The US's new ambassador to Iraq will become one of the most powerful men in the country when he takes up his post on 30 June.

 

The soft-spoken diplomat will head the largest US embassy in the world, in charge of around 3000 staff.

 

But he continues to be dogged by questions over his suitability for the position given his controversial role in enforcing US foreign policy.

 

Human rights groups accuse him of sponsoring terrorism by funding the brutal Contra insurgency against the democratically elected government of Nicaragua.

 

They also accuse him of covering up human rights abuses in Honduras during his tenure as US ambassador there.

 

More recently, he has been criticised for spearheading the US diplomatic effort in the lead-up to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003.

 

And despite Negroponte's denials and justifications, as well as the backing of the Bush administration, the questions refuse to go away.

 

High-flyer

 

Born in London in 1939, Negroponte is the son of a Greek-American shipping magnate.

 

After graduating from Yale University he entered the Foreign Service in 1960 as a diplomat.

 

His foreign service duty spans nearly four decades and includes eight postings on several continents.

 

He first rose to prominence as an official during the disastrous US intervention in Vietnam.

 

Since the 1980s he has been ambassador to Honduras, Mexico, and the Philippines, and was appointed the US's ambassador to the UN in 2001.

 

Negroponte's appointment as UN
ambassador was controversial

He speaks four foreign languages - Vietnamese, Greek, French, and Spanish.

 

To his admirers, he is a distinguished foreign service officer who has served his country well in a number of important posts.

 

He has won praise from those with whom he has worked closely, not least the United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan who recently said: "He's an outstanding professional, a great diplomat and a wonderful ambassador."

 

But to his detractors, Negroponte is a self-serving opportunist who pursues with vigour the policies of whatever administration he is working for.

 

Honduras kingmaker

 

The most controversial period of Negroponte's career was his stint as US ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985. The position was akin to a kingmaker in a country heavily dependent on US military and economic aid.

 

During this time, US military aid to Honduras rocketed from $3.9 to $77.4 million despite the fact that human rights violations became systematic.

 

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), which monitors US-Latin America relations, called this "an era when human rights and democratic processes were routinely downgraded in the name of halting purported efforts by Moscow to expand Communism throughout the hemisphere".

 

"I think the commitment to the democratic process was very, very much part of our strategy and policy. And frankly, I think that some of the retrospective efforts to try and suggest that we were supportive of or condoned the actions of human rights violators is really revisionistic"

John Negroponte

Starting in the early 1980s, Honduras became the primary US support base for the Contra war in neighbouring Nicaragua. 

 

The Honduran Army provided facilities and logistical support in the territory adjacent to Nicaragua which became known as Contraland.

 

COHA says Negroponte's job was to keep US aid flowing to Honduras, even if that meant turning a blind eye to human rights violations.

 

It also alleges he had close ties to "egregious local abusers of human rights".

 

One of the most notable of these was Colonel Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, at the time Honduras' military chief and the de facto strongman of the country.


'Death squads'

 

Alvarez was perhaps most infamous for his close connections to an alleged death squad that became known as Battalion 316. 

 

This unit, according to a prize-winning exclusive in the Baltimore Sun, received training in torture techniques from the CIA, and is widely suspected of "disappearing" more than 180 suspected "subversives" in the 1980s.

 

Negroponte is taking on his most
difficult assignment yet - in Iraq

Colonel Leonidas Torres Arias, a disgruntled former intelligence chief, stated in 1982 that Battalion 316 was indeed a "death squad". He even named three of its victims.

 

Negroponte has always protested that he knew nothing of human rights violations in Honduras.

 

But in 1982 alone there were more than 300 newspaper articles in the Honduran press reporting the illegal detention of university students and the abduction of union leaders.

     

Efrain Diaz Arrivillaga, a Honduran congressional delegate, said that when he spoke about the military's abuses at the time to Negroponte, he was met with an "attitude ... of tolerance and silence".

 

In addition, organisations such as the Committee of the Relatives of the Disappeared visited the US embassy to complain that the Honduran military was holding suspected dissidents in clandestine jails. Negroponte was unmoved, they say.

Cover-up? 

 

COHA says that despite the disappearances, harassment and abductions of political dissidents in Honduras, the US embassy's annual human rights reports consistently downplayed abuses.

