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Truth Commission Under Fire from All Sides

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up to investigate the June 2009 coup that ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya will begin its work in May under the skeptical watch of a wide range of observers, from human rights organizations to right-wing political sectors.

According to a recent announcement by the Honduran government, the coordinator of the Commission will be former Guatemalan vice president Eduardo Stein (2004-2008), who will be accompanied by two other international experts, two national experts, and a support team. Technical and administrative assistance will be provided by the Organization of American States (OAS).

President Porfirio Lobo announced that the Commission will begin its work on May 4. He stressed the independence of the Commission, whose mandate is to provide an “objective and impartial” report on the events leading up to and following the Jun. 28, 2009 coup.

However, Stein has already revealed that not all of the facts uncovered will be made public, because “there will be sensitive information that will be classified, especially confidential testimony provided by certain individuals during the investigation process.” This information will be declassified and released to the public after a period of ten years, he noted. Nevertheless, Stein maintained, in eight months the report will be presented to the people of Honduras and “we are going to be extremely scrupulous in our work.”

The other two international commissioners are Michael Kergin, former assistant deputy minister for the Americas in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Canadian ambassador to the United States from 2000 to 2005, and María Amadilia, former minister of justice of Peru.

The two Honduran members are Julieta Castellanos, president of the public National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH), and former UNAH president and jurist Jorge Omar Casco. They will be assisted by technical secretary Sergio Membreño, also an academic.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created to comply with one of the agreements signed on Oct. 30, 2009 between delegations representing de facto president Roberto Micheletti and ousted president Zelaya, endorsed by international observers.

It is also one of the prerequisites that the current Honduran government must fulfil in order to gain full recognition from the international community. As of now, only around 30 countries have acknowledged Lobo’s presidency as legitimate.

Since taking office on Jan. 27, the right-wing Lobo has been actively seeking Honduras’ readmission to international organisations after its isolation by the majority of the international community following the coup – efforts that actually date back to his landslide victory in the Nov. 29, 2009 elections.

Honduran Foreign Minister Mario Canahuati told IPS that choosing the members of the Commission “was not easy. We studied the curriculum vitae of at least 15 international experts, and on the Honduran side, we tried to seek individuals with a high degree of credibility.”

The difficulties referred to by Canahuati stem from the severe political polarization between those who backed Zelaya and his attempts to usher in social and economic reforms and the wealthy elites – a sector he himself was part of but which he had alienated with his shift to the left.

The most conservative sectors within the Unión Cívica Democrática (Civic Democratic Union) – a coalition of right-wing groups that actively supported the overthrow of Zelaya – called for the removal of UNAH president Castellanos from the Commission, while human rights groups criticized the inclusion of Casco, whom they link with the most radical fringe of the political right.

Reina Rivera, a human rights activist and member of the Human Rights Platform coalition, commented to IPS that the Truth Commission has met with more skepticism than acceptance among social organisations.
“We believe that the selection of the international members was made more on the basis of their nationalities than their competence and abilities. The representatives from Canada and Peru are not well looked upon in some sectors, which is why some reject the Commission, while others view it with reservations,” she said.

Rivera reported that there is a movement afoot among local and international human rights groups to create an “Alternative Truth Commission”. One of the organizations backing this initiative is Amnesty International. The purpose of the alternative commission would be to “monitor the process and the conduct of those who make up the Truth Commission.”

At the other end of the political spectrum, the president of the National Association of Industrialists, Adolfo Facussé, an outspoken supporter of the coup, told IPS that “this Truth Commission is a demand of the international community and we already know what its findings will be.”

According to Facussé, these findings “will be geared to what the world wants to hear, and not to what really happened in Honduras. I don’t have very high expectations regarding this question. It won’t contribute to reconciliation; on the contrary, it will create greater division.”

For its part, the Human Rights Platform stressed in a press release that the creation of the Commission “has not respected the international standards applicable to truth commissions,” in that no consultation process has been opened, nor have the types of violations to be investigated been established.

In response to these criticisms, Canahuati stated that “all of this has been contemplated. The Commission has freedom and independence. Human rights violations will be considered; we do not want anything to be hidden.”

Leo Valladares, Honduras’ first ever Human Rights Commissioner (from 1992 to 2002), believes that the skepticism stems from “a thirst for justice and truth. It’s only natural that there is widespread distrust,” he said.

“The Commission is facing an enormous challenge, because it must demonstrate its independence and its credibility, and above all, it must prove that it is capable of bringing about a change in the conduct of the Honduran political class,” he said.

“We shouldn’t expect spectacular results from this Commission, because it faces heavy resistance,” Valladares warned. “But the state has the obligation to investigate,” he concluded.

The coup was triggered by Zelaya’s attempt to organise a non-binding referendum on Jun. 28 on the election of a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, which was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court and Congress.