Last summer, massive protests erupted in Honduras following revelations that hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to the country’s national health service had been siphoned off by officials from the ruling National Party. In neighboring Guatemala, similar protests, sparked by a similar corruption scandal, raged for much of the summer and led to the resignation and arrest of President Otto Pérez Molina. Following a far-reaching investigation by Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG, by its Spanish acronym), Pérez and former Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti were charged with running a vast customs corruption network, and were jailed pending their respective trials.
In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández remains firmly in place despite evidence that much of the embezzled public funds had been used for his 2013 presidential campaign. To try to placate the protesters, Hernández worked with the Organization of American States (OAS) on a joint proposal for a so-called Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, by its Spanish acronym). But protest leaders, and most Honduran human rights organizations, have rejected Hernández’s proposal, considering it far too weak to effectively take on Honduras’ rampant corruption and impunity, and not sufficiently independent. Instead, they have called for the creation of a United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras (or CICIH), modeled on Guatemala’s CICIG.
Critics of the OAS/Hernández proposal have pointed out that, in contrast with a CICIG-like entity, the MACCIH — as it is currently proposed — would lack the mandate and capacity to carry out judicial investigations and prosecutions, and instead would merely offer recommendations of reforms that the government is unlikely to ever implement (if past experience is any guide).
On December 4, Congressman José Serrano and 53 of his colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives backed these demands in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, urging him to support the creation of a CICIH. In a separate statement Serrano said:
We cannot expect to fully address issues of violence and instability in Honduras when people do not feel as though they can trust their government or judicial system. It is time to establish an independent commission to root out corruption and restore trust.
Indeed, the extreme levels of corruption and violent crime in Honduras are matched by appalling rates of impunity. The northeastern Honduran city of San Pedro Sula has the highest homicide rate in the world and dozens of journalists, lawyers, and activists have been killed in recent years. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has said that impunity for these and other crimes “ranges between 95 and 98 percent.” The country’s security forces are widely recognized to be deeply infiltrated by organized crime groups and involved in extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations. The country’s judiciary is considered to be weak and is largely controlled by the ruling National Party, which illegally replaced top judges with allies in late 2012.
Perhaps most troubling of all is the fact that the Honduran administration has shown no interest in taking real measures to reform its security forces or the country’s corrupt judiciary. A widely respected independent police reform commission was dissolved by the ruling party in January of 2013, and none of its proposals were taken into account. Under increasing international pressure, the Hernández government has repeatedly announced its own police reform, which appears to mostly involve a partial administrative reshuffling of Honduras’ law enforcement institutions.
Despite all these problems, the U.S. government has continued to throw its support behind Hernández, and sources indicate that they back the MACCIH proposal as well, despite the overwhelming opposition of Honduran human rights advocates. Many of the groups that oppose the MACCIH and support a CICIH are part of the Coalition Against Impunity, which includes the Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), Judges for Democracy, the Center for Women’s Rights (Centro de Derechos de Mujeres — CDM), the Committee for the Relatives of Disappeared Migrants of El Progreso, the Freedom of Speech Committee (C-LIBRE), Team of Reflection, Investigation and Communication (Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación — ERIC), the National Network for Honduran Women Human Rights Defenders, and many others.
In a November statement the Coalition argued that a MACCIH would:
[be] limited in its ability to attack corruption and impunity in the country. Its main purpose is to supervise and give technical support to the Public Ministry and the Justice System through the support of a group of ex-prosecutors and international jurists; preparing a diagnosis of the current situation of justice in Honduras; accompanying the implementation of the Interamerican Convention against Corruption; and the creation of a justice observatory.
[lack] an effective mandate to strongly and decidedly attack the scandalous corruption that is corroding the public institutions of Honduras, not to mention the tremendous limitations — that have been laid out — to attack impunity and dismantle criminal structures that function parallel to the state apparatus.
The Coalition also notes that the MACCIH proposal has been developed without consultation of, or input from civil society groups other than those that have close relations with the ruling National Party.
The statement explains:
Instead of a MACCIH, the Coalition Against Impunity, together with other organizations, advocates for a mechanism like the CICIG, underscoring the importance of a similar mandate and the transfer of experience that we could use in our country. We demand an International Commission Against Impunity, with a mandate that includes the following:
-Political independence and financial autonomy to avoid any interference or limitation of its actions.
-Capacity to investigate and gather evidence of criminal acts and illegal structures that function in the state apparatus. These should be provided to the Public Ministry to strengthen its prosecution abilities.
-The capacity for criminal prosecution together with the Public Ministry in emblematic cases of corruption, impunity, or extreme human rights violations.
-Building capacity of the Public Ministry and Judicial apparatus.
-Development of proposals to support the necessary reforms in the Honduran judicial system.
The marked weaknesses of the institutions in the Honduran judicial system currently demand the installation of an independent International Commission with a high level of technical and legal capacity to contribute to an efficient and committed struggle against corruption and impunity.
Some U.S. analysts have argued that a CICIG-like entity wouldn’t be able to quickly address Honduras’ rampant corruption and impunity.
The reality is that there are no quick fixes for Honduras, and simply painting over the country’s problems with ineffective measures will not improve the situation. And, as the Coalition Against Impunity has pointed out, a CICIH, rather than starting completely from scratch, would be able to benefit from a “transfer of experience” from the CICIG.