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UN Role Grows in Central America


By Lucia MouatStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 7, 1991


SINCE its supporting role in Nicaragua's peaceful transfer of power last spring, the United Nations has become a crucial player in moving Central America toward peace. The Nicaraguan election is the most dramatic example of its role so far. But the UN is increasingly involved in providing key help on everything from dispute mediation and verification of elections to technical advice to countries in the region.

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The Organization of American States (OAS) has long been the first resort when disputes developed in the region. But the five Central American governments that signed the 1987 Esquipulas II peace agreement - Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica - deliberately turned to the UN hoping that internationalizing the peace process would help it succeed.

The UN's first major involvement in the region came when it accepted the request of former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to monitor the February 1990 vote. Though the OAS and others were involved, the UN took a front and center role. Later the UN took on the sensitive task of demilitarizing and repatriating contra troops, winning high marks for its professionalism and neutrality.

``It was a remarkably successful effort,'' says former US Attorney General and Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson, who led the UN team of election observers. ``I think everyone in the area feels the UN made an indispensable contribution.''

Last month in Haiti, the UN monitored and verified its second set of elections in the hemisphere within 10 months.

UN's larger regional role

That track record explains in part why the UN has slowly assumed a growing role in other peace efforts in the region:

In El Salvador, at the request of both the government and the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels, senior UN official Alvaro de Soto is actively mediating peace talks. Though the government has also asked the UN to monitor legislative and local elections in March, the UN is unlikely to agree unless a cease-fire precedes them.

Since last March, UN representatives have also been observers at Guatemalan talks between a coalition of guerrilla groups and various sectors of society from unions to business leaders. The UN could assume a mediation role if the Guatemalan government becomes formally involved as expected after the Jan. 6 presidential runoff elections.

The UN also sits in with the OAS as an advisor at summit meetings of the five Central American governments.

The UN involvement has grown with each meeting as presidents have realized only the UN could implement many peacemaking procedures they were setting up, says William Goodfellow, director of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research center.

At the request of the five governments, more than 150 members of a UN military observer or peacekeeping group will remain on security patrol in the five capitals until at least May 7. The UN is also advising the five countries in their efforts to reduce arms and military personnel in the region, and may be called on to verify the results.

The growing UN role in Central American peace efforts also stems in part from the thaw in US-Soviet relations and changes that have brought in UN dialogue and activity. For years the US viewed the UN as a third world forum that would automatically side with guerrilla groups.