(Washington, D.C.) —Honduran authorities should take immediate action to ensure the credibility of the country’s general elections on November 26, 2017, and should respect the right to peaceful protest, Human Rights Watch said today.
International observers reported irregularities in the election process, casting serious doubt on the legitimacy of the elections. After allegations that results had been manipulated, protests erupted and authorities decreed a state of emergency. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras reported that they received information that as many as 11 people died during the protests.
“Respect for human rights is central to democracy,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “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."
The participation of sitting President Juan Orlando Hernández in the elections was controversial, since the Honduran Constitution forbids a second term. However, congressmen from Hernández’ National Party challenged this prohibition before the Supreme Court, claiming, among other issues, that the term limit violated international human rights standards.
They relied on a provision in the American Convention on Human Rights that says that political rights can “only” be limited under very specific circumstances. It was a far-fetched interpretation, since the clause was designed in 1969 to prevent abusive governments from arbitrarily barring opposition candidates, not to impede constitutional term limits designed to prevent the rise of autocrats, Human Rights Watch said. However, the Supreme Court agreed with them, and Hernández was allowed to run for a second term.
The day after the election, Honduras’ Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced that with more than half of the votes counted, the opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, had a five-point lead over Hernández. But final results were delayed and two days later, after a several-hour outage of the tribunal’s computer system, the trend reversed. On December 4, more than a week after the elections, the tribunal announced that Hernández had received 1.6 percent more votes than Nasralla.
Also on December 4, international observers from the Organization of American States said that they had found such serious “irregularities, mistakes and systemic problems” in the election process that they could not certify its fairness.
Because of the suspicions of irregularities, Nasralla demanded a recount – supported by the OAS and the European Union observation missions. On December 5, Hernández said at a news conference that he would accept a recount and the following day, signed an agreement with the OAS to that end. Nasralla has not agreed. On December 7, he indicated that his party demands a complete recount, conducted by international officials instead of the tribunal. On December 10, the tribunal finalized a partial recount. The issue remains unresolved.
Protests, some accompanied by reports of looting, erupted throughout the country on November 29, following reports of irregularities in tallying votes. On December 1, authorities established a 10-day state of emergency, ordering a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and authorizing the involvement of the armed forces. The OAS General Secretariat called this suspension of constitutional rights “disproportionate.”
On December 4, one special police unit stated that it had refused to break up public demonstrations and announced a strike. On December 6, the curfew was lifted in 8 of Honduras’ 18 regions. In the next days, the curfew was lifted in six other regions. In the areas where it was still in force, it would apply from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m.
The authorities can and should act to prevent violence and looting, but they need to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly without unnecessary or disproportionate force, Human Rights Watch said.
“There are strong indications of election fraud in Honduras, and the claims need to be investigated and the voter’s will respected,” Vivanco said. “At the same time, Honduran authorities need to maintain the right to freedom of assembly and refrain from using unnecessary or disproportionate force.”