On Tuesday, June 18th, Secretary of State John Kerry received a letter from 21 U.S. Senate Democrats expressing “concern regarding the grave human rights situation and deterioration of the rule of law in Honduras” and questioning the State Department’s assessment that the Honduran government is taking measures to protect basic human rights and address abuses committed by security forces. The letter, which was initiated by Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), also notes “recent reports of death squads working with the police” and “a pattern of violence and threats against journalists, human rights defenders, members of the clergy, union leaders, opposition figures, students, small farmers and LGBT activists.” It calls for a “thorough review” of U.S. security assistance to Honduras “to ensure that no U.S. assistance is provided to police or military personnel or units credibly implicated in human rights violations.” Finally, it asks Kerry to “make every reasonable effort to help ensure that Honduras’ upcoming November 2013 elections are free, fair and peaceful.”
It is rare for so many Democratic senators – approximately 40% of the entire Senate Democratic caucus – to take a position on Latin America policy, particularly one that appears to run counter to administration policy. The committee positions held by the letter signers add even more weight to the message that’s being delivered to Kerry. Here’s a quick breakdown of the signers’ committee assignments:
- Seven out of ten of the Democrats on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee are signers, including Barbara Boxer (D-CA, second-ranking) and Ben Cardin (third-ranking).
- Seven of the letter signers are on the Appropriations Committee – which controls the federal government’s purse strings – including Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the full committee, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chairman of the Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations Appropriations (which has direct control over the funding of foreign assistance) and Dick Durbin who chairs the Subcommittee on Armed Services Appropriations.
- Several of the signers belong to the Armed Services Committee (also of direct relevance given the ongoing military assistance to Honduras), including Jack Reed (D-RI), second-ranking Democrat on the committee.
- Finally, given recent controversial DEA activities in Honduras – such as the May 2012 interdiction operation during which four Miskitu villagers were killed – it’s worth noting that several Judiciary Committee members are also letter signers, including the chairman of the committee, Patrick Leahy.
In March of last year seven Senate Democrats sent a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressing similar concerns about U.S. assistance going to Honduran security forces allegedly involved in egregious human rights abuses. The letter asked the State Department to keep the Senate updated on whether the Honduran government was complying with human rights conditions detailed in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012. This Act contains provisions requiring that, prior to the allocation of 20 percent of U.S. security funding for Honduras, the Honduran government is “implementing policies to protect freedom of expression and association, and due process of law (…), is prosecuting military and police personnel who are credibly alleged to have violated human rights,” and Honduran security forces “are cooperating with civilian judicial authorities in such cases.”
This latest letter of June 18th, along with the fact that many more senators are signatories, is more strongly worded than the March 2012 letter and gives the impression that the senators’ patience is wearing thin. The 21 senators say that they have “serious questions” about the State Department’s decision to certify Honduras’ compliance with the conditions spelled out in the 2012 Consolidated Appropriations Act. Consequently, the letter asks for a “thorough review to ensure that no U.S. assistance is provided to police or military personnel or units credibly implicated in human rights violations, and that top Honduran law enforcement officials are persons of integrity dedicated to protecting the rights of the Honduran people and upholding the rule of law.” Given these stipulations, it is safe to bet that the senators are displeased that Honduras’ current top police official, Juan Carlos “the Tiger” Bonilla, is alleged to have carried out extrajudicial killings while part of a police death squad. U.S. State Department officials have insisted that no funds are going to units under his control – as stipulated by the Leahy Law – but, as the AP recently reported, Honduran officials and legal experts assert that all police personnel are under Bonilla’s control.
In response to questions related to some of the same concerns raised in the new Senate letter, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield told members of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee today that there were "two degrees of separation" between alleged human rights abusers in the Honduran police and recipients of U.S. assistance. It is not clear how such supposed safeguards relate to Brownfield's other references to "vetted units," however. (Brownfield made similar remarks in a March interview with AFP as well.)
As we have noted before, there have been numerous letters on Honduras from Democratic members of the House, including a letter signed by 58 Representatives demanding a U.S. investigation of DEA-related killings in northeastern Honduras, and a letter signed by 94 Representatives calling for the suspension of all military and police assistance to Honduras. It now appears that criticism of administration policy toward Honduras has taken on significant momentum in the U.S. Senate. In a statement accompanying the release of the letter, Senator Cardin underscored the signers' demand for greater accountability around U.S. funds going to Honduras:
U.S. taxpayers demand accountability at the highest levels when their resources are used for any purpose, especially in foreign assistance. I have been appalled at the stories of glaring human rights abuses coming from Honduras. We must ensure that U.S. funds are not enabling rampant human rights violations, including by members of the Honduran security forces who seem to rely on a system of impunity.
The U.S. major media has taken notice of the Senate letter, with articles focusing on it in the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times and Washington Times. In her piece in the Los Angeles Times, Tracy Wilkinson provides some useful additional background on Honduras’ violence:
Besieged by drug traffickers, vicious gangs and fierce political bloodletting, Honduras suffers one of the highest homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere. Violence has especially surged since the 2009 military coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya. Many involved in the coup remain in office.
Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, was recently chosen as an opposition candidate for president, and several people from her Free party have been killed or attacked.
Democrats in Congress and, increasingly, the U.S. media appear to understand that there is a real problem in Honduras, rooted in the country’s institutions and recent tumultuous history, and that current U.S. policy is only making it worse. How long will it take the Obama administration to come to the same realization?