"A commitment to human rights starts with universal standards and holding everyone accountable to those standards." Hillary Clinton, Dec. 14, 2009.In a Wilson Center event in Washington, D.C. on December 8, Craig Kelly reportedly said that "we [the State Department] spoke up very vocally about human rights abuses" [in Honduras], which Adrienne Pine called "a claim contradicted by reality" in her blog post about the event. It is worth delving into the details of actual US statements on human rights since the coup d'etat of June 28, especially now, as we watch the body count of resistance activists rise steadily.
First, we need to ask: what precisely is current US policy?
Speaking at Georgetown University on December 14, 2009, Hillary Clinton outlined the State Department's new Human Rights policy. I will only touch on the highlights and I urge the reader to go back and read all of Clinton's statements on pragmatic Human Rights.
The policy focuses on four key elements, Clinton tells us. The first element is stated in the quote that starts this post. In her speech Clinton outlined how the US is applying the standards to ourselves as well as others. This gives us moral authority, Clinton said, but the application of universal standards is variable. In some cases we will use them to publicly hold another government accountable, as (she said) in the case of the coup in Honduras, while in others we'll use it in "tough negotiations". Here she pointed to US dealings with China and Russia in particular. This element also involves getting foreign governments to put human rights into laws and embed them in government institutions.
"Second," she says, "we must be pragmatic and agile in pursuit of our human rights agenda - not compromising on our principles, but doing what is most likely to make them real." This includes using all the tools in the US arsenal, and when one approach doesn't work, coming up with others. Examples cited include cutting off Millennium Challenge Corp. grants to Madagascar. Here, Secretary Clinton quoted President Barack Obama, who said "We must try as best we can to balance isolation and engagement; pressure and incentives, so that human rights and dignity are advanced over time." This she calls "principled pragmatism."
The third element is that we will support change driven by citizens in their own communities, and the fourth element is that we will widen our focus.
So has the State Department been vocal in supporting human rights, and in denouncing human rights violations, in Honduras since the June 28 coup, as would be implied by the claim that the first element of "pragmatic" human rights, publicly holding another government accountable for universal principles, has been followed in US policy toward Honduras?
Not exactly. It appears instead, despite citing Honduras as the key example here, the record does not support the claim. At best, perhaps the US has chosen to use the quiet "tough negotiations" mode of the first element, cited in relation to China and Russia.
Here's what the statements on the State Department's own website show about their stance on human rights in Honduras since June 28.
On July 6, in the daily press briefing, Ian Kelly, in speaking about the OAS's action (which the US supported) to remove Honduras from participation in the OAS, said "[the suspension] does not relieve Honduras of its legal obligations to the organization, particularly full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." This was the day after Isis Murillo was shot to death by the military during a massive demonstration at Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa. Another 20 protest participants were treated for gunshot wounds at local hospitals.
On September 3, Phillip Crowley said "we remain concerned about human rights, intimidation by various- by the police, others, some episodes of violence." This statement was made while debate continued in public and in the State Department about whether to call the events of June 28 a military coup or not.
On September 28, Philip Crowley again shared the State Department's concern.
"Well, first of all, we are concerned about the issue of civil rights and human right in Honduras. It is having a significant impact on the Honduran people. But its also the reason why we have said clearly to the de facto regime that because of the environment on the ground, we will not recognize an electoral result as free and fair under the current circumstances."This of course, was a statement made just after the de facto regime suspended constitutional guaranties, including the right of habeas corpus, for the 45 days leading up to the elections, and shut down opposition media. This is also one day before Lew Anselem suggested to the OAS, on our behalf, that we would recognize the results of the November 29 elections, regardless of what transpired in Honduras.
The State Department made no statement with respect to human rights in Honduras at all during the month of October.
On November 12, Ian Kelly professed not to know about the reports by the IACHR, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, on human rights abuses in Honduras and said he needed more information. This was in response to questions from the press in a discussion of Craig Kelly's return from a mission to Tegucigalpa in which he met with both Micheletti and Zelaya.
A week later, on November 19, in the daily press briefing, Kelly responded to a question asking if human rights was a concern in Honduras, given that he had just said it was central to US policy in the Hemisphere:
"It is. It has been and remains a concern. There have been a number of human rights violations since the coup, and we have consistently called on the regime to respect the rights of individual citizens. And we’ve been particularly concerned about some of the moves against the media. And the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa is closely monitoring the situation. It has reported back to us about a number of allegations of arbitrary arrests, disproportionate use of force, and, in particular, restrictions on freedom of expression. So yeah, we are concerned about it."This concern was reechoed in a statement by "a senior State Department Official", who briefed the press on November 20, saying:
"We have expressed concerns about human rights abuses under the de facto regime and will continue to do so. Those principles are very important.Finally, Arturo Valenzuela said, in a closed meeting of the OAS on November 23 that "we do view with concern reports of human rights violations and deliberate efforts to incite violence and confrontation on both sides of the political divide in Honduras that might taint the electoral process."
Well, we’ve denounced several times the abuses that occur. There was a decree that the regime put in place which was lifted in part because of strong international protests. But there still are – we still do get reports. We have said repeatedly to the regime that they are to be held accountable for the actions that violate abuses. And I was in Honduras two days ago and I made a public statement calling on the regime to respect human rights, and also calling on all sides to refrain from provocation of violence. This is very important."
It is perhaps instructive to consider how the State Department has apparently used the newly articulated policy of four "elements" in Honduras with regards to human rights violations. While the State Department responded to direct questioning by reporters, it never actually issued an independent statement on human rights violations. We thus conclude that the State Department has chosen to employ the "quiet" mode on human rights in Honduras. It has not chosen to employ all of the options open to it under the second element, suspending only some of the aid it gave to Honduras, and doing so very late compared to other countries.
It is also possible to give at least a preliminary assessment of the effectiveness of the policy that has been newly articulated. If we judge by the evidence of continued violation of freedom of the press, and continued harassment of activists, the increasing number of assassinations, the quiet approach has failed. It has not stemmed a rising tide of human rights violations in Honduras.
Judged strictly on its own criteria, the State Department's new human rights policy, as outlined by Clinton, has been ineffective in Honduras. Human rights abuses have escalated in December. There has been no corresponding response from the State Department. It has not proved agile in either recognizing the failure of the current "quiet" strategy or agile in adopting a new strategy for holding the de facto regime accountable for the new round of human rights violations. What human rights principles does this policy profess? Clinton offered none.
Perhaps this is what is implied by having a "pragmatic" human rights policy. If so, it is hard to see how it constitutes any kind of advocacy for human rights.