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Civilians who cannot remain neutral

By Holly Burkhalter / August 20, 1987



INSURGENCY and counterinsurgency have a particularly cruel dimension in Central America, where there have been a number of attacks on civilians in recent months. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, guerrillas and government forces are forcing civilians to aid them or are taking reprisals against civilians believed to be helping the other side. In both countries, it is difficult for civilians to remain neutral, as rebel and government forces attempt to deprive each other of civilian support.

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A recent case of five killings by the Salvadorean Army illustrates the problem. In May, guerrilla combatants forced five young men from northern San Miguel Province to accompany them and armed them with guns. The men were released several days later. They sought to return to their homes without the weapons, but were captured and killed by government soldiers. The Salvadorean Army first claimed to have killed a group of guerrillas in combat, but later changed its story to accuse the guerrillas of killing the five and dumping their bodies into a well. Family members insist the unarmed victims were executed by the armed forces.

The Salvadorean guerrillas also carry out selected assassinations of civilians believed to be assisting the Army. A recent increase in such incidents appears to be a response to the Army's stepped-up efforts to recruit civilian collaborators in combat areas. From the standpoint of the Army, however, the risks run by its informers may not be a matter of great concern. As one Army officer in San Miguel was reported in April as telling a US journalist: ``It makes the guerrillas nervous, because they do not know who is working for us. If they kill the person or an innocent civilian, they terrorize the population, but if they do not, then we may get information.''

In Nicaragua, both the Army and the contras depend upon civilians for military intelligence. Where contra forces have attempted to operate, murders of Sandinista activists and, in some cases, of their family members, are frequent. Such attacks eliminate some who might inform the government of the whereabouts of the contras, and terrorize others into silence. The contras have also kidnapped civilians and forced them into military service or into providing logistical support. Many Nicaraguan civilians have been forced to serve as bearers of supplies for the contras, or as unarmed scouts and human minesweepers who walk ahead of the contra troops.

For their part, Sandinista military units are antagonistic to civilian supporters of the contras who, they believe, provide information that makes Nicaraguan government forces vulnerable to ambushes. Accordingly, the Sandinistas have arrested hundreds of alleged contra supporters in conflict zones, denied them due process, and jailed and mistreated them. Abuses have included beatings, mock executions, deprivation of sleep and food, and threats against family members.

While the laws of war allow a government to take legal action against civilians supporting its enemies, they do not permit trumped-up charges, kangaroo courts, physical abuse, or threats against family members.

Many would argue that it is in the nature of insurgency and counterinsurgency that warring armies compete for civilian support in conflict areas and often punish those believed to have aided the opposing side.

Yet this does not mean that it is futile to try to protect human rights in the context of such wars. The parties to these conflicts also seek international legitimacy and support. By making it plain that practices which victimize civilians are not tolerable, the international community can force changes.

The armed forces were required to curb the death squads and aerial bombardments of civilians; the Nicaraguan armed forces were required to curb abuses against the Miskito Indians; the guerrillas in El Salvador and the contras in Nicaragua are being required to curb their use of land mines that kill and maim civilians. All of these curbs were forced by international public opinion.

That same pressure should be directed against both sides in El Salvador and Nicaragua who are abusing civilians they consider supporters of their enemies.

Holly Burkhalter is the Washington, D.C., representative of Americas Watch, Asia Watch, and the Helsinki Watch.