The letter (full text below) applauds the Obama administration's condemnation of the coup but notes that over the past months it has remained silent in the face of human rights abuses, including deaths at the hands of security forces. It also notes the special role and responsibility of US influence in ending the de facto regime led by Roberto Micheletti.
"Though we commend the administration for having strongly stated their support for the restoration of democracy in Honduras, we are concerned that neither you nor the Secretary of State has denounced these serious human rights abuses in a country where US influence could be decisive."
According to Capitol Hill sources, the letter—signed by eight Congressional members and leaders—was drafted and issued rapidly to respond to events in Honduras that could reach a defining moment this week. Today State Department envoy Tom Shannon will be in Tegucigalpa to seek a resolution to the stand-off, caused by the coup's refusal to allow the reinstatement of President Zelaya. A new delegation from the Organization of American States will also converge on the beleaguered nation in a last-ditch attempt at new negotiations.
The letter to Obama seeks to infuse the seemingly endless negotiations with the urgency they deserve. It says:
"It is now more urgent than ever to break this silence. It is critical that your Administration immediately, clearly and unequivocally reject and denounce the repression by this illegitimate regime. We can say sincerely and without hyperbole that this action on your part will save lives."
With this letter, the Congressional group aims to break the inexplicable silence of the State Department on human rights and to break the political impasse.
The timeline on negotiations in Honduras has become a lit fuse.
President Zelaya remains in the Brazilian Embassy, surrounded by military units and threatened with immediate arrest by coup security forces. Micheletti is betting that Nov. 29 elections—even without international recognition, and without the participation of large parts of the Honduran population—will still prove to be the whitewash of legitimacy the coup leaders so desperately seek to maintain and consolidate power.
The delaying tactics of the de facto regime—luring Zelaya and the international community into mediation and talks that it never intended to accede to—have pushed the crisis into four months, with just over a month to election day. Many groups believe it will now be impossible under any circumstances to organize free and fair elections.
The letter addresses the elections in no uncertain terms:
"It is time for the administration to join this growing hemispheric and international consensus and unambiguously state that elections organized by an undemocratic government that has denied critics of the regime the right to free speech, assembly, and movement, cannot and will not be considered free and fair by our government."
As rumors of an imminent breakthrough flood the Internet, frustration has grown in Honduras and around the world. It wasn't supposed to happen like this. Thousands of lives have been sacrificed in Latin America to put the days of military coups behind us, and although we know that history is not a linear progression toward civilization many of us believed that the blatant subversion of democracy through a military coup would no longer be acceptable. The international community responded with a unified and firm condemnation of the coup. Yet somehow a handful of wealthy Hondurans, backed up by a small military force, have felt they had the power to confront their own people and the world.
This letter calls on the Obama administration to state publicly and unequivocally that it does not overtly or covertly support the coup, that it will stand up for human rights, and that it will not support elections under an illegal government. The Congress members' strong words find echo among other members of Congress and growing organized groups of constituents, including US human rights groups, faith-based organizations, and common citizens who shudder at the prospect of a return to a hemisphere where dictators are allowed to walk among democracies.
The State Department stated it would not support coup-run elections, but leaks indicate that at least some strong currents within the Clinton team would indeed find even seriously flawed elections to be a convenient out. This ambivalence, left unclarified by State spokespersons, fuels suspicions in Latin America that powerful Washington interests would prefer the coup to a left-leaning democracy in Honduras, and are not afraid to support subversion of democratic processes to do it.
It is time for the Obama administration to draw together with a single voice for human rights and democracy and end the Honduran stand-off by developing a firm, coherent and non-violent strategy to assure the immediate reinstatement of President Zelaya and constitutional order.
See the full text of the letter from Congress members to President Obama below.
Dear President Obama, October 27, 2009
We are writing to you regarding an urgent situation where lives are at stake and action on your part may prevent further tragedy.
Since the return to Honduras of President Manuel Zelaya, the de facto regime has taken further repressive measures, in addition to the previous violations of basic rights and civil liberties which have been recognized and denounced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and all of the key Honduran human rights NGOs, among others.
According to reports from the media and rights organizations, the coup regime violently dispersed a gathering of Hondurans in front of the Brazilian Embassy in Tegucigalpa with tear gas, clubs and rubber bullets, resulting in numerous casualties, including several reported fatalities.
While the siege of the Embassy is a serious violation of the Vienna Convention, more disturbing is the broad assault against the Honduran people unleashed by the coup regime.
