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Updated 10/25/2006

Honduras' Slow Road to National Reparation

In the fall of 2004 the government of Honduras seemed on its way to making lasting reparation for human rights crimes committed during the 1980s and early ‘90s, when government security forces tortured, murdered or “disappeared” some 200 civilians. 

On Nov. 4 Honduran President Ricardo Maduro formally apologized for the murder and disappearance of two of his country’s citizens in the 1990s. It was the first time the Honduran government had publicly acknowledged its responsibility for any of the human rights crimes its military and police forces had perpetrated during the previous two decades, and it marked a historically important step in breaking the silence of state-sponsored violence. 

“Illegal detention, assassination and forced disappearance are crimes of the worst nature,” Maduro said during a ceremony before the families of the victims and human rights leaders. “I call on those present and all those who were victims of acts perpetrated against them or their families during that dark time to take the first step toward reconciliation and join with all Hondurans in constructing the path of a new Honduras, where these painful events will never be repeated.” 

Maduro announced he had established an Interinstitutional Commission of Human Rights, which would develop future human rights policy for the country. He promised that the government would take the necessary steps to investigate cases of alleged human rights abuse, to ensure adequate funding and resources for the special units charged with investigating these cases, and to keep family members informed of the progress of investigations.  

The president’s official apology had been ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which in March 2003 found Honduras guilty of violating the human rights of Juan Humberto Sánchez, and by the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights in a settlement agreement between Honduras and the family of Dixie Miguel Urbina. Maduro announced that in compliance with those decisions, an account of the crimes and the mandated resolutions would be published in the official state newspaper, La Gaceta, and in another large-circulation daily, “to inform the public and include those facts as part of our nation’s history, as a reminder of how intolerance can lead us astray.” 

In addition to the public acknowledgements, the court and commission decisions placed further requirements on the state. In the Sanchez case, Honduras was ordered to fully investigate and punish those responsible for the crime, to create a national register of detained persons to prevent future abuses of power and arbitrary detentions, to give monetary compensation to the victim’s family, to exhume his body and to return his mortal remains to the family. In the Urbina case, the state was required to pay reparations to the family, build a monument in the victim’s honor, and ratify the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances. 

On Oct. 25, the week before the president’s historic apology, Honduras had reached a significant settlement agreement, mediated by the Inter-American Commission, with the families of 17 men who were kidnapped, murdered or disappeared during the 1980s. The state formally recognized its responsibility for violating the victims’ human rights, and it agreed to fully investigate and punish those responsible and to pay reparations to the victims or their families. It was also ordered to create a monument to honor the victims, to print copies of the settlement proceedings for public distribution, and to publish its mandated commitments in La Gaceta. 

Both the settlement agreement and Maduro's public apology received praise from human rights groups, international organizations and the press, although rights groups in Honduras noted the need for vigilance to ensure that the government lived up to its commitments. One year later, however, the government has done far more in word than in deed. 

Many promises remain unfulfilled in the case of Sánchez, an operator for a clandestine leftist radio station who was found murdered in July 1992 after being arrested by military personnel. The government exhumed Sánchez’s remains in September 2004 as a first step in compliance with the Inter-American Court ruling; the public apology was the second. But the government has yet to publish the facts of the crime and the court’s ruling, or to develop a registry of detainees. Although Sánchez’s body was exhumed, the state has not officially identified the remains or returned them to the family. Further, it has failed to prosecute those responsible for the crime, and the family is still waiting for reparation payments. 

According to Sánchez’s sister, Maria Milagro Sánchez, the justice process has been long and hard for her family. “We have no idea where the body is. We have not received reparations. We had faith in the government—it’s the government of an entire nation and we believed them—but now we’ve lost faith.” On Sept. 30, because of the state’s noncompliance, the Inter-American Court informed Honduras that it would continue to supervise the pending stipulations of the sentence and gave the state a deadline of Jan. 30, 2006, by which to submit a report detailing the measures taken to fulfill its obligations. 

Similarly, the case of Dixie Urbina, who disappeared after being arrested without a warrant in 1995, remains in limbo. The case has been in negotiations before the Inter-American Commission since 2002, but the government has yet to sign the final document to make the settlement legal. The state has completed two of the settlement requirements—the public apology and the ratification of the Inter-American Convention on Forced Disappearances, which it completed on April 28, 2005—but it has not followed through with the other stipulations. 

Meanwhile, Hondurans are still waiting for the government to fulfill the requirements of the settlement it signed with families of victims from the 1980s. It has done nothing but pay the reparations, some of which had already been paid before the signing of the settlement, based on prior negotiations. 

Andrés Pavón, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), who represented victims’ families in the settlement and is himself one of the victims, said the public prosecutor for human rights is slated to begin investigations in January 2006 and CODEH has requested that the government include in its budget the funds to resolve the outstanding commitments. 

There have been other cases in recent years involving mediation by the Inter-American Human Rights system. Friendly settlement negotiations before the Inter-American Commission are currently under way for six cases from the 1990s involving extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and torture, and the government has begun reparation payments in another settlement case involving violations of children’s rights in which minors were imprisioned with adults. 

Human rights leaders like Pavon believe that the settlements and sentences do help the Honduran human rights movement, but the government has much more to do. “The positive impact of these settlements is that it increases awareness in Honduran society that there is another history,” he said. “The negative is that the government is always relying on regional bodies instead of resolving the problems on its own. The hope is that the government will adopt investigative measures, publish the facts of the cases, and become more transparent.” 

Bertha Oliva, coordinator of Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH)—whose husband was among the victims included in the Oct. 25, 2004 settlement and whose organization helped represent the Sánchez and Urbina families before the Inter-American system—voiced similar concerns. “Such sentences and agreements help the human rights movement in Honduras, but they bring another problem because the state doesn’t follow through with its promises, these cases are not investigated, and impunity continues,” she said. 

“In some of the settlements the government fulfills its reparations to the victims’ families but not the national reparation, which we believe is the most important thing. For example, some settlements haven’t been published and the Honduran people don’t have access to this information,” Oliva added. 

Thus, the struggle for human rights in Honduras exists in great measure between the words and the actions of the government. Organizations in Honduras are using available tools, including the Inter-American Human Rights system, to hold the government accountable for both its past actions and its present words. “The government doesn’t follow through with its promises, and, for this reason, we are here working and demanding that the government fulfills those commitments,” Oliva said. 

For more information 

Juan Humberto Sánchez Case, Judgment of June 7, 2003, Inter-Am. Ct. H.R., (Ser. C) No. 99.  

Report No. 46/02, Admissibility of Petition 11.562, Dixie Urbina Rosales. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights; Oct. 9, 2002.  

“Estado pide perdón por dos casos de desaparecidos.” EFE News; Nov. 5, 2004. 

“Declaration of state responsibility for forced disappearances in previous administrations, by the President of the Republic, Ricardo Maduro.” Nov. 4, 2004. 

“Presidente Maduro pide perdón a familiares de Juan Humberto Sánchez y de Dixie Miguel Urbina, asesinados en Honduras.” El Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL); Nov. 10, 2004. 

“Honduras debe entregar informe a la Corte Interamericana.” El Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional (CEJIL); Oct. 5, 2005.