Suspicious deaths in custody. Allegations of torture. Claims of a military out of control. These are some of the key issues that will face John Negroponte, US ambassador to the United Nations, when he takes over this month as US ambassador to Iraq.
Suspicious deaths in custody. Allegations of torture. Claims of a military out of control. Those were some of the key issues that faced John Negroponte 20 years ago when he was US ambassador to Honduras. So it is worth examining how he reacted then when faced with evidence of extra-judicial killings, torture and human rights abuses.
Central America in the early 80s was, for a few years, the center of the world in much the way that the Middle East now is. There had been a revolution in Nicaragua in which a dictator had been removed by the Sandinistas, who had then embarked on a political path that was anathema to the US.
The country became a magnet for the international left, who saw hopeful signs in the revolution. El Salvador and Guatemala were in turmoil as leftwing guerrillas battled with the military in their efforts to overturn years of military oppression and corruption. In those days the enemy, as far as the US was concerned, was international communism rather than al-Qaida, but the rhetoric of "good" versus "evil" took a similar pattern to today's.
Into this world in 1981 came diplomat John Negroponte as ambassador to Honduras. At the time, the US was covertly backing the contras, the counter-revolutionaries who opposed the Sandinistas. Honduras was a vital base for them. An air base was built at El Aguacate, where they could be trained and which was used, according to Honduran human rights activists, as a detention center where torture took place. It was also used as a burial ground for 185 dissidents, whose remains were only discovered in 2001.
Negroponte's predecessor, Jack Binns, was appointed by Jimmy Carter. He had made public his concerns about human rights abuses by the Honduran military. Binns has since affirmed that when he handed over to Negroponte he gave him a full briefing on the abuses. Negroponte has always denied having knowledge of such violations.
A former Honduran congressman, Efrain Diaz, told the Baltimore Sun, which re-examined the behavior of the US in 1995, of Negroponte and other US officials: "Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent people being killed."
For their cooperation with the US in its long-running battle to remove the Sandinistas - who, it should be remembered, won the election in Nicaragua in 1984 - the Honduran government was royally rewarded. Military aid increased from $4m to $77m a year. Had Negroponte reported to the US Congress that the military were engaged in human rights abuses, such aid would have been threatened. No report of such abuses was allowed to interfere with the US destabilization of Nicaragua.
Negroponte was one of a group of officials involved in Central America at that time who have since - to the astonishment of the international diplomatic community - been rehabilitated by President Bush. His behavior in Honduras would have come under scrutiny when he was appointed as US ambassador to the UN in 2001, but his appointment hearing came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when there was little appetite for such an inquiry and when there was a desire to have such a key post filled speedily.
"Exquisitely dangerous", is how Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs described Negroponte this week in a conversation from Washington. He called Negroponte's role in Honduras "eerily familiar to the Bush administration's present goal in Iraq". Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch had this to say when Negroponte was appointed ambassador to the UN: "When Negroponte was ambassador [in Honduras] he looked the other way when serious atrocities were committed. One would have to wonder what kind of message the Bush administration is sending about human rights."
The US policy in Central America in the 80s was essentially that the ends justified the means, even if the ends involved misleading Congress, dealing with the supposedly hated Iran, the illegal mining of harbors and the promotion, funding and encouragement of rebel forces. Many of those involved in the atrocities in Central America were graduates of the School of the Americas (which has since changed its name to the anodyne Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) where interrogation techniques of the kind that have come to light in Iraq were taught. When Negroponte was ambassador in Honduras his building in Tegucigalpa became one of the nerve centers of the CIA in Latin America with a tenfold increase in staff. In Baghdad, he will have a similar role.
Negroponte represented the US during one of the most corrupt periods of its foreign policy, presided over by Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. He had an opportunity to challenge what was happening, but chose not to.
His new appointment is one of a number that fly in the face of reason. Bush made Henry Kissinger head of the commission to investigate the events leading up to 9/11. At the time, many found it bizarre that a man of such limited international credibility and such impressively flexible standards of morality should have been entrusted with such a task. Kissinger accepted the post as an opportunity to serve his country - until it transpired that it would interfere with his lucrative consultancy business, at which point he bowed out. Now a man who has been accused of not spotting human rights abuses taking place in front of his eyes in Honduras is being sent to Iraq at a time when allegations of human rights abuses are at the heart of the occupation. As a policy, the appointment of Negroponte at this point in the history of Iraq seems "exquisitely dangerous" indeed.
· Duncan Campbell is a senior Guardian correspondent who for many years covered Central America
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