Senate panel confirms U.N. ambassador

Negroponte is approved despite questions about Honduran rights abuses

September 14, 2001|By Jay Hancock | Jay Hancock,SUN STAFF

Expressing concern about John D. Negroponte's record as ambassador to Honduras but anxious to fill a critical diplomatic vacancy at a time of extraordinary international tension, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed him yesterday as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Maryland Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes and other Democrats grilled Negroponte, 62, about rights abuses committed by a CIA-backed Honduran military unit in the early 1980s and about Negroponte's reports of those abuses to Congress while ambassador.

But with the United Nations scheduled to convene this month and Washington trying to build a global coalition against terrorism, such concerns seemed to fade in importance. If Negroponte were rejected, it could take President Bush weeks to get another candidate nominated and confirmed.

"This isn't a time for us to slow things down ... or hold things up," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat. "The world has changed for everyone. But as we look at the carnage -- this is a war we're in right now -- I still think we cannot, for the sake of history, pass over that era of the '80s."

The committee approved Negroponte 14-3, with Democrats Boxer, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin voting against.

Negroponte, who has also served as ambassador to Mexico and the Philippines, now must be approved by the full Senate. A vote is expected this week.

Negroponte, whose nomination had been on hold since May 14 as Democrats sought documents related to his tenure in Honduras, denied that he suppressed information on murders, kidnapping and torture in that country, and said he was convinced that the abuses had not been part of the Honduran government's policy.

And although he said he spoke out about deficiencies in Tegucigalpa's legal system and worked behind the scenes to limit atrocities, Negroponte said he might have made a more vigorous public effort against Honduran abuses.

"I did a lot in the area of quiet diplomacy," he said. "Could I have been more vocal? In retrospect, perhaps. ... That's the way it was handled at the time."

"I just can't understand why you were not more outspoken, why you were not more public, and, even today, why you seem unwilling to acknowledge the fact that, indeed, the state was involved, the government was involved," Wellstone said. "It was widespread. People were murdered."

In 1995, The Sun published a series documenting human rights abuses by a CIA-trained Honduran army unit known as Battalion 316. The articles, which prompted a CIA investigation and which were referred to repeatedly during yesterday's hearing, also documented the U.S. Embassy's role in suppressing information about the abuses in reports to Washington.

"Since Ambassador Negroponte was last confirmed by the Senate in 1993, substantial information about U.S. policy in Honduras in the 1980s has been put into the public record," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the committee chairman.

Negroponte was ambassador in Tegucigalpa from 1981 to 1985, when President Ronald Reagan was using Honduras as a staging ground to arm the Contras in the war against Nicaragua.

At the time, U.S. officials worried that reports of murder and torture by the Honduran military would undermine congressional support for the huge U.S. aid package to Tegucigalpa.

"There was no effort on the part of myself or others serving in the U.S. government to stifle reporting about human rights in Honduras, to cover up any credible evidence of abuses which came to our attention or to misrepresent the general picture with respect to the human rights situation in that country," Negroponte said yesterday.

He urged committee members to view his Honduras tenure as part of a gradual evolution toward democracy in Latin America.

"It would be a distortion of reality to judge either the events in Honduras or the performance of the U.S. mission there through the exclusive prism of human rights considerations," he said.

Negroponte said he had never heard of Battalion 316 until 1988, three years after his ambassadorship, when a journalist asked him about the unit. Some of the abuses during the early 1980s might have been committed by police units commanded by Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, who later oversaw Battalion 316, Negroponte said.

While Negroponte said he did not believe the Honduran government sanctioned the torture, kidnapping and murder of political opponents, evidence at the hearing suggested otherwise.

Without revealing classified details, stipulations forwarded by the CIA to the committee asserted that "the Honduran military committed most of the hundreds of human rights abuses reported in Honduras" and that "these abuses were politically motivated and officially sanctioned," Wellstone said.

Negroponte disputed the accuracy of the CIA assertion. "There's a lot of reporting or a lot of documents in there that, in my view, don't necessarily reflect the situation correctly," he told the panel.

It was clear from early in the hearing that even skeptical Democrats were prepared to quickly confirm Negroponte, who has been an executive for the McGraw-Hill publishing firm for several years.

"I would make no effort to block this in committee or on the floor," said Wellstone. "These are extraordinary circumstances. But I want to express my reservations."

The White House and Senate Republicans have been urging the acceleration of Negroponte's nomination process for weeks.

"It goes without saying that the disasters in New York and at the Pentagon emphasize the urgency for scheduling this hearing," said North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.

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