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Washington Strikes out on Honduras

July 5th 2010

Latin American Topics - Honduras coup d'etat

When President Obama took office in January 2009, his administration espoused a new style of broad, multilateral and direct diplomacy. Within the context of the Western hemisphere, a primary channel for inter-American diplomacy is the Organization of American States (OAS), which was founded in its present form in 1948 to “promote and consolidate representative democracy.” Although the U.S government has nominally endorsed principles of multilateralism and non-intervention, which have been somewhat institutionalized by the OAS, the organization has traditionally been used by Washington to advance a specific agenda under the guise of hemispheric solidarity. After the end of the Cold War, the OAS made some efforts to develop a legal paradigm for collective, rather than unilateral democracy promotion. The bottom line is that the United States has never given up trying to use the OAS to promote its own policy priorities with the expectation that fellow member states will deferentially toe the line.

Rare Case of Consensus

Recently, the inter-American community did take unified and decisive action against a breach in constitutional order when Honduras’s President Zelaya was ousted by the military in June 2009. The OAS voted unanimously to suspend the nation from the organization. This instance marked the first time that the OAS collectively acted to its full legal capacity in order to protect democratic order. However, the United States has squandered this opportunity for genuinely multilateral defense of democratic standards. Secretary of State Clinton and her Assistant Secretary for Western Hemispheric Affairs, Arturo Valenzuela, in an abrupt shift of U.S. stance, prematurely urged fellow OAS members to begin the process of readmitting Honduras at the recent OAS General Assembly in Lima, despite the country’s continued violations of OAS conditions for participation. Addressing the OAS, Clinton argued that democracy had returned to Honduras and called for “the hemisphere as a whole to move forward and welcome Honduras back into the inter-American community.” Given how fragile and toothless the OAS is, and how little influence it has traditionally had on the internal affairs of its member nations, when an opportunity for unified action occurs, the U.S. must not abandon its commitments halfway through a collective initiative. “Forgive and forget” is not an acceptable policy.

Post-Cold War Institutionalization of Democracy Promotion

After the end of the Cold War, Washington’s fears of a pink hemisphere abated somewhat, and the OAS was able to establish some legal parameters for collective promotion of democracy. The Unit for the Promotion of Democracy (now the Department for the Promotion of Democracy) was set up in 1990 to “support democratic development and respond to requests of electoral technical assistance and strengthen political institutions and democratic procedures.” Other developments of note include the adoption of Resolution 1080 in 1991, the Washington Protocol of 1992, and the creation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which was passed on September 11, 2001 at the Quebec Summit of the Americas.

Resolution 1080 gives the OAS Secretary General the directive to call a meeting of the Permanent Council in the event of “the sudden or irregular interruption of power” within a democratic government. The Permanent Council must then call a meeting of the General Assembly or propose a course of action to protect the integrity of a democratic government. This Resolution has been invoked in only four cases—Haiti in 1991, the self-coups, or autogolpes in Peru in 1992 and Guatemala in 1993, and Paraguay in 1996. Resolution 1080 was almost invoked in Ecuador in 2000, but the military junta stepped down after perceived threats from the OAS and the international community.

The Washington Protocol, created as an OAS Charter Amendment in 1992, provided for the suspension of OAS membership by a two-thirds vote if a forceful, extra-constitutional overthrow of an elected official occurred.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter was created in an attempt to resolve Resolution 1080’s inability to effectively react to the slow erosion of democracy. The IADC also established more specific definitions of essential features of a democracy, such as “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, periodic free and fair elections, and respect for freedom of expression and of the press,” among others. It also expanded the scope of what was considered a constitutional crisis. Article 17 provides that if there is a “threat” or “risk” to a democratic government, the elected president can request OAS assistance. Article 18 states that if a “situation” arises which compromises the democratic institutional process, the Permanent Council may get involved with “prior consent of the government.” Article 20 permits the OAS to get involved without the request of the government in question if there is an “unconstitutional alteration of the constitutional regime that seriously impairs the democratic order.” If OAS diplomatic efforts under Article 20 fail, then Article 21 allows for the suspension of a member state upon a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly. The IADC has been invoked only three times since its drafting in 2001, in the cases of Venezuela in 2002, Nicaragua in 2005, and most recently, Honduras in 2009. Honduras is the only member country to be suspended under Article 21, although Cuba’s membership was revoked in 1962 before the creation of the IADC. These international commitments have revealed more shortcomings than successes, but are preferable to the largely unilateral efforts of the U.S. before the termination of the Cold War.

