Human Rights Watch, While Hawkish on Venezuela, Is Quiet on Violent Repression and Apparent Coup in Honduras

Honduras' incumbent right-wing government has been accused of stealing the election, but HRW's Kenneth Roth is fixated on Venezuela.

Honduran police crack down on protesters
Photo Credit: Democracy Now / Creative Commons

The right-wing government in Honduras, which enjoys the support of the United States, has for weeks waged a violent crackdown on protests amid widespread accusations that it stole the recent presidential election from the left-wing opposition.

There is strong evidence that the conservative ruling party planned to rig the November 26 election, which was criticized by international bodies for having numerous irregularities. Opposition political leaders say the state has launched a coup.

Mass protests erupted in response to the allegations of electoral fraud. In an attempt to quiet the dissent, Honduras’ incumbent right-wing government suspended constitutional rights and declared a curfew December 2, giving the army and police more powers to crush the protests.

At least 14 people were killed, including a teenage girl, in the subsequent days of government repression. Honduran police have shot and killed unarmed protesters, firing live bullets into large demonstrations. Dozens more protesters have been injured.

With this violent crackdown underway, one might expect the leading human rights organization in the U.S. to express concern. But Human Rights Watch was eerily silent.

Human Rights Watch fixated obsessively on Venezuela, openly expressing support for the right-wing opposition and calling for international intervention to undermine the elected leftist government. Yet the prominent human rights organization said nothing about the escalating authoritarianism and repression in Honduras.

It was not until after AlterNet contacted Human Rights Watch with a request for comment on its total silence that the rights organization finally spoke out.

Until December 11, two weeks after the election, neither HRW nor its longtime executive director Kenneth Roth had released statements condemning the violence and apparent electoral fraud in Honduras. In this same period, HRW published dozens of materials denouncing Venezuela.

HRW’s silence persisted in the face of Honduran forces shooting and killing numerous unarmed protesters, Honduran opposition figures accusing the government of launching a coup to maintain power and media outlets publishing compelling evidence that the ruling party was planning to rig the election.

In those two weeks, José Miguel Vivanco, the head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division, commented on the crisis in Honduras with just two tweets, which were grossly outnumbered by his repeated forceful denunciations of Venezuela.

AlterNet separately contacted the Human Rights Watch press office, Roth and Vivanco with requests for comment. Only Roth replied, writing on December 11: “A press release is planned for later today.”

As promised, HRW’s Vivanco issued a statement later on December 11 that read like boilerplate: “Respect for human rights is central to democracy,” Vivanco said. “That not only means that all votes should be counted correctly, but also that the Honduran authorities need to guarantee the right to peaceful protest."

This was HRW’s first public statement on Honduras, 15 days after the crisis began.

This flagrant double-standard in the treatment of Honduras, which is supported by the U.S., and Venezuela, which has been targeted by the U.S. for destabilization, calls into question the supposed political impartiality of Human Rights Watch, an organization that has its roots in anti-Soviet activity during the Cold War and has long been criticized for its revolving door with the U.S. government.

From One Coup to Another

In 2009, the U.S. government supported a military coup in Honduras that toppled democratically elected left-wing President Manuel Zelaya. Since then, the country has been plagued with extreme violence. Honduras consistently has the highest murder rate in the world, and growing numbers of human rights activists, like the renowned environmentalist Berta Cáceres, have been killed, often in attacks that are linked to the U.S.-backed government.

Further state violence has erupted in recent weeks, while opposition leaders have warned that another coup is being carried out. On November 26, the country held a presidential election that was rocked by numerous scandals.

Left-wing opposition leader Salvador Nasralla says incumbent right-wing President Juan Orlando Hernández is carrying out a coup to reinstate himself for a second term. Hernández’s ruling right-wing National Party of Honduras, which is extremely corrupt and has used public healthcare funds to bankroll its candidates’ campaigns, rose to power in the 2013 presidential election, which was also accused of electoral fraud.

The day before the vote, on November 25, The Economist published evidence that the ruling National Party was preparing to rig the election. A participant in a training session leaked recordings of National Party poll workers being told to create fake votes for Hernández.

This scheme seems to have worked. The morning after polls closed, early results showed Salvador Nasralla, who heads the Opposition Alliance Against Dictatorship, a coalition of two left-wing parties, leading by a significant margin. The magistrate of Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal said Nasralla’s lead was “irreversible.” A political analyst told Al Jazeera, “The trend is irreversible and Mr. Nasralla won the election.”

