Key to improving human rights: 'Bring the Army under civilian control'
President Reagan is required by law to submit reports to Congress every six months certifying that the Salvadorean government is attempting to improve its human rights record. On July 20, Secretary of State George P. Shultz informed the Congress that El Salvador had met that requirement. But Shultz was critical as well. He said the record falls short of the broad and sustained progress.
Today Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams appears before the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs. He is likely to be asked why the United States has not been able to encourage more rapid progress in El Salvador. In the interview which follows, Abrams argues that there has been improvement. But he also says that the Salvadoreans have failed to institute a clear program to identify and punish those responsible for abuses. Abrams contends that it will take not just years, but decades, for El Salvador's civilian authorities to gain full control over the nation's military and security forces.m
Is it true that no officers in El Salvador have been tried or convicted for human rights abuses?
I think that's right. We know of soldiers who've been convicted. I don't know that we know of officers. That, of course, gets to the single most difficult aspect of improving human rights in El Salvador, and that is bringing the Army under civilian control. In fact, one can say it more broadly than that, and say it's true for Latin America as a whole. . . . You see that in El Salvador, but you also see it in Honduras, where at the exact same moment that we're trying to encourage the growth of democratic institutions and the control of the military by civilians, we're also trying to help increase the power of the military to deal with the Nicaraguan threat. We are very well aware of that contradiction. But I don't know any way out of it. It's a dilemma.
Some of the Christian Democrats in El Salvador seem to think that if they can win in the elections, they can bring the military under control.
It would help. I don't have any doubt about that. I think they are a little bit too optimistic if they think that there would be a night-and-day difference. . . . I think that if there were a good election victory for a civilian candidate that a newly elected president would have more influence. And that would be a very good thing, and that's one of the reasons we're so much in favor of the direct election of a president soon. But it's going to take more than that, and it's going to take more time than that. Witness the fact that one sees countries in which there are periods of democratic rule - Chile is an example - where nevertheless the Army remains the most powerful institution in the country and then takes power years later. This is a problem that's going to take decades and decades to solve, not years and years.
The administration says there's been improvement in the national police under Col. Lopez Nuila. But people continue to accuse the police of abuses. Take the Ibarra case, where a man working with the Lutherans was abducted, tortured, and held without charge.
My impression is that the national police is significantly better since Lopez Nuila took over. . . . One measure of his personal effort is that the accusations of torture by the national police, for the most part, state that the abuses take place prior to people being brought to the police headquarters. In other words, if there are police officers who are doing this, they know that they have got to do it before their commander gets a hold of the situation, because he won't let it happen where he's in control. And I think the number of incidents is down for the national police. . . . The general impression when I was in El Salvador last - which is a while ago but I think the impression is still valid - is that the national police has been cleaned up a great deal, but the treasury police least of all.
What difference has the appointment of Gen. (Carlos Eugenio) Vides Casanova as defense minister made?
There's a general sense of encouragement. For example, one of Vides Casanova's first official acts was the promulgation of and distribution of the rules of engagement instructing soldiers how to act with regard to civilians and the enemy. It was based largely on those which had been drawn up by the national police and which are very good. That was a good sign. There have been others, such as speeches he's made, and his personal approval of the amnesty program. . . . All the carrots are there. What's not there is the stick. And the (human rights) program is working, as the secretary of state said, disturbingly slowly, I think for that reason. It would sure make things go a lot faster if people not only felt that there was good reason to behave better but also that there was very good reason not to behave badly. That's not happening. I don't mean categorically that it never happens. It does happen. One of our political officers went to San Miguel (a province capital) unannounced and found the records of convictions.
A man like Lopez Nuila, if he was being candid, would probably say he cannot control those of his men who work for the death squads, for the assassination teams.
I don't really know who the death squads are. I think probably the role of the security forces, especially of high-ranking people in the security forces, is very small, if there is one. In other words, I do not believe that Vides Casanova or Lopez Nuila, or any of the people at that level, have anything to do with the death squads. And I'm not at all sure how many of their employees do. If you want to hire someone in El Salvador to go out and kill someone for you, you don't need to hire somebody who is currently a member of the police force. There are plenty of former soldiers who know how to use weapons.
But in some of the massacres, people show up in Army uniforms. In one of the massacres, people said they recognized the soldiers. They knew them by name.
Well, one has to differentiate between the death squads, which is one phenomenon, and human rights violations by the Army. . . . The assumption that the death squads are active duty security forces remains to be proved. It might be right, though I suspect it probably isn't right.
But in some cases, you would have to have complicity on the part of the military and security forces. Sometimes the death squads move where there is a curfew. In those cases, they would have to have some help, or liaison, and perhaps at the higher levels some tolerance of it?
I think tolerance is more likely. If I'm right that the death squads are largely a civilian phenomenon, then some of the civilians involved are going to be very wealthy and influential people. I don't mean the trigger men, but some of the people behind this. And there would be a number of people in the security forces who just don't want to tangle with them, because they do not see why it will help them personally to do that.