The OAS has invoked the IADC and Resolution 1080 infrequently and inconsistently since their creation, although the OAS has most often responded to traditional military or self-coups. The vague language of these agreements as well as the need to achieve consensus have inhibited uniform and predictable responses to violations of a nation’s democratic order. Given that these legal accords have been applied in fits and starts, it is remarkable that the inter-American community unanimously agreed to use its full measure of authority against Honduras.

The Development of the OAS role in Promoting Democracy

On April 5, 1992, Peru’s President Fujimori staged a self-coup, whereby he suspended the constitution, dissolved the Congress and dismissed most of the judiciary. The following day, the OAS condemned the constitutional disruption and held a special meeting of the Permanent Council, which chose to invoke Resolution 1080. The OAS was successful in the short term in pressuring Fujimori to call for new congressional elections; however, 1080 had little long-term effect. Fujimori had the support of the public and the military, and held power until he fled to Japan in 2000. The OAS also responded with an invocation of Resolution 1080 when Guatemala’s President Serrano staged a comparable autogolpe. Serrano, lacking the popular and military support that Fujimori had, was only able to hold power for a week. Resolution 1080 was almost invoked in the case of the coup against democratically elected Ecuadorian President Mahuad in 2000, but threats of sanctions and international repercussions were enough to convince the military junta to step down and hand power to Vice President Noboa, and so 1080 was not invoked. The OAS chose to ignore the illegal overthrow of Mahuad, and accepted the constitutional succession as satisfying international democratic standards.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter has been invoked three times since 2001. The OAS invoked Article 20 after the brief coup attempt against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 2002. The United States initially supported the new Carmona government, but had to retract its support for the overthrow of Chávez in the face of a strong OAS consensus opposing the coup. However, after the OAS and non-state institutions such as the Carter Center helped facilitate political dialogue and the inclusion of the opposition party Coordinadora Democratica in the Chávez government and the two parties agreed to hold a recall referendum, which Chávez won by 59%, the OAS and the international community considered democratic order restored. When the OAS can validate some semblance of constitutional succession, it tends to refrain from an obtrusive response and accepts the new regime.

The IADC was also invoked in 2005 in Nicaragua. President Bolaños requested OAS assistance under Article 18, which was an important development in validating the organization’s authority. However, Bolaños was willing to invite the OAS to intervene because the threats to his government were coming from opposition party leaders who were conspiring to limit executive powers, alter the Constitution, and end Bolaños’ term before its constitutional mandate expired.

The Honduras Coup: a Clear Disruption of the Democratic Order

The OAS response to Zelaya’s removal was the first instance in which outside actors upheld hemispheric standards of democracy to their full legal capacity. On July 5th, 2009, the OAS voted to invoke Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. A week earlier, on June 28th, President Zelaya had been taken at gunpoint out of his residence by the military and put on a plane to Costa Rica. The OAS resolution called for the immediate return of Zelaya and affirmed that the international community would not recognize any new Honduran government without his involvement.

