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Honduras’ Truth Commission Controversy

April 23, 2010

by Daniel Altschuler

The Truth Commission mandated by last year’s Tegucigalpa / San José Accord now appears ready to get to work in Honduras, but controversy has already ensnared it.  Supporters of last year’s coup are demanding that the government let sleeping dogs lie, while their opponents fear that the Commission will fail to deliver an honest account of the coup.

Meanwhile, the Commission already appears to be hedging on how much truth it will deliver, another troubling sign for a country where sunlight has never been in greater demand.

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Signed on October 30, 2009, the Tegucigalpa / San José Accord once promised the end of Honduras’ political crisis.  The Accord failed, however, because it did not stipulate a deadline for the congressional vote on Manuel Zelaya’s restitution, which ultimately led then-President Zelaya to pull his support.  Meanwhile, de facto President Roberto Micheletti and key international players—including the U.S. government—clung to the Accord, claiming it was still in effect.  Since President Porfirio Lobo took office in late January, he has maintained this line and worked tirelessly to restore international recognition to the Honduran government.  The formation of the Truth Commission represents a crucial final step along this path, and the eight-month process stands ready to begin on May 4.

But Lobo’s government faces significant pressure from various sectors of Honduran society.  Coup supporters have already said that they have no faith in the process, arguing that it is nothing more than a show for the international community.  As has been true since last year’s coup, the Honduran Right continues to call for “national unity” and “consensus,” which in this case appears to mean a Truth Commission that does not rock the boat.  Right-wing opponents have also lobbied to exclude human rights violations from the Commission’s purview, which have continued after Lobo took office.

Opposition to a full inquiry has found allies among those on the Right in the United States, as well.  Most notably, U.S. Representative Dana Rohrabacher visited Honduras and argued that the “book should be closed” to avoid further division.  Wall Street Journal columnist Mary O’Grady seems to have joined this side, as well, shamelessly using her Wall Street Journal column to harangue Democratic congressional staffers for a visit to Tegucigalpa, during which they likely reinforced their commitment to the Truth Commission.

Meanwhile, opponents of the coup fear that the Commission will not go far enough.  First, following Lobo’s granting of amnesty to coupsters and the Supreme Court’s dismissal of charges for the military figures involved in Zelaya’s ouster, they believe that the official Commission report will go soft on the armed forces.  This would be consistent with decades of precedent in Honduras and throughout Latin America, where civilian forces have long deferred to the military.

Second, opponents will likely question the international additions to the Commission.  The members hail from countries quickest to support last year’s controversial election—Guatemala, Canada and Peru. Among these countries, Guatemala is the only country with a left-of-center president, but Eduardo Stein was vice-president of Guatemala under the previous president, Oscar Berger, from the right-of-center GANA party.

Former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, the Commission’s coordinator, has now given critics of the coup further cause for concern.  Recently, he declared that “there will be sensitive information that will be classified, especially confidential testimony provided by certain individuals during the investigation process.”  This statement has raised red flags for seekers of historical truth in Honduras.

To be fair, there can be various reasons to keep certain information confidential in truth commissions.  These commissions, in addition to the daunting task of constructing a coherent account of complex, controversial events, can face many other practical and ethical obstacles, including getting key players to talk, getting honest answers and being able to protect those who provide testimony.  Especially in the absence of the same legal protections that would be afforded to witnesses in a court of law, it makes sense for the Honduran Truth Commission to afford certain protections for informants.

The problem, then, is not that information will be withheld, but what information will be withheld.  To remain credible, the Commission needs to be clear about the nature of these protections and the scope of the “sensitive information” to which Stein referred.  Vague statements suggest arbitrary decisions and will only undermine the Commission.  The Commission also needs to demonstrate that these restrictions will not jeopardize its final report’s objectivity and completeness.  Otherwise, those in favor of a full accounting of the 2009 political crisis will remain convinced that the Commission will do nothing more than whitewash the coup and the roles of the military and the country’s political leaders in creating and perpetuating that crisis.  In the absence of an honest and complete report, observers may have to look to the findings of an “Alternative Truth Commission," which could be similar to parallel inquiries previously set up in other Latin American countries.

What remains at stake in all of this is Honduras’s historical memory.  For those who hope the Truth Commission will fail, this endeavor evidently does not matter—instead of worrying about the past, these critics may argue, Honduras should focus on increasing economic growth, re-opening the aid spigot and reducing the country’s horrific crime level.  All of these issues are critical, but this ahistorical stance misses a central point: The truth must be known, both for its own sake and “to avoid that these events repeat themselves in the future.”  The latter justification comes directly from the Tegucigalpa / San José Accord, signed by negotiators from both sides of last year’s crisis.  The demand for the truth, far from an international imposition, is Honduran in origin, and this demand must be honored.

*Daniel Altschuler is a contributing blogger to www.AmericasQuarterly.org. He is a Rhodes Scholar and doctoral candidate in Politics at the University of Oxford, and his research focuses on civic and political participation in Honduras and Guatemala.

Tags: Peru, Canada, Guatemala, Manuel Zelaya, Roberto Micheletti, Hondura, President Porfirio Lobo, Dana Rohrabacher, Eduardo Stein

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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