The next day, however, after a halt in the vote count, Nasralla’s “irreversible" lead was suddenly reversed, handing a narrow victory to Hernández.

“There are serious irregularities that have left the vote count with little credibility,” Mark Weisbrot, the co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and an expert on U.S. foreign policy and Latin American politics, told AlterNet. “There was a rapid, unexplainable shift in the voting trend after 57 percent of the votes were counted, following an unexplainable 30-hour interruption in the reporting of voting results. After the delay, the vote margin shifted drastically from a 45-40 lead for the opposition to a 47-35 lead for the incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández.”

Some Honduran police forces have rebelled against the apparent coup attempt, refusing to follow orders. Even the Organization of American States, which is notoriously pro-U.S., called into question the results of the election and supported a vote recount.

Dozens of Latin America solidarity and peace groups condemned Honduras’ apparent election theft and called for an immediate suspension of U.S. police and military aid to the country.

The U.S. government has essentially greenlighted the second apparent coup. Amid the scandal, the administration of President Donald Trump certified that the Honduran government supposedly protects human rights and combats corruption. The U.S. State Department did respond to the Associated Press’ request for comment on the matter.

Military police forces killing protesters in Honduras have even been trained by the United States, The Intercept has reported, noting the U.S. has provided the country with almost $114 million in security aid since 2009.

Silence from Human Rights Watch

An analysis by AlterNet found that Human Rights Watch and its executive director Ken Roth published exactly zero public statements about the right-wing Honduran government’s violent repression in the two weeks after Honduras’ November 26 election. Moreover, while Honduran forces have killed peaceful protesters, Human Rights Watch issued an assortment of denunciations of Venezuela’s leftist government.

A search of Human Rights Watch’s website shows that, as of December 10, it has not mentioned Honduras since October, and in an article that only peripherally involved the country. In fact, the leading U.S. human rights organization has not published a release specifically about Honduras since July.

While Honduran forces have killed unarmed protesters, Human Rights Watch has run dozens of articles, news releases and reports condemning Venezuela and the democratically elected government of President Nicolás Maduro. On December 1 alone, Human Rights Watch published six posts criticizing Venezuela, according to as search of its website. On November 29, it posted another five anti-Venezuela pieces, including a meticulously detailed 91-page report.

In the month of November, HRW published 16 posts on its website criticizing the Venezuelan government. Among these were a November 20 photo essay “The 2017 Crackdown on Dissent in Venezuela” and a November 13 dispatch “It’s Time for UN Security Council to Send Strong Message on Venezuela.”

The leading U.S. human rights organization’s double standard on Honduras and Venezuela is also evident in its influential social media presence. On its Twitter account, where it has more than 3.5 million followers and more than 68,000 tweets, Human Rights Watch has not mentioned the words “Honduras” or “Honduran” since July, and has never published a tweet naming right-wing President Hernández.

In one of its rare tweets about Honduras, back in January, Human Rights Watch noted: “Rampant crime in Honduras, murder rate among highest in the world.”

When asked if he thought Human Rights Watch has been fair in its response to the violence in Honduras, Mark Weisbrot told AlterNet, “I haven’t seen any response from HRW to either the election, where even the OAS, which has sometimes tilted toward Washington in disputed elections, has refused to recognize the results, or the violence of security forces.”

USAID has written that the OAS “promotes U.S. political and economic interests in the Western Hemisphere by countering the influence of anti-U.S. countries such as Venezuela.” Yet even the OAS has raised concerned about Honduras, while Human Rights Watch has kept silent.

No Statements from Kenneth Roth, Head of Human Rights Watch

Longtime Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth is extremely active on social media and is a constant presence in international media. Confronted with the Honduran crisis, an episode that has earned headlines around the globe, Roth said absolutely nothing — until December 11, after AlterNet contacted him with a request for comment.

Roth is especially active on Twitter, where he has a quarter of a million followers. He tweets roughly a dozen times a day and has published more than 50,000 tweets, many of which appear to have been automated.

As of December 10, the last public statement by Roth that mentioned Honduras was on November 25, and it was in fact tepid praise for the right-wing, US-aligned president. “Honduran Pres Hernández has helped to reduce the murder rate. He has been less successful with official corruption,” Roth tweeted, linking to an article from the neoliberal British magazine, The Economist. This piece speaks somewhat favorably of Hernández, noting that his “tough-on-crime policies are paying a political dividend.”