 

The 1983 report prepared for the State Department by Negroponte's staff asserted: "There are no political prisoners in Honduras."

 

Even today, Negroponte remains unrepentant, arguing that given the political realities his hands were tied.

 

He has repeatedly dismissed charges that the Honduran military was behind the death squads, or that such forces even existed.

 

"Some may say that all these allegations are just hearsay, but it's really hard to imagine that the US ambassador to Honduras was completely oblivious to all that was going on in the country. And if that was the case, then that's not a very good sign about Negroponte's perceptiveness"

Joanna Weschler,

Human Rights Watch

In a recent interview he said: "Some of these regimes, to the outside observer, may not have been as savoury as Americans would have liked... But with the turmoil that was there, it was perhaps not possible to do that.

 

"I think the commitment to the democratic process was very, very much part of our strategy and policy. And frankly I think that some of the retrospective efforts to try and suggest that we were supportive of or condoned the actions of human rights violators is really revisionistic."

 

Rights groups remain unconvinced.

 

Joanna Weschler, of Human Rights Watch, told Aljazeera.net: "Some may say that all these allegations are just hearsay, but it's really hard to imagine that the US ambassador to Honduras was completely oblivious to all that was going on in the country.

 

"And if that was the case, then that's not a very good sign about Negroponte's perceptiveness."

 

UN ambassador

 

After remaining out of the spotlight for much of the 1990s, Negroponte next hit the headlines when George Bush appointed him as the US's ambassador to the United Nations in 2001.

 

Human rights groups, especially in Latin America, reacted with outrage.

 

They argued his appointment was ill-considered given that one of his responsibilities would be to berate countries for human rights violations.


Negroponte got world backing for
the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan 

The outcry forced congressional hearings at which Negroponte sought to minimise his knowledge and participation in wrongdoing. He denied any knowledge of the infamous death squads, claiming he heard of Battalion 316 only when reading an article in the New York Times in 1988.

 

Pressed on various human rights cases in Honduras and on what he discussed with the Contras, Negroponte told the Senate committee he could not remember.

 

A senator on the committee asked him why he was not more outspoken about people who were murdered.

 

Negroponte replied: "Could I have been more vocal? Perhaps in retrospect I could have been but that's the way I handled it."

 

At the end of the hearings, Republican senators supported Negroponte's nomination and said it was time for the US to put the past behind it. They concluded there was just not enough evidence against him.

 

US wars

 

During his time as UN ambassador, Negroponte rallied international support for the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

 

But his attempts to win a Security Council resolution sanctioning the use of force in Iraq were not successful, and the US went to war without international backing.

 

Weschler describes his tenure at the UN as being "counterproductive regarding human rights".

 

"And as far as his future role in Iraq is concerned, if the political situation leads to militias getting involved in security Negroponte better not plead ignorance because that could definitely lead to abuses"

 

Joanna Weschler,
Human Rights Watch

She said: "During his time there the US has opposed any lifting of immunity for crimes perpetrated by international peacekeepers. It has opposed every mention of human rights in counter-terrorism issues. And in the recent Security Council resolution on Iraq there is a very cursory treatment of human rights issues."

 

In May 2004, US President Bush announced that Negroponte would replace Paul Bremer as the US's leading official in Iraq.

 

Similar to his former position in Honduras, it is a role which will

give him wide-ranging powers in a country where the US will retain a great deal of military, economic and political control.

 

On his appointment Bush said: "John Negroponte is a man of enormous experience and skill" and "has done a really good job of speaking for the United States to the world about our intentions to spread freedom and peace."

 

Iraq concerns

 

But Weschler remains sceptical.

 

"I was not surprised when Negroponte was put forward by Bush because for the last two years at the UN he has been working constantly on Iraq," she said.

 

"But we were concerned when he was put forward as a nominee because several people have very troubling memories from when he was ambassador in Honduras."

 

President Bush has been a loyal
supporter of Negroponte

Weschler added the outcry at his Iraq appointment was not particularly strident because people have been more muted generally about human rights since the September 11 2001 attacks on the US.

 

"I think John Negroponte has been instrumental in putting human rights on the backburner," she said.

 

"And as far as his future role in Iraq is concerned, if the political situation leads to militias getting involved in security, Negroponte better not plead ignorance because that could definitely lead to abuses.

 

"We definitely don't want a repeat of what happened in Honduras."