UN's `Truth Squad'

THE UN report on human rights abuses during the civil war in El Salvador has the potential to strengthen President Alfredo Cristiani's hand in implementing the report's recommendations, which will help bring democratic reforms to his country. It is now up to the United Nations, the United States, and El Salvador to realize that potential.

The report, released March 15 by the Commission on the Truth, details 12 years of flagrant human rights violations - most often manifested in murder and "disappearances" - by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and, in vastly greater numbers, by the government and right-wing death squads.

The report's recommendations seek the ouster of more than 40 top military officers; a ban on those found responsible from political office or from playing a public role for 10 years; a renunciation of violence by the FMLN; reforms in the military and judiciary; "material" restitution to the relatives of victims, to which 1 percent of the country's foreign aid would be devoted; and a national memorial and holiday to remember those who died in the war as well as to celebrate reconciliation.

Mr. Cristiani's initial suggestion of amnesty is premature, as are calls to try the alleged perpetrators. The country needs to fully face the report's findings; and the sorry state of the country's judiciary makes reliable prosecution problematic. Given concerns within El Salvador about the right wing's influence and reaction, the UN's approach to marginalizing those responsible for human rights violations is realistic.

Yet the UN, and especially the US, can strengthen Cristiani's hand so that the reforms can proceed. The obvious lever is economic aid, which should be tied to progress on reforms. The White House already has frozen $11 million in military aid to the country until the military is purged. Unlike the situation during the Reagan-Bush years, Congress and the White House are now united in their approach; the Salvadoran right no longer has a back door to the US Treasury when Congress votes to block aid. UN over sight of the peace process can help hold world attention on El Salvador, keeping the light shed by the Truth Committee in clear focus.

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