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A Real Truth Commission for Honduras

Bertha Oliva

My beloved and troubled country, Honduras, desperately needs a truth commission. On June 28th of last year, a military coup d'etat shattered our fragile democracy and ushered in a period of arbitrary and repressive rule in which those who opposed the coup were subject to violent attacks, illegal detentions and state-imposed media censorship. Though a new government headed by Porfirio Lobo took power on Feb. 27 following highly controversial elections, there has been no real investigation or prosecution of those responsible for the coup and for the many killings, rapes, beatings and illegal detentions that occurred after June 28. In fact, targeted extrajudicial killings and attacks against coup opponents continue to regularly occur with complete impunity.

The Committee for the Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH), which has been documenting forced disappearances and political violence in Honduras since the late '80s, has registered 47 assassinations of anti-coup activists, 14 of which have occurred since the inauguration of Mr. Lobo. Respected international human rights organizations like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Center for Justice and International Law have also voiced their alarm regarding the ongoing attacks, but Honduras' state and judicial authorities have failed to address or even recognize the problem.

Now the Lobo government, in an effort to regain international legitimacy, is creating a Truth Commission, an initiative that is being applauded by the United States administration. Yet COFADEH and the other Honduran human rights defenders who have spent much of our lives calling for a truth commission to investigate past political violence are not applauding. We are protesting.

The fact is, Lobo's proposal in no way resembles our idea of a truth commission, or indeed any other truth commission that has played a role in healing the wounds provoked by repressive regimes, such as those of El Salvador, Argentina or South Africa. If we were not dealing with such a tragic situation, the Lobo proposal could be considered laughable.


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To begin with, this so-called Truth Commission has been given no mandate to examine the human rights violations that have taken place since the coup. The presidential decree that establishes the commission does not even recognize that a coup took place on June 28th and makes no mention of the victims of the subsequent repression.

But the problems with the Lobo Commission go far deeper than the flawed text of the founding decree. The experience of truth commissions in Central America and elsewhere has demonstrated that they can only achieve some measure of success if the victims of repression as well as actors from both sides of the political divide are closely involved in the design of the commission and the selection of the commissioners. The Lobo Commission was created behind closed doors, without even a public discussion, and its commissioners were handpicked by the Lobo government. Eduardo Stein, the former Guatemalan vice president who chairs the Commission, has also failed to identify the coup as a coup.

These facts appear to indicate that the only purpose of the Lobo commission is to support the Honduran regime's continued efforts to whitewash those responsible for the coup and its violent aftermath. This would be consistent with other measures taken such as the blanket amnesty of all the political crimes that took place before, during and after June 28th, the decision to grant permanent immunity to coup president Roberto Micheletti by appointing him Congressman for life, and the Lobo government's decision to place the state telecommunications company in the hands of the general who executed the coup.

Again, there is a dire need for a truth commission in Honduras so as to begin to mend the wounds suffered by Honduran society since June 28th. That is why the Platform of Human Rights Organizations of Honduras is presenting an alternative proposal that addresses the grave human rights violations that have occurred and that calls for an open discussion and a thorough consultation of the victims of these violations. With the support of human rights defenders worldwide, we hope and pray that this commission will see the day and begin to help our country heal and move towards a more just and democratic future.

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Bertha Oliva is the General Coordinator of COFADEH, the Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained in Honduras. Bertha Oliva's husband, professor Thomas Nativí was "disappeared" in 1981, during the period when the death squads were active under Honduras' military dictatorship.  She founded COFADEH together with other women who lost their loved ones, in order to seek justice and compensation for the families of the hundreds of dissidents that were "disappeared" between 1979 and 1989.  Bertha has since become an emblematic presence in the Central American human rights movement and today is one of the leading voices of the resistance to the coup that ousted the elected president of Honduras on June 28, 2009.  

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