About Kate Vandermade

Kate Vandermade is the Central America Co-Group Chair and RAN Coordinator in AIUSA's Country Specialist Program. She works with local and student groups to organize events about Central America and Mexico human rights abuses. Kate currently works at the Academy for Educational Development at the Center for Health Communication. Previously, she worked at the Ethiopian Community Development Council, a national refugee resettlement agency, and has interned at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, United Nations Association of the National Capital Area and the Department of Commerce. She received her B.A. in Government and International Politics from George Mason University and has studied human rights in Costa Rica and Guatemala.
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Breaking News: Deal Emerges in Honduran Coup Crisis

Ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya and de facto Honduran leader Roberto Micheletti reached an agreement on Thursday that involves sharing power for the remaining of Zelaya’s term. More from Democracy Now!:

…Roberto Micheletti, said the agreement would create a power-sharing government and require both sides to recognise the result of the November 29th presidential elections. It would also create a truth commission to investigate the events of the past few months.

Micheletti and Zelaya held talks separately on Thursday with Tom Shannon, the US assistant secretary of state, and Dan Restrepo, Washington’s special assistant for Western Hemisphere affairs. As the negotiations were underway Thursday, a rally by hundreds of pro-Zelaya protesters in Tegucigalpa was broken up by police who fired tear gas.

A few questions still remain about the agreement — Congress has to approve the agreement and some experts are worried about continued bitterness from Zelaya supporters who do not want a power sharing government.

I think the most important part of the deal is that it establishes a Truth Commission to look into abuses (on both sides) committed during the civil unrest during the days of the coup. Though details of the commission are not laid out yet, it is a very important first step to ending this crisis appropriately.

What do you think of the deal?

Getting (even more) Scary in Honduras

If you’ve been keeping up with the news in Honduras, you know about the crackdown on protesters, crackdown on media outlets, and slow diplomatic talks.

Supporters of ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya sit in front of Honduran army soldiers, 3 July 2009  © AP/PA Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

Supporters of ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya sit in front of Honduran army soldiers, 3 July 2009 © AP/PA Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

You also might know it’s a pretty emotional issue for Hondurans, many of whom stand completely with Zelaya or the de facto government. Just read the comments on my last blog and you’ll get the idea.

But did you know about an executive decree that bans all public meetings and gives incredible power to police? Yep, it’s true. According to a new AI story:

Honduran de facto president Roberto Micheletti must rescind a decree that provides sweeping new powers of detention to the police, bans all public meetings and imposes a 45 day curfew, Amnesty International said on Tuesday.

“Honduras risks spiralling into a state of lawlessness, where police and military act with no regard for human rights or the rule of law,” said Susan Lee, Americas Director at Amnesty International. Roberto Micheletti must urgently rescind the decree and send clear instructions to the security forces to respect human rights in all circumstances and at all times.”

Since AI ran this story, Micheletti has vowed to reverse the decree — but not surprisingly has been slow to follow through.

From the beginning of the crisis in Honduras, Amnesty International has tried to make sense of the issue through a human rights lens rather than taking political sides — calling out human rights violations and getting the word out about unlawful abuse and detentions. Even though Amnesty is producing thoughtful research and news stories about human rights abuses in Honduras, more has to be done.

With rumors of civil war among some social organization spreading and the diplomatic talks stalling, now is time for you to take action to help end this crisis and restore human rights to the Honduran people!

The Media Hype May Be Over, But There Is Still A Crisis In Honduras

Amnesty International issued a report today about the ongoing crisis in Honduras following the coup d’etat which took place June 28. Many press outlets have covered the report and accompanying press release which comes at a crucial time as the crisis in Honduras must be kept in the attention of the mainstream media and general public.

AI’s main concerns with the crisis as cited in the report are:

Two of the ten students who took part in the peaceful march on 30 July 2009. The imprint of the police batons is clearly visible on both students. Amnesty International

Two of the ten students who took part in the peaceful march on 30 July 2009. The imprint of the police batons is clearly visible on both students. Amnesty International

  • Excessive use of force
  • Gender-based violence
  • Use of military in civilian law enforcement
  • Freedom of expression
  • Curfew measures
  • Safety of human rights defenders

I’ll let the words of Hondurans speak for themselves to end this post, as their words are much more powerful than mine:

“We were demonstrating peacefully. Suddenly, the
police came towards us, and I started running. They
grabbed me and shouted “why do you (all) support
Zelaya’s government? Whether it’s by choice or by
force, you have to be with this government”. They
beat me. I have not yet been informed as to why I
am here detained.”

[“Fernando”, 52 year-old teacher, at a police station in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 30 July 2009]

Hope and Human Rights Abuses in Honduras

Mediation efforts in Costa Rica concerning the ongoing crisis in Honduras reached a turning point today as diplomats and the interim (and openly racist) Honduran government agreed that ousted President Zelaya could return to Honduras within the next 24 hours. This comes as a relief to many human rights activists and President Arias of Costa Rica who feared that the crisis could lead to civil war.

