What a day! The Rafto-price to Honduras' Padre Melo and a giant step towards peace in Colombia
There are days when you are allowed to be a bit euphoric working on Latin America issues from Norway, and one such day is today.
Juan Manuel Santos, Raul Castro and "Timochenco" shakes hands on Cuba. Padre Melo (right) receives the Rafto Price.
First, the news of the meeting between president Juan Manuel Santos and the leader of FARC-EP Rodrigo Londoño Echeverri, alias "Timochenko", was announced. An agreement on "transitional justice" had been reached and a final peace accord will be signed within 6 months. Then, the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights in Bergen announced that this year's winner of the Rafto price is the Honduran jesuit priest, journalist and human rights defender, Ismael Moreno, or Padre Melo has he is commonly known. Neither of these events mean that peace has been achieved - not in Colombia nor in Honduras - but both are important steps.
A way of no return for peace in Colombia
The Colombia-agreement is a decisive step towards peace and means that there is no way of return. The issue of transitional justice has been one of the most complicated ones. Even before Santos arrived in Cuba he warned that an agreement that everybody would be happy with, was an impossibility. There are inherent contradictions between peace and justice after 50 years of war, and not everybody would be happy. The agreement reached nevertheless seems like a creative solution, with a special tribunal to judge war-crimes, allowing the waring parties to be submitted to judicial processes, but outside the regular criminal system.
A possible way out of the eternal crisis for Honduras
The Rafto-price to Padre Melo may bring attention to one of the world's most forgotten situations of violence and human rights crises. Honduras is at present a more violent place than Colombia, and one that produces unprecedented flows of migrants to the North. After the 2009 coup in Honduras, the deep political crisis in Honduras has not ended, just passed through different phases. Currently, Honduras is one of the worlds’ most violent places, and one of the world’s most dangerous places to be a journalist, an environmental activist, or – even sadder - a child
The violence is partly associated with the fact that Honduras has achieved increased importance as a transshipment point of drugs from South America to the United States, as well as a producer of both cocaine and synthetic drugs, and the resulting strong presence of both Mexican and local drug cartels. However, at the root of the issue is a combination of extremely weak state institutions, authoritarian state traditions, extreme levels of inequality and social exclusion, and the domination by external forces, mainly the United States.
This has resulted also in an extreme human rights situation. Recent reviews by international organizations (see Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Amnesty International, OAS) highlight: (1) the lack of freedom of speech and press (according to the National Human Rights Commission, 46 journalists have been killed since the coup in 2009); (2) impunity (for between 95 and 98 percent of all murders; (3) police abuse and corruption (only 18 percent of the population trusts the national police, that according to admittedly not complete numbers killed 149 people between 2011 and 2012); (4) violence against women, children & youth and LGTBI persons (Only during the first 14 months of the current government 1,234 children & youth were killed); (5) violence against human rights defenders (In the area of Bajo Aguan a conflict over land between small-scale farmers and a large landowner has resulted in 140 deaths over the last years; and (6) Militarization of public security.
The violence and human rights abuses are causing a large number of Hondurans to try to flee the country. The summer of 2014 the steep increase in the flow of Honduran children caused a major crisis in the US. The outward flow of Hondurans did not stop in 2015, but most of Hondurans are deported from Mexico and do not even make it to the United States. So far in 2015, 51.700 Hondurans have been deported from either Mexico or the United States.
Journalism and human rights work under threats
In this situation, Padre Melo has been a constant critique of governmental abuses and errors, of the militarization of Honduran society, of corruption and brutality. He was born in the city of Progreso, Yoro, Honduras in 1958. He started his work in the catholic Compañia de Jesús in 1978, and was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1989. Before he returned to his native Progreso he held several posts in Central America and Honduras including in the Parish of Tocoa in Honduras , and Ixcán in Guatemala. In 1997, as the final civil war in Central America had come to an end (with the peace accords in Guatemala in 1996), he participated in the founding of one of the region’s very few critical, independent voices, Revista Envío. Since that he has been a correspondent and written solid and thorough analyses on Honduras’ political and social situation. In 2000 he was the Director of the Office of Apostolic Planning for Central America, and in 2001 he functioned as the Apostolic Secretary of the Central American province. From 2001 to 2009 he worked as the superior of Zone 1 of the Compañia de Jesus in Honduras. In 2001 he became the Director of E.R.I.C. (Equipo de Reflexion, Investigacion y Comunicacion - Team for Reflection, Research and Communication), as a center for social analysis and action, particularly focusing on the rural problem in Honduras.
