Monday, August 31, 2009

"Coup" in Honduras

I write today about the "coup" that took place in Honduras on June 28, 2009. I place the word "coup" in quotes because many who support the present government claim that the government was properly protecting itself against a potential dictator, albeit in an irregular manner. For reasons that follow, I do not agree. Form matters, and what the government officials did was illegal and unconstitutional according to Honduran law and according to the Rule of Law.

The facts, though somewhat muddled, are not in substantial dispute. Manuel "Mel" Zelaya was elected President in 2005. The Honduran Constitution is very explicit in requiring that the President serve only one term and cannot ever again be President. Indeed, according to Constitution Article 239, anyone proposing a change in the law, and those helping him, will immediately cease office and remain ineligible for ten years. Zelaya was a large landowner and conservative when elected and for about two years afterwards. However, at some point he turned away from the conservative elements that elected him and toward the trade unions and campesinos who had been previously excluded from the political processes. Among other actions, he raised the minimum wage in Honduras by approximately 60%. He also formed favorable relations with Hugo Chavez and other leftist leaders of Nicaragua, Equador and Bolivia. All of his actions infuriated the conservative and propertied interests in Honduras, which included military leaders and most members of the the National Assembly

In early 2009, Zelaya began to talk about a Constitutional Assembly to amend the Constitution. He proposed a referendum, but when objections were voiced, he said the vote would be a non-binding advisory "consultation" on whether there should be a vote in November (during regular elections) on whether to call a National Constituent Assembly to amend the Constitution. He scheduled the "consultation" for June 28th. In preparation, he ordered the distribution of ballot boxes and ballots. The Supreme Court declared the proposeed vote illegal. Zelaya ordered the military to distribute the ballot boxes anyway. When the military refused, citing the Supreme Court opinion, Zelaya fired the commander and the defense minister, and Zelaya and his supporters seized the ballot boxes and prepared to distribute them.

All of this led up to a warrant issued by the Supreme Court ordering the military to arrest Zelaya to face charges. The military arrested Zelaya (some said "in his pajamas")at 5 a.m. on June 28 (which was also the date of the "consultation"). Then, beyond the arrest warrant, the military placed Zelaya on a plane and expelled him to Costa Rica. The military then closed media outlets favorable to Zelaya. There are rumors that arrest warrants were issued for many of his supporters, and they have gone into hiding. There are also reports that demonstrators in favor of Zelaya have been tear-gassed and shot. The military is headed by Gen. Romeo Vasquez, a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas.

After Zelaya had been expelled, the military presented to the Assembly a resignation allegedly signed by Zelaya. The Assembly accepted the "resignation," then for good measure adopted a resolution removing him from office for his misdeeds. The Assembly then named the President of the Congress, Rigoberto Micheletti, as new President. According to at least one authority, if Zelaya's removal was proper, Micheletti was the proper one to succeed him. The new government has continued civilian rule; the military has expressed its subordination to civil authorities.

Later, the "resignation" was clearly shown to be a clumsy forgery and now is ignored as a reason for removal. The Assembly vote likewise is of dubious Constituional validity. Under the Honduran constitution, unlike the United States, the Assembly can only pass a resolution saying there are grounds to bring a case against the President (Art. 205(15)). But the Supreme Court must hold a trial and adjudicate that there are in fact grounds for removal (Art.319(2)) to oust the President. None of that was done here.

Zelaya's removal was unanimously condemned by the OAS (Organization of American States), including by the United States, the United Nations General Assembly and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Under prodding from the U.S. and other countries, President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica undertook to mediate the dispute. He proposed that Zelaya return to finish his term, with no sanctions against those who removed him. However, Micheletti and his followers will not agree to Zelaya's return. There is at least a suggestion that they intend to stall until November, when an election will result in a new President. (The new candidates were nominated before the coup.)

Meanwhile, economic sanctions have begun against the present government. The U.S. has suspended military and other aid. Under U.S. law, if the change in government is declared a "military coup," another $150 million in aid will be suspended. Other Latin American countries have likewise suspended their relations with the present government of Honduras. In the United States, Rep. Delahunt and others have introduced H.Res.630 condemning the coup.

It should be clear from the foregoing that I believe Zelaya's removal and expulsion from Honduras was contrary to Honduran law. Under Article 102, no Honduran may be expatriated or delivered to an authority of a foreign state. Further, the order of the Supreme Court is itself suspect, as noted above. At the very least, Zelaya should be permitted to return and resume his Constitutional functions. Until that happens, the country will exist under an illegal military and civil coup, and its government should be subject to the full array of sanctions available to the United States and other countries.

Those interested in more information, and a more scholarly treatment than mine, may consult Geoff Thale, "Behind the Honduran Coup," in Foreign Policy in Focus, July 1, 2009, available at <>, and Doug Cassel, "Honduras: Coup d'Etat in Constitutional Clothing," published by American Society of International Law, v. 13, no. 9, July 29, 2009 available at <>. The text and co-sponsors of H.Res. 630 are available at <>.

Frank Schneider