Supporters of ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya sit in front of Honduran army soldiers, 3 July 2009

Supporters of ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya sit in front of Honduran army soldiers, 3 July 2009 © AP/PA Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

But as mediation in Costa Rica appears to be helping the crisis, a new report by COFADEH (Comité de Familiares de Detenidos Desaparecidos en Honduras) details 1161 seperate human rights violations since the morning of the coup. Amnesty International has also issued several statements urging the interim Honduran government to respect the rule of law and human rights during this tumultuous time.

Will the police and interim government ever be held accountable for the violations that happened and are still happening in Honduras? It will certainly take a lot of outside pressure from NGOs and the international community, and let’s hope Honduras stays in the headlines long enough so that the pressure stays strong on human rights violators. But after reading an eyebrow raising story from Democracy Now! alleging that many top officials in the interim government were trained by the U.S. military, I hope General Romeo Vásquez Velásquez’s law avoiding skills aren’t as polished as Cheney’s!

Crisis in Honduras…Obama and Chavez agree?

Unrest in Honduras flared today as protesters spared with police over the recent exile of President Manuel Zelaya. Zelaya was ousted over the weekend by the Honduran military after disagreements among officials about a controversial constitutional referendum Zelaya had asked Hondurans to vote on last Sunday. The referendum would have changed the constitution to allow Zelaya an additional term as president — a move some have argued looks suspiciously close to the referendum Hugo Chavez proposed for Venezuela in 2007.

Amnesty International has issued a press release on the crisis arguing that President Zelaya must be allowed to return to Honduras immediately and safely. Amnesty also raised concerns about the safety of protesters and increased media censorship.

Interestingly, the Obama administration has tepidly stood on the side of leftist Zelaya — arguing that his exile was illegal and he should be reinstated to office immediately, a stance shared with Chavez. But as Paul Richter of the Los Angles Times points out, the U.S. has not gone so far as to remove its ambassadors from Honduras or declare the incident a coup d’etat.

However, I think Obama made a great statement today that shows some insight into U.S.-Latin American relations when he said, “The United States has not always stood as it should with some of these fledgling democracies, but over the last several years I think both Republicans and Democrats in the United States have recognized that we always want to stand with democracy, even if the results don’t always mean that the leaders of those countries are favorable towards the United States.”

As AI stated in their press release, I hope that this crisis will get resolved quickly and peacefully but am ready to roll up my sleeves and start writing letters if the situation gets worse.

Exposing the Truth is Dangerous

Since writing Los Demonios del Edén — a book that exposed child prostitution and trafficking in Cancun, Mexico — Lydia Cacho has been under constant harrasment and intimidation. In 2005, she was taken from the women’s shelter she runs and transported more than 900 miles across Mexico at gunpoint to a jail in Puebla, Mexico. After her release, audio tapes surfaced showing that then Puebla Gov. Mario Marín was involved in her mistreatment. Given Lydia’s accomplishments as human rights activist and determination under pressure, Amnesty International awarded her the Ginetta Sagan Human Rights Award in 2007.

This video explains more about Lydia Cacho’s intimidation in 2005:

In the past few weeks, witnesses have seen an armed man watching and photograhping Lydia in her car, home and office. As her harassment continues, Amnesty International also continues its work to fight for Lydia and has issued an Urgent Action on her behalf.

Mexico is one of the most dangerous places for journalists in the world. Between 2000 and 2009 50 registrered journalists have been killed and 2 more have been killed in May 2009 alone. Lydia explains the dangers of being a journalist in Mexico here:

What will need to happen for more protection for journalists in Mexico? I think that if more people took notice of Lydia Cacho and the violence and initmidation journalists face in Mexico and Central America, than the governments would be forced to enact more protective measures and enforce them.

Justice for Guatemala's Disappeared?

Yesterday, The Washington Post published an article highlighting the opening of Guatemala’s police archives. The archives — which contain documentation of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict that killed approximately 200,000 people — could provide long awaited justice to families who never got answers about disappearances and murders of their loved ones.

The article continues with a comment from Amnesty International: “I don’t think anyone truly believed this day would come,” said Barbara Bocek, the Guatemala country specialist for Amnesty International USA. “It’s an incredible achievement, especially for Guatemala. In other countries these records would be buried underground, shredded, destroyed.”

However, AI has expressed concern about intimidation of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, the agency credited with discovering the warehouse of documents: “The wife of the Director of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office was kidnapped on Wednesday and tortured. One official was beaten up, whilst a number of threats have been made against other officials of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office. These include a bomb threat and a threat against the life of the Director of the Office. ”

WIth such an incredible opportunity in Guatemala comes the familiar forces of intimidation and secrecy. Do you think the opening of Guatemala’s police archives will bring long awaited justice to the families of the disappeared?


