Handling Dissent in the OAS: Can Hillary Clinton Negotiate Honduras' Return?

This week, from June 6 to 8, the Organization of American States (OAS) will hold its General Assembly with all the region's foreign ministers and secretaries gathering in Lima to discuss affairs in the hemisphere... well, almost. Last year the theme of the General Assembly, held in Honduras, was supposed to be security, but the event was derailed by a movement to revoke Cuba's suspension from the OAS. This year, it's likely to be the return of the government of President Porfirio Lobo Sosa of Honduras to the OAS that will consume the attention of the gathered diplomats.

Different country, same divisions, on different sides. As with the outcome at the last OAS General Assembly, some artful diplomacy could produce a positive step that will finally--for the good of regional diplomacy and Honduras--help to move this process along.

A brief re-cap: on June 28, 2009, then President Manual Zelaya was removed at gunpoint by the army, placed on a plane and flown to Costa Rica after the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court decided that he had violated the constitution in organizing a referendum that could have--eventually--allowed him to run for re-election. The OAS, following procedures outlined in the organization's Resolution 1080 and the Democratic Charter and followed in almost a half dozen other cases, quickly convened a Permanent Council meeting that condemned the events as an interruption of the constitutional order. The U.S. government cast its vote with the other members of the OAS and after some waffling called the events a coup. (Which it should have done. Whether or not the Honduran Congress or Supreme Court had the authority to exercise those powers is questionable; what isn't is that President Zelaya never had the opportunity to defend himself--due process--and was forcibly exiled--a punishment that went far beyond removal of a president for unconstitutional actions.)

But things got sticky after that. The de facto President Roberto Micheletti refused to step down, despite a series of efforts to negotiate a compromise that would have restored Zelaya in some constrained fashion until the already-scheduled November 29, 2009, elections. Instead, Micheletti held on, and facing no other option the U.S. decided that the scheduled elections (between candidates who had been chosen before the June putsch) provided the only means to move the country and a floundering regional policy on. The November elections chose the conservative candidate Porfirio Lobo. Problem was: for many countries (including not just former President Zelaya's allies in the Boliviarian ALBA alliance--that includes Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Nicaragua--but Brazil and Argentina as well) the elections had been held under the authority of a de facto government rendering the election results illegitimate. And despite the best efforts of the U.S. government to get the region to accept the Lobo government and restore the Honduran government to the OAS, Brazil, Argentina, the ALBA countries and even U.S. ally Mexico have refused.

This will all likely come to a head this week at the OAS. Ironically, last year's resolution to Cuba's accession provides a pathway. In that case, the U.S. successfully negotiated a compromise that changed the status of the Cuban government's suspension from the OAS by requiring the Cuban government to agree to the covenants and commitments of the OAS before the regional body would consider re-integration. Those commitments included the democratic and human rights clauses that the current Cuban government has no interest in honoring.

Now it's Honduras, which--unlike Cuba--really does want to be accepted back into the fold of the OAS and the regional community. The OAS can lay out a similar series of tests for the Lobo government that could establish a path for reintegration. In this case, the Lobo government will want to follow them.

But they won't be easy. Since the coup, Honduras remains a divided country. Former President Zelaya remains in the Dominican Republic and faces charges in Honduras should he return. A recent Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) report cited a pattern of violence and detention of government opponents and journalists. And a number of the actors in the June 2009 coup remain in powerful positions, including General Romeo Vasquez Velasquez who found his way into the head of Honduras' state-owned telecommunications company, Hondutel--a lucrative and powerful post.

At the same time, President Lobo has made a number of earnest efforts to address some of the U.S. and international concerns and conditions. Among them have been the appointment of a bipartisan cabinet and the formation of an international truth commission headed by the former vice president of Guatemala, Eduardo Stein, who was--not coincidentally--the independent and stalwart OAS representative in Peru after then-President Fujimori ran for an unconstitutional third term in a criticized election.

A negotiated compromise this week could point a way forward to allow Brazil, Argentina and Mexico to climb down from their public positions and eventually vote for the reintegration of Honduras. Here's how: the General Assembly could vote that the Permanent Council can determine by consensus to consider Honduras' status after a specific set of steps. Among those should be: the completion of the Truth Commission's investigation, the satisfactory implementation of its recommendations for promoting consensus, the potential return of former President Zelaya, and the investigation and prosecution of the recent cases of human rights abuses documented by the IACHR. If necessary, these can be confirmed by a fact finding mission by the OAS that could travel to Honduras within a set time and report out to the OAS Permanent Council.

The trick is to allow for a consensus decision for the OAS that will allow it to resolve this and move on. Unanimity won't work. The ALBA countries have no interest in seeing this resolved. But moderate countries should, and objective and skillful diplomacy can get them there; it's up to the U.S., its Brazilian colleagues and the much-criticized leadership of the OAS.

Now there's also the matter of why two whole meetings of the region's foreign ministers and secretaries should be taken up by Cuba and Honduras. But that's another issue.