López Lone et al versus Honduras: fighting for judicial independence in Honduras

Following the visit to the United Kingdom in December 2016 of Adan Guillermo López Lone, UCL Institute of the Americas student Alexandra Nawrat analyses the case of Guillermo Lopez Lone and the situation of the independence of the judiciary in Honduras.

Adan Guillermo Lopez LoneOn 5th October 2015, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) issued a judgement that the Honduran state had violated a variety of human rights in the disciplinary proceedings against and dismissal of three Honduran judges and one magistrate. It declared that the political actions that the four judicial officials had been dismissed because of were acceptable because they occurred in the context of a constitutional disruption, the 2009 coup d’état, making it acceptable for members of the judiciary to act in defense of democracy in such scenario. Additionally, the court concluded that the Honduran judicial system had not followed correct procedure or provided the necessary guarantees of impartiality and fairness for the disciplinary proceedings, and thus the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the four judicial officials seriously undermined judicial independence in Honduras.

The IACHR demanded that the Honduran government reinstate the three judicial officials who remain dismissed. So far, only one had his dismissal over-turned and was placed into a similar position prior to the dismissal, including remuneration and social benefits compensating the time out of office. Where reinstatement was not possible, the victims should be paid the amount established in the judgement as compensation for damages and reimbursement for all legal costs and expenses. The IACHR would only deem the case closed once the Honduran state had fully complied with the provisions of its judgement. 

At the time of writing, the Honduran state has still not complied with the IACHR’s judgement, as Guillermo López, one of the judges dismissed,  made clear when he visited the Institute of Americas at UCL in early December 2016. They sought to defer compliance in February 2016, but this was rejected by the Inter-American Court in September 2016. In October 2016, the Honduran Attorney General’s Office summoned the four victims to inform them formally that the Supreme Court would not consider reinstating them and would only comply with the material damages portion of the Inter-American Court’s judgement and that this would be submitted for review. IACHR is holding its 117th Regular Session from 6th-17th February and on 10th February 2017 there was a thematic hearing of the López Lone et al vs Honduras case. 

Lopez Lone (centre) with UCL students during his European advocacy tour in December 2016.

The June 2009 coup d’etat in Honduras brought the overthrow of President Zelaya by the military due to his attempts to extend his tenure in office through a referendum (New York Times, 2009, 2010). Congress then officially voted Zelaya out of office in an emergency session after being shown what they were informed was his resignation letter. They replaced him with Roberto Micheletti, the President of Congress. The Supreme Court then declared that the military had acted in defence of the law by acting against those trying to change the provisions of the Constitution. Micheletti was determined to hold elections in November 2009. These elections were won by Porfirio Lobo of the conservative National Party (New York Times, 2010). He immediately signed an amnesty decree approved by Congress, which would guarantee amnesty and impunity for political and common crimes committed between January 2008 and January 2010 (Human Rights Brief, 2010), and announced a Truth Commission to study the events that led to the 2009 coup (New York Times, 2010).

Since the coup d’état in 2009, the Honduran judiciary, which was never especially strong or independent, has become worryingly obedient to political will. The International Commission of Jurists visited Honduras on numerous occasions and found the state to implement measures which have reduced judicial independence since the coup. Human Rights Watch agreed and stated that the Supreme Court has taken many actions that move in the opposite direction to the re-establishment of  rule of law and remedying the damage done during the coup.

The case of López Lone et al vs Honduras is an example of the adherence of the judiciary to political will since these judges were dismissed for various political statements and actions in favour of democracy, thereby renouncing the coup. Human Rights Watch explicitly referred to their dismissal as a “blow to judicial independence” in Honduras. Another example is the partisan nature of appointments and promotions to the judiciary. Party affiliation has become crucial in appointment and promotion decisions, rather than merit or qualifications. This reduces the likelihood that the judiciary will act to check and balance executive power. As part of the appointment process, the judiciary administers a ‘truth test,’ which appears to be about discovering the political position of the applicant on the coup d’etat. 

Lopez Lone (second from right) at the Houses of Parliament during his European advocacy tour in December 2016.

The most obvious example of the dire state of judicial independence in Honduras is the decision of the Supreme Court in April 2015 to override the Presidential single term limit codified in the Honduran Constitution. It did so at the request of the conservative government following the government’s dismissal of the four Supreme Court justices and replacing them with alternative justices who were more likely to back the its position. This decision was made without any public deliberation and implemented without the Honduran electorate being offered the chance to vote on changing the constitution in a referendum. There is a terrible and cruel irony in the Supreme Court facilitating this unconstitutional action when Zelaya’s attempt through more acceptable means was the main impetus behind the 2009 coup, which the Supreme Court condoned at the time, and triggered this severe weakening of judicial independence in Honduras. 

Therefore, as López stated on his visit in December as a representative of the Association of Judges for Democracy to the Institute of Americas at UCL, judicial independence in Honduras remains very weak and unsatisfactory. There are innumerable examples of the Honduran judiciary acting entirely in line with the demands of governing politicians and thus failing to hold the executive to. It remains to be seen if the IACHR will be able to compel the Honduran state to comply with its judgement. Success in this case may be a step forward for judicial independence and fairness but Honduras has a long way to go before a full and effective separation of powers is achieved. 

By Alexandra Nawrat