Azerbaijan: Popular Website “Temporarily” Closed

First they came after dissenting newspapers such as Realni Azerbaijan. Then they came after foreign broadcasts such as BBC and Radio Free Europe. Now, just weeks before the March 18, 2009 constitutional referendum that would institute unlimited presidency, the government of Azerbaijan is allegedly censoring the content of a popular and semi-independent website, www.day.az. In the words of Global Voices Online:

“[…] the content of a leading news site considered more independent than most in Azerbaijan was replaced on Thursday with a message informing readers that the “project is closed.

A day later, after the authorities denied allegations that they were behind the disappearance of day.az, a new message instead explained that the site was down for technical reasons and would reappear after 25 February.

Blogs by media specialists and analysts in Azerbaijan, however, were not convinced.”

Given that the “temporary” closure of Day.az was done without a court order – unlike in the case of other media restrictions in Azerbaijan – it has been assumed that the website will reopen with censored content.

The mainly Russian-language Day.az has been a valuable source of information about Azerbaijan and the region. In addition to original reporting, the website has been republishing information from a variety of regional sources, even posting full PanArmenian.net articles from neighboring Armenia. Azerbaijan and Armenia are technically at war, although the 1994 ceasefire blocked full-scale clashes, over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

In addition to the news section, the website has been offering a popular forum. One of the most popular online portals in the entire former Soviet Union, the Russian-language forum at Day.az has had thousands of active users. One of the hottest sections of the forum has been “Armenia and Azerbaijan.”

In November 2004, as a Russian-language Armenian forum user reported at the time, the administration of the Day.az forum promoted its first Armenian moderator, Arthur, giving him the privilege to delete/edit offensive and/or unrelated content from discussions.

The appointment was indeed unprecedented, as the Russian-language announcement from the Day.az forum administrator explained:

“For the first time in the virtual world, a user of Armenian nationality – the respected Arthur – has become the Moderator of an Azerbaijani forum.

We should note that we came to [this decision] after a long year… of surveys, nominees, consultations with other Moderators… and taking into account the opinions of well-respected users. […] It shows also high level of the Armenian users, and atmosphere of tolerance which has developed at this forum.


P.S. And now you can throw stones at me.”

Another, more recent, controversial move at the forum has been the creation of a private section where users with over 500 posts could discuss and post adult content.

What will be different on Day.az if it reopens on February 25, 2009?

By: Simon Maghakyan, Eurasia Country Specialist

Azerbaijan: Unlimited Presidency?

The civil society in Azerbaijan and some expatriates in the United States are organizing against a March 18, 2009 constitutional referendum that “would clear the way for [Azerbaijan’s] President Ilham Aliyev to remain in office indefinitely.”

Photo: Three-year-old Azerbaijani-American Lale at a New York rally/ via Global Voices Online

An oil-rich country, ex-Soviet Azerbaijan’s undemocratic actions are rarely criticized by the West. How will U.S. President Barack Obama, who has visited Azerbaijanas a senator, react to the constitutional change

— Simon Maghakyan, Eurasia Country Specialist

Sri Lankan Civilians Trapped in War Zone Urgently Need Protection

You may not have heard about it, but there’s a humanitarian crisis in Sri Lanka right now – over 250,000 civilians are trapped in the war zone between the Sri Lankan Army and the rebel Tamil Tigers and can’t escape.  The army has been steadily encroaching on the Tigers’ territory over recent months.  The civilians caught in the area are running out of safe space.  They can’t simply leave the war zone due to restrictions imposed by the Tigers, who are also using them as an involuntary pool of recruits and laborers.  The civilians are also facing tremendous shortages of food and shelter, aggravated by the fact that many of them have already sold most of their possessions due to earlier displacements.  For its part, the Sri Lankan government has restricted the ability of outside agencies to provide assistance to the civilians.  While the government has made assurances that the humanitarian situation is under control, there’s evidence to suggest that the authorities lack the capacity to provide the needed aid to the people.  An aid mission visited the area at the end of 2008 and noted the increased vulnerability of the civilian population, including reduced available materials to address urgent needs for shelter and sanitation.

Last November, AI drew attention to acute food and shelter shortages affecting the civilians in the war zone and produced a video on the issue.

Please raise your voice for the suffering civilians trapped between the two sides.  Send an email to the Tamil Tigers.  Ask them to allow the civilians trapped in the war zone to leave safely without any restrictions; ask that the Tigers also stop forcing civilians to join their ranks or work as laborers for them.  Also, send an email to President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya.  Ask them to allow international monitors into the war zone to assess the humanitarian needs of the civilian population and to ensure proper distribution of food and other assistance to the people.

Jim McDonald
Sri Lanka Country Specialist