Almost a year later, Honduras remains deeply divided over the coup, despite vigorous golpista attempts to quash any opposition. Coup-supporters maintain that the removal of Zelaya was both necessary and constitutional, citing Zelaya’s attempts to tinker with the Honduran Constitution and extend his term of office. However, this accusation has no credible foundations–Zelaya’s proposed survey did not mention the extension of term limits specifically, and even if that had been the outcome of the constitutional assembly, Zelaya would have been out of office by the time it could be organized. In March 2009, Zelaya wanted to hold an encuesta, or survey,so Hondurans could decide if they wanted to vote to hold a constitutional assembly and revise existing policies. Citizen participation laws not only allow a president to hold similar polls, but require a president to do so. The National Congress, the Supreme Court, and Attorney General all ruled that Zelaya’s proposed referendum was illegal, based on administrative contentions regarding sources of funding, timing, and which sectors of government would have control of the process. After Zelaya’s ousting, coup-supporters claimed that the court had ruled against the constitutional poll based on the illegality of changing term limits. On June 25th, Zelaya led several hundred supporters to break an air force base where the ballots to be used in the referendum were being warehoused. Zelaya cited his authority as commander-in-chief, and the base commander accepted this authority. Zelaya’s unconventional actions were then skewed into an image of mob-led mayhem. The Supreme Court ordered the armed forces to arrest Zelaya on June 28th. The military then violated the Constitution by forcing him into exile. There is no question that Zelaya was wrongly exiled instead of being brought before a court to address charges of constitutional transgressions. However questionable Zelaya’s actions were, a military-backed coup was a blatant and illegal interruption of the democratic order.

Inter-American Response to the Coup

In the immediate aftermath of the military takeover, the inter-American community, including the U.S., condemned the coup. Obama withdrew all non-humanitarian aid. Although one could argue that events in Honduras did not constitute a traditional military coup, since the military’s actions were sanctioned by Honduran legal authorities, countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela realized that recognizing Honduras’ interim government under Roberto Micheletti would have legitimized the coup, thus setting a dangerous precedent.

The U.S. and Costa Rica led a diplomatic initiative to try and restore democracy and reconcile Honduras’s government. In late October 2009, several weeks before the scheduled November elections, Zelaya and Micheletti signed the Teguicigalpa-San José Accords, which stipulated that both parties would create a unity government and that Zelaya would be reinstated after a favorable vote by the Honduran Congress. However, this agreement never amounted to anything, and the U.S. completely undermined whatever pressure the agreement managed to create when Assistant Secretary of State at the time, Thomas Shannon announced, shockingly, that the U.S. would recognize the results of the November elections even if Zelaya were not returned to office. This policy line was repeated six times to Senator de Mint (R-SC) as well as Secretary Clinton in order to persuade the legislator to lift the hold he had placed on the nominations of Shannon to be Ambassador to Brazil and Valenzuela to be Assistant Secretary for Latin America. As a result, Zelaya was not allowed to finish the remainder of his interrupted term, and a new administration was instated in January under President Porfirio Lobo Sosa.

Masquerading as Legitimate

Although Lobo’s government is attempting to appear to uphold a sense of integrity—Lobo repeated the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) false claim that Honduras had record voter turnout of well over 60% in the November elections, and has established a Truth Commission to reunite the country—a democratic façade does not mean Honduras has restored democratic standards. The TSE’s own official figures showed that only 49% participated in elections—the lowest turnout in the country’s history—and that 7% of ballots were blank or openly criticized the interim government. Human rights organizations claim the turnout was actually between 25 and 35%. Furthermore, the campaign period leading up to the elections was highly undemocratic. Micheletti immediately enacted a curfew from 9 pm to 6am without a legal basis. Micheletti’s decree allowed for a 72-hour curfew period; however, the curfew was enforced for over a month. A delegation from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) sent in August 2009 found that the curfew was also applied “in a selective and discriminatory manner,” primarily against Zelaya supporters.

The curfew was also used against Zelaya himself; when he attempted to return to Honduras by air, the interim government made an emergency announcement that the curfew would begin a full three and a half hours earlier than usual, in order to prevent Zelaya’s entrance. In her article for the NACLA Report on the Americas, “Legitimizing the Illegitimate,” Professor Rosemary Joyce describes the November elections as “an attempt to bury the coup, paint the Micheletti government as benevolent and committed to democracy, and earn Honduras back its sorely missed international legitimacy.”

