have worsened.
(Also citing various specific cases.)
Ambassador Kubiske’s messages fit a pattern. For example, on October 22, the ambassador Tweeted:
The murder of 2 UNAH students 1 year ago today caused public outcry for police and justice system reform.This crucial work must proceed.— Ambassador Kubiske (@USAmbHonduras) October 22, 2012
The murders to which Kubiske refers are those of Vargas Castellanos, the son of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH) rector Julieta Castellanos, and his friend Carlos Pineda. As Honduras Culture and Politics noted, “[Julieta] Castellanos, of course, was a member of the official "Truth Commission" on which the US State Department placed much of its hopes for national reconciliation, despite Honduran skepticism.” Castellanos’ response to her son’s murder was a call for the international community to “Stop feeding the beast,” a plea that was echoed by 94 members of the U.S. Congress in a letter to Secretary Clinton on March 9. The letter urged the State Department “to suspend U.S. assistance to the Honduran military and police given the credible allegations of widespread, serious violations of human rights attributed to the security forces.” When asked about the letter, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, “I think the concerns that we have with this particular proposal is that it calls for a cutting of all aid to Honduras,” and that “this recommendation to cut it all off is a relatively blunt instrument.” (Emphasis added.)
Congress has been able to force a suspension of some aid; the U.S. Embassy, meanwhile, presented Castellanos with its Martin Luther King, Jr. award.
Following the assassination of attorney Antonio Trejo Cabrera, who defended campesinos in the Aguan Valley in their struggle against the violent tactics of major land barons such as Miguel Facussé, Kubiske Tweeted:
The U.S. is helping Honduran authorities investigate Mr. Trejo Cabrera's death as they seek to bring his killers to justice.— Ambassador Kubiske (@USAmbHonduras) September 24, 2012
I would like to express my deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of Antonio Trejo Cabrera.— Ambassador Kubiske (@USAmbHonduras) September 24, 2012
Trejo notably had warned that if he were murdered, Facussé would be to blame. But the Obama administration has continually been quiet about Facussé, even though he has admitted his guards have killed farmers in the Aguan, and even though State Department cables have described Facussé’s connection to cocaine trafficking (the focus of recent joint U.S.-Honduran operations in the nearby Moskitia region). Embassy officials have met with Facussé on at least two occasions, including a meeting in September 2009, just months after the military coup, which Facussé supported.
When a reporter asked in November last year about “a very wealthy individual, a Honduran individual who appears to have met with State – with Embassy officials, despite the fact that he is believed to be a known – he is believed to be a drug kingpin of sorts,” in a State Department press briefing, the State Department’s written response did not mention Facussé, or give any indication that the U.S. was applying pressure to safeguard human rights in the Aguan. The aforementioned letter from 94 members of Congress focused largely on the human rights situation in the Aguan Valley; I have already noted State’s underwhelming response.
It would be a welcome change if the sentiments expressed in Ambassador Kubiske’s Tweets, such as
Journalists must have freedom to inform the public without fear— Ambassador Kubiske (@USAmbHonduras) September 13, 2012
were matched with action. As Honduras’ biggest economic, political and military partner, the U.S. is in a position to greatly affect whether or not impunity and rampant abuses continue in Honduras. So far, however, these are just nice words.