[News] Negroponte

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Tue Jun 29 12:05:30 EDT 2004




Jun. 27, 2004

Negroponte `looked the other way'
U.S. ambassador to Iraq under fire for rights record
Twenty years ago, he served as envoy to Honduras

DUNCAN CAMPBELL
SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Suspicious deaths in custody. Allegations of torture. Claims of a military 
out of control. These are some of the key issues that will face John 
Negroponte, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Suspicious deaths in custody. Allegations of torture. Claims of a military 
out of control. Those were some of the key issues that faced John 
Negroponte 20 years ago when he was U.S. ambassador to Honduras. So it is 
worth examining how he reacted then when faced with evidence of 
extra-judicial killings, torture and human rights abuses.

Central America in the early '80s was, for a few years, the centre of the 
world in much the way that the Middle East now is. There had been a 
revolution in Nicaragua in which a dictator had been removed by the 
Sandinistas, who had then embarked on a political path that was anathema to 
the U.S.

The country became a magnet for the international left, who saw hopeful 
signs in the revolution. El Salvador and Guatemala were in turmoil as 
left-wing guerrillas battled with the military in their efforts to overturn 
years of military oppression and corruption. In those days the enemy, as 
far as the U.S. was concerned, was international communism rather than Al 
Qaeda, but the rhetoric of "good'' versus "evil'' took a similar pattern to 
today's.

Into this world, in 1981, came diplomat John Negroponte as ambassador to 
Honduras. At the time, the U.S. was covertly backing the Contras, the 
counter-revolutionaries who opposed the Sandinistas. Honduras was a vital 
base for them. An air base was built at El Aguacate, where they could be 
trained and which was used, according to Honduran human rights activists, 
as a detention centre where torture took place. It was also used as a 
burial ground for 185 dissidents, whose remains were only discovered in 2001.

Negroponte's predecessor, Jack Binns, was appointed by Jimmy Carter. He had 
made public his concerns about human rights abuses by the Honduran 
military. Binns has since affirmed that when he handed over to Negroponte 
he gave him a full briefing on the abuses. Negroponte has always denied 
having knowledge of such violations.

A former Honduran congressman, Efrain Diaz, told the Baltimore Sun, which 
re-examined the behaviour of the U.S in 1995, of Negroponte and other U.S. 
officials: "Their attitude was one of tolerance and silence. They needed 
Honduras to loan its territory more than they were concerned about innocent 
people being killed.''

For their co-operation with the U.S. in its long-running battle to remove 
the Sandinistas - who, it should be remembered, won the election in 
Nicaragua in 1984 - the Honduran government was royally rewarded. Military 
aid increased from $4 million (U.S.) to $77 million a year. Had Negroponte 
reported to the U.S. Congress that the military were engaged in human 
rights abuses, such aid would have been threatened. No report of such 
abuses was allowed to interfere with the U.S. destabilization of Nicaragua.

Negroponte was one of a group of officials involved in Central America at 
that time who have since - to the astonishment of the international 
diplomatic community - been rehabilitated by President George W. Bush. His 
behaviour in Honduras would have come under scrutiny when he was appointed 
as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2001, but his appointment 
hearing came in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when there was little 
appetite for such an inquiry and when there was a desire to have such a key 
post filled speedily.

"Exquisitely dangerous,'' is how Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric 
Affairs described Negroponte this week in a conversation from Washington. 
He called Negroponte's role in Honduras "eerily familiar to the Bush 
adminustration's present goal in Iraq.'' Reed Brody of Human Rights Watch 
had this to say when Negroponte was appointed ambassador to the U.N.: "When 
Negroponte was ambassador [in Honduras] he looked the other way when 
serious atrocities were committed. One would have to wonder what kind of 
message the Bush administration is sending about human rights.''

The U.S. policy in Central America in the '80s was essentially that the 
ends justified the means, even if the ends involved misleading Congress, 
dealing with the supposedly hated Iran, the illegal mining of harbours and 
the promotion, funding and encouragement of rebel forces. Many of those 
involved in the atrocities in Central America were graduates of the School 
of the Americas (which has since changed its name to the anodyne Western 
Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation) where interrogation 
techniques of the kind that have come to light in Iraq were taught. When 
Negroponte was ambassador in Honduras his building in Tegucigalpa became 
one of the nerve centres of the CIA in Latin America with a tenfold 
increase in staff. In Baghdad, he will have a similar role.

Negroponte represented the U.S. during one of the most corrupt periods of 
its foreign policy, presided over by Ronald Reagan and George Bush senior. 
He had an opportunity to challenge what was happening, but chose not to.

His new appointment is one of a number that fly in the face of reason. Bush 
made Henry Kissinger head of the commission to investigate the events 
leading up to 9/11. At the time, many found it bizarre that a man of such 
limited international credibility and such impressively flexible standards 
of morality should have been entrusted with such a task. Kissinger accepted 
the post as an opportunity to serve his country - until it transpired that 
it would interfere with his lucrative consultancy business, at which point 
he bowed out.

Now a man who has been accused of not spotting human rights abuses taking 
place in front of his eyes in Honduras is being sent to Iraq at a time when 
allegations of human rights abuses are at the heart of the occupation. As a 
policy, the appointment of Negroponte at this point in the history of Iraq 
seems "exquisitely dangerous'' indeed.


THE GUARDIAN

Duncan Campbell is a senior Guardian correspondent who for many years 
covered Central America.


Copyright Toronto Star Newspapers Limited




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