“One-sided Civil War”

Even more disturbingly, the Micheletti government employed excessive use of violence against Zelaya’s supporters, which throws into question the legitimacy of the elections and the newly elected administration as well. The conflict in Honduras is often referred to as a “one-sided civil war,” since only the military-backed regime has used violent measures, and protesters have remained largely peaceful. Article 21 of the Inter-American Democratic Charter stipulates, “The suspended member state shall continue to fulfill its obligations to the Organization, in particular its human rights obligations” (emphasis added). In August 2009, the IACHR confirmed “a pattern of disproportionate use of public force, arbitrary detentions, and the control of information aimed at limiting political participation by a sector of the citizenry,” as well as threats against and repression of pro-Zelaya media and individuals who have publicly demonstrated “a political affinity with President Zelaya.” Dozens of anti-coup demonstrators were murdered by the Micheletti government’s military and police forces last year, such as Isis Obed Murillo Mencías, a 19-year old, died as a result of bullet shots to the head. Pedro Magdiel Muñoz was found dead on July 25th last year with signs of torture under the clean shirt that had been put on him after his death. Under the Lobo government’s veneer of respectability, legitimized by the U.S.’s entirely premature recognition, extensive and purposeful human rights violations still occur almost daily, according to recent IACHR reports. In the past six months, nine journalists–most of them critical of the coup, have been murdered by death squads.

Reconciliation or Illusion?

The United States resumed aid to Honduras in March, and recognized the November elections that put the Lobo government in office in January as legitimate. Secretary Clinton urged the inter-American community to recognize Lobo’s government saying, “We believe that President Lobo and his administration have taken the steps necessary to restore democracy.” Clinton specifically cited Lobo’s creation of a Truth Commission in May as evidence that the country was making genuine efforts to return to democracy. However, the degree of reconciliation this process will be able to provide is highly questionable.

To begin with, many coup-supporters and right-wing elements are calling for the Commission to bring about “unity” and “consensus,” which means that thorough investigations are less likely to occur so as not to rock the boat. Ultra-rightist Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) is supporting this position, and goes as far as to say that “the book should be closed” on the coup, and the Truth Commission should not be conducted. On the other hand, some believe that the Truth Commission will not do enough to bring to light what really occurred with the ousting of Zelaya. President Lobo granted amnesty to the coup-participants following his inauguration. The Commission's coordinator, Guatemala's Vice President Eduard Stein, recently declared, “there will be sensitive information that will be classified, especially confidential testimony provided by certain individuals during the investigation process.” While it is important to provide an incentive to coup-participants to be fully honest and feel that they will be protected, Honduras's authorities must be crystal clear in deciding what type of information will remain private, and must be consistent in judging what information warrants withholding. Joyce makes an excellent point in cautioning, “reconciliation must occur not between parties, it must occur between the political elite and the alienated population.”

With the Truth Commission, Lobo is trying to gain international recognition to give a veneer of legitimacy to his regime, but recognizing Lobo's government would not create democracy, it would only allow Honduras to masquerade as one. This legitimizes an entirely cynical process that was authored by the State Department, led by Secretary of State Clinton and current Assistant Secretary of State Valenzuela. The OAS and the inter-American community must ensure the investigation and prosecution of past and continuing human rights abuses in Honduras and resolve the offenses committed against Zelaya. The preliminary reports from the IACHR May 2010 mission to Honduras confirm the continuation of human rights violations and impunity for the perpetrators.

Bringing Honduras Back to the OAS Flock

Since Honduras is the only member of the OAS to have been expelled under the IADC, there is no precedent on how to conduct the readmission process. Cuba was suspended from the organization decades ago, in 1962. Last year at the General Assembly in Honduras, the OAS drafted a resolution creating a path for Cuba's return to the OAS. This resolution, largely influenced by Secretary Clinton, establishes conditions in line with the tenets of the IADC, particularly related to human rights issues and political freedoms, which must be met in order for Cuba to reenter the organization. At the very least, Honduras should be made to meet the same qualifying human rights and political transparency conditions as prerequisites for return to the OAS. The OAS, as a supranational rather than international body, is only as strong and effective as its members are willing to make it. The Honduras case is an opportunity to apply the precepts of the IADC in a situation it was designed to address in an effective manner. If the OAS succeeds in pressuring Honduras to improve its democratic order, it would lend a surge of credibility to this somewhat flimsy body and set the proper precedent for the strengthening of the collective protection of democracy throughout the hemisphere.

Isabelle Van Hook is a Council on Hemispheric Affairs Research Associate rom where this article is adapted.

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