In 2006, Padre Melo became the director of Radio Progreso, a community radio and is well known for its independent, progressive and stand for social justice in Honduras. Radio Progreso had from long before the coup been highly critical of the quality of Honduran democracy, the monopoly of the traditional two-parties in the country, and the corruption and impunity rampant in all governments, including the Zelaya-government that was ousted on June 28 2009. However, it was at an early stage aware that the events that unfolded on that day amounted to a military coup, and took a critical stance. In the midst of the coup the radio station was occupied by the military and shut down temporarily.
However, Radio Progreso got back onto the air and continued to transmit reports by witnesses, many of which reported severe human rights abuses, as well as analysis of the ongoing situation. This was when I was aware of it, listening daily to its internet-transmissions to try to follow how the coup unfolded, from far-away Oslo. Radio Progreso has since become a major source of information and analysis for the country and a supporter of grassroots movements involved in the resistance front that formed after the coup.
As a result, Padre Melo and his team have received repeated threats. An Amnesty call for urgent action from October 2009, reports that: On 23 September a correspondent and three other staff of Radio Progreso, based in the north-west of the country, received a threatening text message on their mobile phones. It read, "The sons of Micheletti [then President of the country] in El Progreso offer half a million [Lempiras – equivalent to US$26,500] for the head of Padre Melo, Rene J." (Los hijos de Micheletti en El Progreso ofrecen medio millón [de Lempiras] por la cabeza del Padre Melo, René J.) The next day, Radio Progreso staff saw six men loitering around the building. When staff went out to confront them, the men fled in a minibus. As he left the Radio Progreso office on the morning of 25 September, Padre Melo noticed a red car parked nearby, with the engine running. He waited 10 minutes before getting into his own car. The red car followed him at a distance of around 50 metres for around seven blocks before Padre Melo turned off. Graffiti has also appeared in the town over the past several weeks, with slogans such as "Get out priest" (Cura fuera).” This case was most likely related to Father Melo’s account of a recent car-accident in the city of Progreso where interim president Micheletti’s son had killed 1 person and injured 3 while drunkdriving, with no legal repercussions whatsoever.
Threats have continued for various reasons. In 2010, the Jesuit Compañia de Jesús publicly warned that Padre Melo was under severe threats after having protected a 14 year old girl who had been raped by police, after having participated in a peaceful protest march.
Also at a later occasion has Radio Progreso been occupied, then by the police. Nery Jeremias Orellana, a correspondent for the station, was shot dead in 2011. In April 2014, the head of marketing of Radio Progreso Carlos Mejía was stabbed to death in his home. On 27 May 2011 the IACHR ordered the Honduran State to take all necessary measures to protect Carlos Mejía’s life and physical integrity. However, the authorities have failed to investigate any of the multiple threats received by the Radio Progreso media workers to date or to provide them with effective protection measures. This and other incidents have led the Reporters without borders to identify Radio Progreso in a review of global media under heavy threats. At present Radio Progreso/ERIC have intended to start working in the capital Tegucigalpa, but have been warned that if doing so, there will be severe repercussions.
Bringing hope, attention and space to work towards solutions
The Rafto price will be one way to bring to the fore the impressive work that Padre Melo and his team is doing, but also to draw attention to the situation in Honduras in general. It comes at a particularly important time. Since May, Honduras, as neighboring Guatemala has experienced a number of massive demonstrations in response to the government of Juan Orlando Hernández’ involvement in a massive corruption scandal that has drained the social security system for millions of dollars. After the so called torch-marches, demanding that JOH resigns, and that one establishes a similar Commission against impunity in Honduras as CICG in Guatemala, the government finally agreed to dialogue. However, as Padre Melo himselv has argued, there is little indication that the government is willing to dialogue on what really matters: its own linkages to organized crime and the extreme neo-liberal model implemented in Honduras. Therefore tension is likely to grow. A modest decline in murder-rates, and the capture of a number of drug lords (including the infamous kingpin “Chepe” Handal), as well as the arrest and extradition of the son of former president Pepe Lobo for drugtrafficking, has not changed the general picture of an extremely difficult human rights and security situation as well as a state apparatus that according to the savvy Honduran analyst Victor Meza, has been kidnapped by segmented elite groups.
A price such as that of Rafto, will not change things immediately. But it might provide Padre Melo with important protection. Moreover, it might give him some more space to do what he likes to do: to involve ever new groups of young people in the work of transmitting information from communities to communities, raise the awareness of human rights and give the Honduran people back a sense of dignity. This is crucially important if also Honduras is to see a way out of its violent conflict.
For my part, I allow myself to be a bit proud of the Norwegian government that has accompanied the peace process in Colombia, of the skillfull diplomats that have helped the process through difficult times, and all the civil society organizations that have supported the process for years. I also allow myself to be happy that I spent some dark January evenings writing up the nomination for Padre Melo.