On September 22 the Americas director at Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, stated that "given the reports we have received, and the poor track record of the security forces since the coup, we fear that conditions could deteriorate drastically in the coming days." That same day, the Americas Director for the London-based rights organization Amnesty International, Susan Lee, has stated that "the attacks against human rights defenders, suspension of news outlets, beating of demonstrators by the police and ever-increasing reports of mass arrests indicate that human rights and the rule of law in Honduras are at grave risk."
The international community has also spoken out regarding the worsening human rights situation in Honduras. On September 22nd, Mexico released a statement in the name of the 23-member Rio Group demanding that the de facto government stop carrying out "acts of repression and violation of human rights of all Hondurans." The following day, the President of the European Union seconded the Rio Group statement.
Mr. President, we were glad to hear State Department spokesman Ian Kelly on September 22 reaffirm the position of the Administration that Manuel Zelaya is the "democratically elected and constitutional leader of Honduras." But unfortunately, the mixed messages that have characterized the Administration's response persist.
The head of the US delegation to the Organization of American States Lewis Anselem represented our nation in that body by saying "Zelaya's return to Honduras is irresponsible and foolish and it doesn't serve the interest of the people nor those who seek the restoration of democratic order in Honduras [...] Everything will be better if all parties refrain from provoking and inciting violence." Not content to place equal blame on both the victims of the violence and the perpetrators, he then chose to personally insult Mr. Zelaya, saying "The president should stop acting as though he were starring in an old Woody Allen movie." State Department spokespersons have declined numerous opportunities to distance your administration from Anselem's words.
We note that, unlike the coup leaders, President Zelaya has indicated his openness to dialogue and has accepted the San Jose agreements that emerged from the US-backed mediation process led by President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica.
The suspension of rights announced by the junta on September 27 in Executive Decree PCM-M-016-2009 was used to shut down independent media outlets like Radio Globo and Canal 36, which have only recently been able to resume broadcasting.
The decree was denounced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights as "a violation of international law," containing "provisions [that] arbitrarily restrict fundamental human rights."
ED PCM-M-016-2009 remained legally in effect and was enforced by the junta until Monday, October 19, when the rescission was finally published, only to be replaced by a decree from the junta's Security Minister in which all planned public gatherings, rallies or marches, must be made known to the national police 24 hours in advance, including names of event organizers, start and end times, and any march routes.
Another, similar decree allowing authorities to suspend any media considered to be "fomenting social anarchy", had already been issued on October 7. According to the organization Reporters Without Borders, the October 7 decree is "targeted at those that oppose the coup" and "constitutes a real threat to pluralism, an incentive to self-censorship and an additional mechanism for polarizing the media and public opinion."
Free and fair elections cannot take place under these conditions.
Though we commend the administration for having strongly stated their support for the restoration of democracy in Honduras, we are concerned that neither you nor the Secretary of State has denounced these serious human rights abuses in a country where US influence could be decisive.
It is now more urgent than ever to break this silence. It is critical that your Administration immediately, clearly and unequivocally reject and denounce the repression by this illegitimate regime. We can say sincerely and without hyperbole that this action on your part will save lives.
Furthermore, the vast majority of our neighbors in the region, including Brazil and Mexico, have clearly indicated that they will not recognize the results of elections held under the coup regime.
On September 29, Costa Rican President and US-appointed mediator Oscar Arias noted the regime's continued rejection of the San Jose accords, and warned that Honduran elections cannot be recognized by the international community without a restoration of constitutional order. Arias said, "the cost of failure of leaving a coup d'etat unpunished is setting up a bad precedent for the region [...] You could have remembrances of a bad Latin American past, insisting on elections under these circumstances and overlooking items in the San Jose Accord."
It is time for the administration to join this growing hemispheric and international consensus and unambiguously state that elections organized by an undemocratic government that has denied critics of the regime the right to free speech, assembly, and movement, cannot and will not be considered free and fair by our government.
We feel it is imperative that the administration step up its efforts to bring about a prompt restoration of democracy in Honduras, together with other regional leaders.
We eagerly await your reply.
Raúl M. Grijalva, José E. Serrano,
Fortney "Pete" Stark, Danny K. Davis,
Janice D. Schakowsky, Maxine Waters,
Barbara Lee, John Conyers,
Luis V. Gutierrez, Jesse L. Jackson,
Chaka Fattah, James P. Moran,
Michael M. Honda, Sam Farr,
James L. Oberstar, Eddie Bernice Johnson