Canada supports an undemocratic post-coup Honduras

| July 14, 2010
Presidents Porfirio Lobo of Honduras (left) and Álvaro Colom of Guatemala (right) at the World Coffee Conference in February 2010.  Photo: Gobierno de Guatemala/Flickr

One year ago last week, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya woke up with a gun pointed at his head, was forced onto a plane by the military, and expelled from the country. Many fear that Central America's first coup in more than 15 years could mean the resumption of a painful era of dictatorships, military coups and civil wars. In a remarkable display of unanimity, the world promptly condemned the democratic interruption, with denunciations reverberating from the United States to Cuba, and resolutions emanating from the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS). Not a single country recognized the coup regime.

With the rest of the international community, Canada initially condemned the coup. But any resolve by the government of Stephen Harper to restore the constitutional order would soon evaporate in the face of the determination of the coup leader Roberto Micheletti. Canada made a series of missteps that has put it at odds with most of the countries of the hemisphere, including the immediate recognition of Honduras' unobserved November 2009 presidential election (boycotted by most Hondurans as well as the UN and OAS), and ominous silence on the detention, torture and murder of anti-coup activists. Canada's actions point to a foreign policy increasingly inconsistent with Canada's stated values: human rights, democracy and multilateralism.

One year on, the pitched divisions that fragment Honduran society continue to deepen. Many do not recognize their own president and fear paramilitary attacks. Yet, they carry on the demand for a new constitution that could help alleviate high levels of poverty, inequality and political exclusion.

Earlier this month, countries of the hemisphere met in Lima, Peru, to discuss the possible re-entry of Honduras into the OAS. While the U.S., Canada and a few others pressed to expedite the process, most countries insisted that the situation in Honduras fell short of the democratic and human rights conditions necessary for the country's reintegration.

At present, four principal questions undergird the diplomatic dilemma faced by countries like Canada in dealing with Honduras: the election of Porfirio Lobo as president, ongoing human rights abuses, the creation of a truth commission, and the drafting of a new constitution.

The November 2009 elections, though scheduled before the overthrow of Zelaya, were a far cry from what most would characterize as democratic. Only 45 per cent cast a ballot for one of the presidential candidates, with the winner securing a mere 26 per cent of the electorate's support. Hondurans spent much of the campaign period under martial law and the low turnout resulted from an electoral boycott. This boycott included the withdrawal of more than 40 candidates from local and national races, including the leading opposition presidential candidate Carlos H. Reyes, who was hospitalized during the campaign following a severe beating from security forces. Moreover, the media was muzzled, an election-day protest was brutally repressed, and no official electoral observation took place.

Yet the official statement from Canada, delivered by Minister of State of Foreign Affairs Peter Kent, read: "Canada congratulates the Honduran people for the relatively peaceful and orderly manner in which the country's elections were conducted." Kent made the dubious claim that "...there was a strong turnout for the elections, that they appear to have been run freely and fairly, and that there was no major violence."

In fact, violence was the context in which the elections were held. Since the June 28 coup, around 50 critics of the de facto regime have been assassinated, one-third since the election of President Lobo. Many more have been detained and tortured. Among those targeted are journalists, teachers, unionists, and members of the afro-Caribbean (Garifuna) and queer communities. News outlets critical of the coup have been shuttered, and there have been significant restrictions on the freedom of assembly and speech. Paramilitary groups, allegedly with ties to the government, roam the country with impunity. Human rights abuses, including killings, criminalization of public protest, and arbitrary detention of thousands of people, have been documented by COFADEH, a well-respected Honduran human rights organization, and the OAS's Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Washington has belatedly expressed some concern over these human rights violations. Why the tight lips in Ottawa?

Most international actors and many Hondurans support the creation of a truth commission. But not all such bodies are created equally. The commission that President Lobo has convened suffers from a limited mandate and a lack of representation. It is not established to investigate human rights violations nor determine responsibility for the coup; moreover, the state has failed to include or consult civil society groups or victims of the coup in the process, has not made a financial commitment to the commission, and has disturbingly avoided the use of the word "coup." As currently constructed, the truth commission is unlikely to hold anyone accountable or heal the deep fissures in Honduran society.

Behind all of these issues lies the country's most fundamental debate: broad sectors of civil society continue to demand the election of a Constituent Assembly empowered to draft a new constitution -- precisely the issue which precipitated the coup a year ago. Honduras' constitution was decried as among the worst in the world by former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias, and many Hondurans see the country's social and economic hardship as partially a by-product of a poorly constituted state.

How should Canada address the ongoing crisis in Honduras? First, Canada must strongly condemn human rights abuses, and pressure Honduras to prosecute those responsible for the coup and rights violations. Second, Canada should encourage Honduras to design a legitimate and inclusive truth commission with the capacity to investigate rights violations and hold perpetrators accountable. Lastly, along with the rest of the hemisphere, Canada should accompany Honduras in the convening of a Constituent Assembly to replace an outdated and deeply flawed constitution.

Rather than giving the Lobo government carte blanche international acceptance with the hope that it will subsequently address Honduras' democratic and human rights deficits, clear steps should be pre-conditions for the country's reintegration into the OAS. This is the position of most of the countries of the hemisphere, and should also be Canada's.

Jason Tockman is a PhD student of political science at the University of British Columbia.

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