A Fair Plan For Honduras

As the Honduran daily newspaper El Heraldo proclaimed in a recent editorial, "the current situation is untenable." And it threatens to grow worse. Unrest and protest are mounting as Honduras's constitutional crisis continues. Matters will only deteriorate if the international community refuses to recognize the results of the coming Honduran elections, scheduled for Nov. 29. In the United States, the crisis risks reawakening the divisive domestic political debates between the left and right that were the rule before 1990.

It doesn't have to be this way. A lesson from the administration of President George H.W. Bush can help resolve the conflict, but only if all sides agree to a forward-looking approach and quit trying to apportion blame for the current impasse.

In 1990 free elections supported by the U.S. Congress and the Bush administration, and by both sides of our polity, helped end a destructive civil conflict in Nicaragua that had poisoned American domestic politics for years. Once the people of Nicaragua had the chance to express themselves through free and fair elections, the country's constitutional crisis ended and the issue disappeared from America's political debate.

Similarly, a free and fair election in Honduras would go a long way toward resolving the constitutional crisis there -- but only if Hondurans are not forced to repudiate their country's rule of law, which resulted in the removal of former president Manuel Zelaya from office on June 28. That strategy would also require that Zelaya have his full citizenship restored and that he be allowed to remain legally in his homeland free from persecution and prosecution.

The fault lies on both sides in Honduras. Many agree with a recent analysis by the international law directorate of the Library of Congress that indicates Zelaya was removed from office by Honduras's Supreme Court and Congress in accordance with Honduran law. In this view, Zelaya provoked the crisis by trying to replace the constitution in a manner that was unconstitutional. However, although he was no longer legally president, Zelaya appears to have been illegally deported from the country.

The solution? Stop looking backward. Forget about who might be most at fault. Look forward. Neither Zelaya nor interim President Roberto Micheletti is eligible to run in the presidential election. That election is right around the corner. All major presidential candidates support it. The parties to the conflict, and the international community, should support conducting the election without preconditions, and they should agree to respect the results, provided that the election is free and fair.

Non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign country is a cardinal principle of the U.N. Charter. In keeping with it, we should defer to the Hondurans' interpretation of their constitution. This calls for Micheletti to serve as interim president until the expiration of his term in January, or earlier if he stepped down as part of a compromise. Under either timeline, the constitution's order of succession should be followed. In the meantime, protecting constitutional rights -- particularly the country's freedoms of speech and the press -- will powerfully demonstrate the interim government's dedication to constitutionality and the rule of law.

Just as importantly, Zelaya should be allowed to return to full status as a Honduran, with legal rights to appeal any civil court decisions that he opposes. As part of a negotiated settlement, all sides should agree that there will be no criminal charges filed against Zelaya or against those who may have illegally deported him.

In the midst of a constitutional crisis and on the verge of civil strife, a free and fair election may be the only way to bring Honduras back from the brink. A refusal to recognize the results of the Honduran election would almost certainly prolong and deepen the constitutional crisis there, and it may plunge the country into more violence. It could also ramp up a divisive debate in the United States that has been largely dormant for almost two decades.

The time is right to resolve this festering problem. This will require leadership from the United States, which will have to be willing to modify its original position. The United States should embrace this realistic compromise and announce its support for the pending election in order to persuade the parties in Honduras and the countries of the Organization of American States to do the same. And as it advocates international recognition of the results of the election, the United States should, of course, do everything possible to help ensure that it is free and fair. If we could do it in 1990, we can do it now.

James A. Baker III, secretary of state from 1989 to 1992.