Holding fast on rights

President Carter has acted prudently in suspending some $25 million worth of economic and military aid to El Salvador. The murder there of four women, including three American nuns, is but the latest brutal incident of violence that has swept the land with terrible ferocity this year. The civilian-military junta, which has been trying to steer a course between the far left and the far right, maintains that its security forces had nothing to do with the killings. But there are sufficient charges to the contrary to warrant an on-the-spot investigation by Washington.

It was wise, too, of Mr. Carter to send a US fact-finding mission to El Salvador which is bipartisan in make-up. It is led by William D. Rogers, a former US State Department official who is a friend of Henry Kissinger, and this should make it possible to secure the Reagan team's support for its findings and to help develop a consensus on policy toward El Salvador and perhaps other countries of Central and South America. This is especially needed in light of impressions created by the Reagan transition team that the President-elect will be less concerned about human rights throughout the region and more interested in maintaining stability, even if at the expense of popularly sought social change.

Mr. Reagan has tried since the election to dispel the notion that he will downgrade human rights. But some of his advisers are not helping matters. Last week the New York Times reported that a transition study prepared for him proposed basic changes in US policy toward Latin America, suggesting that US diplomats should not be "social reformers" and that the human rights issue should not be allowed to "paralyze or unduly delay decisions" where it "conflicts with other vital US interests."

Are such statements sending the wrong king of signal to countries south of the US border? There is some evidence to suggest that right-wing forces may be taking heart from Ronald Reagan's election and some of the general views being aired by his aides and advisers. In any case, there is cause to be conv cerned about the escalation of violence and suppression of rights in a number of countries. In Haiti, for instance, there has been a severe crackdown by the governmnt on journalists, politicians, and intellectuals. In Guatemala people are being killed every day and no one is apprehended. In El Salvador rightist groups openly flaunt their guns, and there is continuing suspicion that junta security forces are responsible for some of the violence against the left.

With the Caribbean region generally in a state of social ferment, it is important that the US not be seen siding with extreme elements which want to stop the clock by retaining oligarchical regimes and repressive policies. It will have to carefully nurture evolution toward democratic government if it does not wish to hand over the engine of change to Castro and other communist revolutionaries.

This is why it would be well for Mr. Reagan to be sending another set of signals; namely, that he does not intend to abandon the US concern about human rights. We can appreciate that he may wish to modify the style and manner of human rights policy. There is good reason for such change. But he cannot ignore the substance of that policy: that a nation's regard for political, civil , social, and other human rights can have a bearing on the stability of its government and therefore must be considered by Washington along with all other factors in determining US policy. That is in the US national interest -- something Mr. Reagan himself must surely recognize. We hope he speaks out.

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