“Hondurans who give Mr Hernández credit for reducing violence and steadying the economy after a post-coup recession may hardly mind that he is not much of a democrat,” The Economist article shared by Roth read, whitewashing the authoritarian machinations of the US-backed president.

The Human Rights Watch chief’s usually positive characterization of the power hungry Hernández pales in comparison to the tirades Roth routinely delivers against Venezuelan President Maduro. The following is a sample of the language Roth has used to describe Maduro and his administration over just 40 days:

  • “Autocratic, corrupt mismanagement” (Dec. 3)

  • “Venezuela Pres Maduro's corrupt, autocratic rule” (Dec. 3)

  • “Venezuela is systematically subjecting protesters and opponents of Maduro's incompetent rule to brutal treatment including torture” (Nov. 29)

  • “Venezuela Pres Maduro, having overseen massive corruption (and resulting devastation of economy)” (Nov. 27)

  • “Brutal and incompetent rule,” like Zimbabwe’s Mugabe (Nov. 19)

  • “Maduro repression” (Nov. 18)

  • “Like Venezuela’s Maduro, Zimbabwe’s Mugabe hoped anti-imperialist rhetoric would suffice to mask his brutal repression and utter incompetence” (Nov. 18)

  • “Maduro government crimes” (Nov. 17)

  • “Pres Maduro's descent into authoritarian rule, his brutal crackdown, and the humanitarian crisis he has spawned” (Nov. 13)

  • “As Venezuela's economy crumbles, Maduro prioritizes constitutional coup to prevent opposition control of legislature” (Nov. 4)

  • “Autocrats like Venezuela’s Maduro” (Oct. 30)

  • “Leading European human rights prize given to Venezuelan opposition as it battles Maduro's growing autocracy” (Oct. 27)

  • “Only ongoing international pressure can reverse Maduro destruction of Venezuela democracy such as recent ‘election’” (Oct. 24)

As is apparent from Roth’s language, the HRW director has not only criticized Venezuela’s leadership, he has called for international intervention to prevent Venezuela’s president from governing. In other words, Roth has joined the Trump administration in agitating for regime change against a democratically elected president.

Kenneth Roth obsession with Venezuela has taken the form of 111 tweets mentioning Maduro between March and November. All 111 of them were anti-Maduro — 100 percent negative. In the same time period, Roth only tweeted about increasingly authoritarian right-wing Honduran President Hernández once, and in a mildly supportive fashion.

The intensity of Roth’s criticism of Maduro increased with in perfect time with the tempo of right-wing protests in Venezuela. In January, Roth tweeted about Maduro only once; in February, once more. In March, as Western governments and the OAS began applying more pressure on Maduro, Roth railed against Maduro five times.

By April, as violent right-wing protests gathered steam, Roth tweeted about Maduro 15 times. In May, 18 times; June, 13 times; July, 18 times; August, 18 times.

In September, Roth published seven anti-Maduro tweets. Protests were dying down, and Roth’s constant criticisms correspondingly slightly subsided. But they still continued. In October, he wrote another seven anti-Maduro tweets. November saw 10 anti-Maduro tweets.

Once again, all 111 of these tweets were negative.

After AlterNet contacted Roth and Human Rights Watch published a news release on Honduras on December 11, Roth tweeted a link to the statement, accompanied by the weak language: "Amid strong indications of electoral fraud, Honduras should mount credible investigation and in meantime respect right of opposition to protest."

This was Roth's only public comment on Honduras, amid a torrent of much more heated anti-Venezuela remarks.

Few Words from HRW Americas Division Director José Miguel Vivanco

While Human Rights Watch and its decades-long leader have remained silent about the repression in Honduras, the executive director of its Americas Division has raised some very quiet and nuanced concerns.

According to his author page on the Human Rights Watch website, José Miguel Vivanco has published 59 articles in English since 2013. Not one of these articles has been about Honduras. Yet a staggering 29 of these — roughly half — have been devoted to condemning the Venezuelan government.

In fact, from October 2016 to April 2017, all 10 articles listed on Vivanco’s English-language profile at Human Rights were denunciations of President Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela — a staggering 100 percent of the pieces he published in those seven months.

From June to August 2017, Vivanco published another five English-language articles, according to his Human Rights Watch web page, featured in the leading publications The New York Times, O Globo, Foreign Policy, El Mundo and Caracas Chronicles. Once again, 100 percent of these pieces were condemnations of the Venezuelan government.

Vivanco has also published an array of articles in Spanish. These are just as disproportionately devoted to demonizing Venezuela.

