6 January 2014

The Honduran presidential elections: democracy – a shared responsibility?

Since the end of the Cold War, the promotion of democracy has increasingly come to be considered a matter of legitimate concern for the international community. In light of this, it seems pertinent to ask whether international law offers us a framework for understanding the shared obligations and responsibilities of the international community with respect to the democratic crisis currently taking place in Honduras.


The 2009 military coup in Honduras and its aftermath

It is a common story in the annals of Central and Latin American history. A military coup (reportedly backed by the United States) deposes a democratically elected President whose program of leftist social and economic reform has upset powerful elites. This is what happened in Honduras when, in the early hours of 28 June 2009, then President Manuel Zelaya was dragged from his bed by soldiers and, still in his pyjamas, taken to a nearby air force base and flown into exile. Since being elected in 2006 Zelaya had increased the minimum wage by 80%, introduced free education for all children and embarked upon a program of agrarian reforms, threatening the interests of the economic, political, military and religious oligarchy which had ruled Honduras since independence. His opponents accused him of attempting to reform the Constitution so as to perpetuate himself in power. In the four years following the coup Honduras has become one of the most violent countries on earth, with an average annual rate of over 80 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, around ten times the global average. Its second city San Pedro Sula is considered the murder capital of the world. Beyond the epidemic homicide levels, human rights organisations report widespread persecution of human rights defenders and journalists, pervasive discrimination against women and the LGBTI (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex) and indigenous communities, and the collapse of the justice system.

This past 24 November, Hondurans had the chance to go to the polls in presidential elections for the first time since the coup. Xiomara Castro, candidate of the Freedom and Re-foundation Party, or LIBRE (for its name in Spanish), was tipped to break the bipartisanship of the centre-right Liberal Party and right-wing National Party, which has dominated Honduran politics for more than a century. LIBRE had been founded out of the National Popular Resistance Front, an historic alliance of grass-roots social movements which came together in the months after the coup to demand a return to constitutionality. Nevertheless, late on election day evening, Honduras’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal declared that the ruling National Party’s candidate, Juan Orlando Hernández, had an irreversible lead with approximately half of votes scrutinised. Meanwhile opposition parties, the resistance movement and international observers decried massive fraud, including voter intimidation, violence, vote buying and other irregularities in the counting of votes.


The right to democracy – a legal framework for collective action?

The right to free and fair elections is protected by a number of international human rights treaties.[1] Today international election monitoring by national, regional and other non-governmental organisations to ensure compliance with international human rights standards is an almost omnipresent part of electoral processes. The international regulatory framework governing such practice provides that observation missions must be carried out co-operatively, independently and impartially.

Whether democratic governance as such should be considered an explicit human right is a matter of much controversy. Nevertheless, the Organization of American States (OAS) has been a frontrunner when it comes to the recognition of such a right. In 1991, with the adoption of Resolution 1080, the OAS established an institutional mechanism for collective action in defence of democracy in the event of a coup. A new Article 9 was added to the OAS Charter in 1997 allowing for the suspension of Member States in such circumstances should diplomatic initiatives to restore democracy fail. In 2001, American Heads of State adopted the Declaration of Quebec, stating that, ‘[t]he maintenance and strengthening of […] strict respect for the democratic system [is …] a shared commitment’. This led to the elaboration of the Inter-American Democratic Charter later that same year which consolidated existing OAS instruments for the protection of democracy. Article 1 of the Charter states that, ‘[t]he peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it’.

However, the reaction of the international community to the Honduran crisis suggests that in practice we are quite some way from the establishment of an international legal regime of shared primary and secondary obligations in respect of a right to democracy. While the majority of States condemned the original coup, the United States was criticised for its hesitant response, and a deal was ultimately brokered to legitimise the coup regime. The official electoral observation missions of the OAS, the European Union and the United States all declared the recent elections transparent in their final reports, at odds with evidence from other observation missions and even contrary to claims by their own delegates. The leaders of many of Honduras’s neighbours have already met with Hernández as recognised President-elect, including Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, himself accused of growing authoritarianism after a package of anti-democratic constitutional reforms enabling, among other things, his indefinite re-election were approved by the Nicaraguan parliament last month.


Concluding remarks

We might identify various reasons to be hesitant about an international human right to democracy. After all, when it comes to things done in the name of democracy, the United States for one does not have a great track record in Latin America. Furthermore, the extent of the agreement about the desirability of democracy is only matched by the extent of the ambiguity surrounding its content. The imperialist tendencies of universalising a uniform conception of democracy as the one and only acceptable model of governance in the international community cannot be understated. Nevertheless, in the face of such uncertainty one thing is clear. While the idea of shared responsibility for protecting democracy remains at the level of political rhetoric with States persisting in responding to their own particular interests when it comes to the promotion of democracy, the Honduran people will continue resisting, with or without the support of the international community.


[1] Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 3 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights; Article 23 of the American Convention of Human Rights; and Article 13 of the African Charter of Human Rights.

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