Honduras: Selecting the Supreme Court based on merit
(Washington, DC) – Honduras should select members of the new Supreme Court based on their qualifications, experience, and integrity, Human Rights Watch said today. Selections should be based on clear criteria, and the process should be transparent and allow civil society participation.
The selection process has just begun and is expected to be completed in January 2023. The final decision on the new judges will be made by Congress, whose president, Luis Redondo, is an ally of President Xiomara Castro.
“As the rule of law is crumbling across Central America, Honduras can stand out by strengthening judicial independence through the selection of new Supreme Court justices based on merit,” said César Muñoz, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch. “President Castro should reject the temptation to choose a Supreme Court consistent with his own interests and those of political parties, including his own.”
The flawed selection of judicial authorities is a major reason for some of the ills that Honduras shares with its Central American neighbors, such as weak institutions, endemic corruption, and a judicial system that has been used to protect powerful and persecute human rights defenders and journalists. .
In Guatemala, the government of Alejandro Giammattei worked with the attorney general’s office to block investigations into corruption and human rights abuses, and used the justice system against judges, prosecutors and independent journalists. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele undermined democratic institutions, leaving virtually no checks on his power. And in Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega took control of all branches of government and systematically persecuted critics, opponents, journalists and human rights defenders.
President Castro’s election victory in November 2021 on a pro-human rights platform created huge expectations for change, but he was slow to deliver on his promises, Human Rights Watch said. The selection of the new Supreme Court presents President Castro and her allies in Congress with a crucial opportunity to strengthen the protection of human rights and the rule of law.
Abortion, same-sex marriage and other human rights cases are currently pending in court. In addition, the Supreme Court plays a very important role in the fight against corruption, as it has jurisdiction over cases involving members of Congress and other high officials.
In July 2022, the Castro administration engaged to a selection process that guarantees judicial independence, in response to a letter from Human Rights Watch.
A political leader, several judges, and civil society representatives told Human Rights Watch that political parties have traditionally abused the power to appoint Supreme Court judges by dividing up vacancies among themselves, based on the proportion seats they held in Congress. Several sources said that when a case involving a political party comes to the Supreme Court, including corruption cases, the case is usually assigned to a judge who is believed to be sympathetic to that party.
This practice has turned the Supreme Court into a tool of political interest, with dire consequences for the country, instead of an independent institution that applies the law equally to everyone, Human Rights Watch said.
For example, in 2009 the Supreme Court issued strong public statements supporting the military coup against ousted President Manuel Zelaya. He also sacked four lower-level judges who opposed the coup. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered later Honduras to reinstate three.
In 2015, the Supreme Court revoked the constitutional limit on re-election, arguing that it violated the human rights of public officials who wanted to seek another term. The decision allowed then-president Juan Orlando Hernández to stand for re-election, which he won. In 2021, in an advisory opinion Requested by Colombia, the Inter-American Court declared that the ban on indefinite presidential re-election does not violate human rights but rather ensures plurality and prevents the perpetuation of power in the hands of a single person. Hernández is currently being held in the United States for drug and firearms trafficking.
Honduras renews the 15 members of the Supreme Court every seven years in a two-tier process. First, a nominating committee made up of representatives from seven entities, the ombudsman, the outgoing Supreme Court, the bar association, the private business association, law professors, civil society and trade unions, selects at least 45 candidates for the 15 positions. . The nominating committee started working on September 19.
In July, Congress passed a law regulate the operation of the nomination committee, which establishes the evaluation standards for the selection of candidates; makes the sessions and interviews public; and allows for the participation of civil society, media and UN agencies as observers. He also demanded that at least 7 of the 15 new members be women. There are currently 5 female judges.
While the law establishes the main principles of the selection process, the nomination committee will have to adopt concrete rules concerning its functioning and its evaluation criteria. The content and application of these rules will be crucial to ensure equal treatment of all applicants.
The second level of the process is the appointment of judges by Congress, by a vote requiring a two-thirds majority. The Honduran constitution requires Congress to choose the Supreme Court and the attorney general from the list proposed by the nominating committees. However, the previous legislature selected the current attorney general, whose term will end in September 2023, off the list.
The president of Congress and the opposition should publicly commit to choosing judges from the slate, as required by the Constitution and the July law. They should choose them on their merits, not their political affinities, through a transparent process, Human Rights Watch said.
While the selection of independent and competent judges is crucial for the future of Honduras, it will not be enough to guarantee judicial independence. Further reforms are needed to ensure fair distribution of cases and more transparent and efficient management of the justice system. Currently, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court has ultimate authority over the selection, promotion, transfer, and discipline of lower court judges. President Castro should introduce a bill creating a separate body to administer the justice system, Human Rights Watch said.
“Impunity, corruption and human rights violations are the main factors pushing Hondurans to leave their country,” Muñoz said. “The selection of a new Supreme Court that rules on the basis of law, rather than political interests, would be an important step in strengthening the rule of law and addressing the reasons why many people are forced to migrate, and would serve as a positive example for the whole region.