In mid-November, Vivanco published a Human Rights Watch dispatch calling for United Nations Security Council members to “voice strong support” for the pro-U.S. OAS in its alleged attempt “to help Venezuelans restore democratic institutions and basic rights.” He implored council members to “send a clear message that abusers will be held accountable abroad if Venezuela proves unable or unwilling to do so at home; and offer international humanitarian aid to ease the suffering of the Venezuelan people.”

The many thousands of words the executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division has uttered exponentially outnumber those he has reserved for Honduras.

In fact, José Miguel Vivanco’s only apparent public comments on the repression in Honduras in the two weeks after the November election were two tweets.

Vivanco has never tweeted the name Hernández in reference to Juan Orlando Hernández. He has only mentioned the right-wing Honduran president one time, using the acronym JOH. Out of his more than 1,300 tweets, Vivanco has furthermore only written “Honduras” or “Honduran” three times — two from October, and one from December.

On the evening of December 3, a week after Honduras’ election, Vivanco broke the silence and finally mentioned the numerous irregularities, tweeting, “Great responsibility of the OAS in Honduras. The record suggests that there was manipulation in the vote count.”

Later that evening, Vivanco wrote his only other public statement on the repression in Honduras. Downplaying the violence in the country, Vivanco tweeted, “11 people have died during the protest.” His vague language and use of the passive voice obfuscated the responsibility of state forces in killing those protesters.

In very slight censure, Vivanco added in his tweet that the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights warned President Hernández that constitutional guarantees cannot be suspended in a way that affects “democratic freedoms in the electoral process.”

These were Vivanco’s only public statements on the violent in Honduras. And they came the same day that the denounced Venezuelan President Maduro.

After AlterNet contacted Vivanco and HRW with a request for comment, Vivanco tweeted a link to the organization's tepid December 11 news release on Honduras.

Like Kenneth Roth, José Miguel Vivanco has obsessively demonized Maduro, publishing five negative tweets about him in just the month of November. Vivanco likewise wrote 11 tweets condemning Venezuela in November.

Human Rights Watch’s flagrant double standards on Honduras and Venezuela are so extreme they call into question the very integrity of the organization.

Human Rights Organizations as Vehicles for U.S. Power

Human rights organizations have long served as a convenient tool for projecting U.S. power. During the Cold War, so-called non-governmental organizations — many of which actually had links to the U.S. government and its allies — used the discourse of “human rights” to disguise their right-wing, pro-capitalist crusade.

In his book Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights, scholar James Peck details how ostensibly independent human rights groups have played a key role in fulfilling U.S. foreign policy prerogatives. “Human rights leaders are convinced they pressured Washington into taking up their cause. Yet in truth their movement gained much of its momentum from Washington’s subtle promotion of what they think of as their own agenda,” Peck wrote. “In short, the vocabulary and the arguments of the human rights movement almost all have significant precursors in Washington’s national security concerns.”

Human Rights Watch in fact has its origins in the avowedly anti-Soviet group Helsinki Watch, which was founded in the 1970s and was a key part of the “human rights” battle in the Cold War.

Nobel Peace laureates and former top U.N. officials have criticized Human Rights Watch for its apparent pro-U.S. bias. They have also noted the many links the organization has to the U.S. government.

Latin America is only one area where HRW's pro-U.S. double standards are clear. On December 13, the director of the group's China program, Sophie Richardson, will be testifying in a U.S. government hearing, led by neoconservative politicians, on the Chinese government's supposed "foreign influence operations."

Human rights discourse has for decades been exploited to portray political lobbying as ostensibly neutral “humanitarian” work. Mainstream human rights organizations do not consider labor rights, labor unions, and universal housing, employment and education to be inalienable “human rights.” Instead, these organizations frequently downplay or even ignore the rights violations committed by right-wing capitalist governments and fixate obsessively on the policies and imperfections of socialist states, which are dissected to an almost ludicrous degree.

Today, 26 years after the end of the Cold War, the agenda of organizations like Human Rights Watch are more obvious than ever. HRW’s double standards on Venezuela and Honduras not only call into question the group’s integrity as an impartial arbiter; they also cheapen the very cause of human rights.

 

Editor's note: This article was updated after Human Rights Watch released a news release on Honduras, which came after AlterNet emailed the organization with a request for comment on its silence.

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Ben Norton is a journalist and writer. He was a reporter for AlterNet's Grayzone Project. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton, and his personal website is BenNorton.com.