ESW: Honduran Human Rights Defenders Issue “International SOS” as November Elections Approach

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“To say that we have lost all legal rights is not an exaggeration; it’s a fact,” stated Bertha Oliva, the director of the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH) during an October 29 Congressional briefing on the upcoming presidential elections in Honduras and El Salvador. “I am issuing an international SOS.” Along with Victor Fernández of the Broad Movement for Peace and Justice, she described the harrowing situation in Honduras today, in which human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, and social movement leaders are targeted, intimidated, and killed. Even state prosecutors who attempt to investigate “are paid with death” or removed from their positions.

The state of “national emergency” has escalated in the months leading to the presidential elections scheduled for November 24, 2013. When asked to describe the pre-electoral conditions, Oliva and Fernández reported that 68 social movement leaders who are candidates for the opposition Freedom and Re-Foundation (LIBRE) party have received death threats in the past three months. At least 16 LIBRE candidates have been killed in the last year and a half. The LIBRE party, founded in 2011, was born out of the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), which drew together diverse sectors to oppose the June 2009 military coup against President Zelaya and resist the installation of interim President Roberto Micheletti. Despite the high risk faced by opposition candidates and human rights defenders, LIBRE’s candidate, Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of deposed President Zelaya, remains in the lead according to most polls. As Oliva explained, her candidacy represents “the hopes of a people to have a chance to break that which asphyxiates us.”

November’s election is not the first time that Hondurans will head to the polls since the 2009 coup. Regularly -scheduled elections were held just months afterward, in November of 2009, despite a boycott called by former President Zelaya. Many governments in Latin America, including regional leaders like Brazil and Venezuela, refused to recognize the elections—characterized as “undemocratic shenanigans” by George Vickers in Foreign Policy—which brought businessman Pepe Lobo to power. As Rosemary Joyce reported in NACLA, “The three-month campaign season leading up to the election was punctuated by incidents of police and military brutality committed against the coup government’s opponents. The de facto government suspended rights of assembly and free speech, imposed curfews, and constantly harassed the few media outlets reporting on the Honduran state’s repression and the popular resistance to it.”

Scholars like Vickers urged the Obama administration not to validate the “sham” elections; however, the US was one of the first countries to recognize the results, calling the elections “an important step forward” for the country. Under Lobo, impunity and corruption have taken a deep hold over Honduras. As Dana Frank of the University of California at Santa Cruz reported in the Miami Herald, “President Lobo and the Honduran Congress clearly lack the political will to clean up the police, in large part because top political figures, including judges, prosecutors, and Congress members, are themselves allegedly interlaced with organized crime, drug traffickers, and those accused of extrajudicial killings.” Such conditions have cast serious doubts on whether a free and fair electoral process can take place in November.

In October, Representatives Hank Johnson (D-GA), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) and Mike Honda (D-CA) wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry (see press release on right), saying, “The evidence so far indicates that the freedom and fairness of this election is very much at risk, as human rights abuses under the existing government continue to threaten basic civil liberties, opposition candidates do not enjoy a level playing field, and state security forces are taking on an increasingly central and ominous role in context of the election. The Representatives raised particular concern about the role of the ruling party candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, current president of Congress. They warned that his National party “now dominates all the key institutions of the government.” including both the electoral authority and the military, which distributes the ballots” Hernández’ campaign has sent a strong message of “fear and terror,” according to Oliva, who described the swarms of military helicopters that dominate his television ads. Dana Frank calls Hernández “a driving force behind militarization,” noting his campaign promise to protect Hondurans with “a soldier on every corner.” During the October 29 Congressional briefing, Victor Fernández underscored the weight that declarations from US officials can have, saying that letters like this can “play a role in ensuring that the will of the people is respected.” He also called for independent observers to participate in the electoral process.

The October 29 briefing, “Upcoming Elections in Honduras and El Salvador: Opportunities, Challenges, and the Role of the US” was organized by CISPES and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and sponsored by the Congressional Progressive Caucus. Find video here. To monitor the situation in Honduras and take action, please check out the work of Rights Action, La Voz de los de Abajo, CEPR, the Chicago Religious Leadership Network, and other members of the Honduras Solidarity Network.

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