Honduran President Cancels Attendance at Israel Independence Day Ceremony After Human Rights Controversy

Critics said Juan Orlando Hernandez's planned participation in Independence Day ceremony was merely an excuse for Netanyahu to attend

President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez waves after a meeting with President-elect Sebastian Pinera of Chile, Santiago, March 10, 2018.
Esteban Felix/AP

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has canceled his trip to Israel next week, following the controversy in Israel over his planned attendance at the annual Independence Day Eve torch-lighting ceremony in Jerusalem next Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry announced Monday. The Foreign Ministry expressed regret over his decision but affirmed the strong friendship between the two countries.

Objections to Hernandez’s participation had been raised on grounds that he was guilty of human rights violations in his country.

The friction began last week when Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, who chairs the Committee on State Symbols and Ceremonies, announced that Hernandez would attend the ceremony and accompany the woman who would light a torch on behalf of the Foreign Ministry’s Agency for International Development Cooperation (Mashav), since he is a graduate of one of Mashav’s courses. It would have been the first time a foreign leader lit a torch at the ceremony.

A police officer fires tear gas during clashes with demonstrators as Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is sworn in for a new term in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, January 27, 2018.
\ Edgard Garrido/ REUTERS

The invitation to Hernandez was publicized in the context of the dustup regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to speak at the ceremony. Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein objected to a speech by Netanyahu, saying it would politicize the event and undermine the honor of the Knesset, but diplomatic protocol would have required Netanyahu’s attendance if Hernandez, a foreign head of state, was there. Still, it wouldn’t have required that Netanyahu speak at the ceremony. 

On Sunday, a compromise was reached under which Netanyahu will light a torch and give a short speech at the ceremony, ending the long-running spat with Edelstein. The torch Netanyahu lights will be in addition to the 12 to be lit by previously announced participants. He also agreed to give a shorter speech than he had originally planned. This enabled both sides to claim victory: Netanyahu will speak during the prime-time event, but Edelstein, who hadn’t wanted him to speak at all, will still give the keynote address.

Hernandez’s election to a second term in December led to stormy demonstrations in Honduras, after international observers reported on corruption in the balloting, which Hernandez won by a very narrow margin. According to data from human rights groups quoted by The New York Times, at least 22 people were killed by the security forces that put down the demonstrations.

Meretz chairwoman MK Tamar Zandberg last week asked Regev to cancel Hernandez’s attendance, calling his invitation a "scandalous decision that gives legitimacy to a president who is responsible for serious human rights violations in his country, simply to provide an excuse for Netanyahu’s attendance.” According to Zandberg, “The words, ‘For the glory of the State of Israel’ [uttered when each torch is lit] will pale in the face of this unwanted guest and the circumstances surrounding his invitation.”

Attorney Itay Mack had contacted the Jerusalem District Police requesting a permit to demonstrate at the ceremony against Hernandez’s attendance. Then, when it was reported earlier Monday that Hernandez was rethinking his attendance, a group led by Mack sent a letter to the Honduran leader in Spanish and Hebrew asking him not to come.

“We are a group of Israeli citizens who are contacting you out of solidarity with victims of your regime and especially with the family of Berta Caceres, who was murdered, with a demand that you cancel your participation in the torch-lighting ceremony next week in Jerusalem,” the letter read.

“We object to the serious violations of human rights and political persecution you are perpetrating with the help of the Israeli government against opposition activists, environmentalists, journalists, labor leaders and indigenous communities.

“The defense aid agreement that the Netanyahu government has signed with your regime for the purpose of internal repression in Honduras does not reflect Israeli public opinion and in fact, the Netanyahu government also seems embarrassed by it, which is why it is hiding its details from the Israeli public. As we understand it, the defense agreement was signed by the Netanyahu government simply as a way to cheaply buy Honduras’ vote in international forums.

“If you choose to come to Israel we plan to conduct a broad public protest against the visit,” the letter concluded.