With Honduras’ presidential and legislative elections just around the corner (November 24), members of the U.S. Congress continue to weigh in, expressing concern over whether the process will be “free and fair,” and also decrying ongoing human rights violations. A letter from Senator Tim Kaine’s (D – VA) office, also signed by another 12 senators, warns that
Fragile institutions and a besieged judiciary have done little to punish the perpetrators of the violence, encouraging a climate of impunity and undermining citizens’ confidence that their political, civil and human rights will be protected. Moreover, Honduran journalists are regularly the targets of violence and threats, and political candidates have been killed as a result of running for office. These challenges raise serious concerns over the Honduran government’s ability to conduct free and fair elections. The United States must press the Government of Honduras to ensure the right of all its citizens to peacefully assemble, campaign and vote.
In a press release announcing the letter, Senator Kaine was quoted as saying:
“I’m very concerned by the ongoing violence in Honduras and the impact on the November 24 elections,“ said Kaine, who served as a missionary in Honduras in 1980. “We are receiving reports of threats against journalists and even assassinations of candidates.”
Emphasizing that the United States has no preferred outcome other than clean elections that win the confidence of the Honduran people, Kaine said, “only a legitimate Honduran government can work to stem the systemic violence, end criminal impunity, and create opportunities for Honduran youth.”
As we have previously noted, some 18 members of the LIBRE opposition party of Xiomara Castro de Zelaya – including candidates – have been murdered since May last year, at least as many as from all the other major political parties combined, according to a recent Rights Action report [PDF] that mostly cites Honduran media sources and human rights organizations.
The new Senate letter is but the latest of a flurry of congressional letters to have raised alarm over human rights abuses and political repression in Honduras. In a speech before the Council of the Americas on Tuesday, Representative Eliot Engel, the senior Democratic member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee noted that there had been 10 such letters, according to his count, among them “a letter to Sec. Kerry a few weeks ago [that said] that there are significant doubts about whether a level electoral playing field exists now.”
Engel was blunt in describing post-coup Honduras:
Security problems are legion; organized crime is in the ascendant; security forces are feared and resist attempts at reform; and, institutions are weak or worse. The judiciary is utilized as a weapon to settle political scores, and journalists and human rights defenders are under siege.
One example he mentioned was the recent attacks in the media on human rights defender Bertha Oliva of the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), adding that the “campaign of threats and intimidation to Bertha must cease.” What Engel was referring to was that following Oliva’s participation in a congressional briefing in Washington, D.C. on October 29, a panel of guests excoriated her on “Frente a Frente,” one of Honduras’ most well-known TV news commentary programs. Commenting on what it deemed to be “smears” against Oliva and another participant in the briefing – Victor Fernandez, Coordinator of the Broad Movement for Dignity and Justice - a statement from Human Rights Watch described what happened on the program and why it was so disconcerting:
the host, Renato Álvarez, read from what he said was a leaked diplomatic cable sent by Honduras’s ambassador to the United States, Jorge Ramos Hernández Alcerro, to President Porfirio Lobo. The alleged cable contained negative comments about the leaders’ participation in a panel discussion in Washington. The Lobo administration has neither affirmed nor denied the authenticity of the cable.
In the broadcast, the show’s host read at length from the alleged cable, including the following sentence: “The participation of Bertha Oliva and Victor Fernandez proves the conspiracy of NGOs and Honduran people against the electoral process in Honduras.”
After reading from the alleged cable, the host asked the four guests on the program for their comments. Three of them are candidates for congressional seats in the upcoming election, and the other is a current member of congress running for re-election. All four strongly criticized Oliva’s comments and disparaged her for expressing her views about the election.
Noting that “Human rights defenders in Honduras are subject to persistent violence and threats,” the HRW statement quoted Americas director Jose Miguel Vivanco as saying, “the government should unequivocally repudiate the views the cable expresses and emphasize that the right to free expression includes criticizing the electoral process and human rights conditions, whether it be in Honduras or before members and staff of the US Congress.”