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Saturday, 1 September, 2001, 05:54 GMT 06:54 UK
US nominee for UN stirs controversy
Contra rebels
Critics say Negroponte ignored human rights violations
By BBC US State Department correspondent Jon Leyne

John Negroponte, who has been nominated by US President George W Bush to be his country's ambassador to the United Nations, is a controversial choice.

In the early 1980s, Honduras was the front line in the United States war against Central American communism.

And one man was at the heart of it: John Negroponte, the American ambassador in Honduras.

He was a gunslinger for a hyper-Reagan administration policy of utilizing by every means the advancement of the Contra cause in Nicaragua

Larry Birns
Council of Hemispheric Affairs

"The primary objective of our policy here is to assist the development of Honduras, encourage its progression towards truly democratic institutions and help to defend itself in a very difficult situation," Mr Negroponte said.

That's not quite the way some others saw it. Larry Birns of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs says Mr Negroponte was a man with a mission.

"Negroponte, although he had this patina of being a dignified career foreign service officer, he was a gunslinger for a hyper-Reagan administration policy of utilizing by every means - under the rubric of the end justifies the means - the advancement of the Contra cause in Nicaragua," Mr Birns said.

Disappeared

To that end, American soldiers were brought in to train the Honduran military.

But behind the scenes a more notorious unit was formed.

Battalion 3-16 was a death squad, responsible for the disappearance of around 200 people. Oscar Reyes nearly became one of the disappeared.

"Masked men went to my house one night to ask me to go to a house of torture. We were tortured for three or four days until they sent us to a jail," Mr Reyes said.
human rights protest
Hondurans protested the disappearances

Mr Reyes was a journalist and one of many opponents of the Honduran Government who was targeted.

"It was a systematic persecution of the people that have some kind of free mind, [who] were not supporting the military," he said.

"At this time, they 'disappeared' a lot of people. We still have in Honduras 184 people disappeared. We don't know where they are," he added.

Mr Reyes escaped. Many more did not. Relatives of the disappeared held regular protests, and there were hundreds of newspaper articles.

Conflicting reports

It is not a situation you would recognise from the annual state department reports on Honduras that John Negroponte helped to prepare.

One report during that period said of the country: "Legal guarantees exist against arbitrary arrest or imprisonment and against torture or degrading treatment. ... Sanctity of the home is guaranteed by the Constitution and generally observed. ... There are no political prisoners in Honduras."

The embassy denied that - if these things even happened - they were the work of the Honduran army

Juan Mendez, Americas Watch

But when human rights activists came to call, Mr Negroponte's embassy did not want to know. Juan Mendez of Americas Watch made several representations to the US Embassy:

"In all cases, the embassy, first under Negroponte but then under his successors, denied that - if these things even happened - they were the work of the Honduran army," Mr Mendez said.

He said that it is completely incredible that Mr Negroponte could not have known of the disappearances and the Honduran army┐s role in them.

"We established without any reasonable doubt that Battalion 3-16 existed, that it was the official creation of the Honduran Government, that it received training from abroad and several members were identified by name and rank," Mr Mendez said.

Confirmation likely

Nevertheless, said Larry Birns, Mr Negroponte is likely to win Senate confirmation as the next US ambassador to the United Nations.

"Here you are going to have a situation of a man who chronically covered for human rights violations taking place in Honduras, who is going to go to New York and speak at the UN condemning Cuba, North Korea and so forth for their human rights violations," Mr Birns said.

Mr Negroponte himself said he could not speak to us before his confirmation hearing.

But friends say that, despite the evidence to the contrary, he still maintains there was not systematic campaign by the Honduran Government to abuse human rights - and there was definitely no cover up.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Jon Leyne
John Negroponte is controversial for his past in Honduras, but it may not stop his confirmation
See also:

14 Sep 00 | Americas
Judge orders 'death squad' arrest
30 Jul 01 | Americas
Timeline: Honduras
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