Rights and wrongs in El Salvador

The weekend killings in El Salvador came as grim corrobation of a report on human rights in Latin America released at almost the same time. The report said El Salvador, along with neighboring Guatemala, had displaced Argentina from the top of the list of the area's worst rights violators. In El Salvador, according to the document, "more people have died . . . during the past year, largely as the result of government-condoned right-wing 'death squad' killings, than in all the other nations of Latin America combined."

El Salvador's tragic toll for 1980 was almost 10,000, estimated the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a private US group including labor, religious, academic, and political members with the objective of supporting the "democratic tradition" in Latin America. All concerned ought to try to ensure that the Jan. 3 slayings -- of two Americans and a Salvadoran -- not be followed by a similar record of violence in 1981.

Apart from the substance of policy debated by El Salvador and its hemispheric neighbors, the climate for progress might be improved by seeing beyond the political labels too easily applied to the situation. For example, the so-called "right" is not a homogenous group all dedicated to violent resistance against reform. Nor is the "left" fairly presented by its ruthless elements. Indeed, though not accepted by all expert opinion, it is the judgment of Murat Williams, a former US ambassador to El Salvador, that the heterogeneous left must be more than 80 percent of the population, with the "center" less of what remains than the right.

The two slain Americans worked in a US- supported land redistribution program opposed by the "right". Does this associate them with the "left"? The US State Department chose to say they "were actively working on behalf of an agrarian reform program which has brought new hope for a better life to hundreds of thousands of El Salvador rural poor."

As the discussion over policy continues, those involved should be clear about what they mean by their terminology. As always, proper motives will enhance the possibilities.

Wise and consistent implementation was sometimes lacking in the well-motivated human rights policy of President Carter. But even so the Council on Hemispheric Affairs praised it for saving lives, reducing repression, and causing movement toward more democracy in a number of instances. With such motives the US as well as other nations will have a sound basis for policy toward El Salvador and anywh ere else rights are threatened.

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