The United States State Department and a prominent human rights group are waging a fierce political battle over how to interpret El Salvador's human rights record. ``The Reagan administration is saying that anybody who's a critic of the Salvadorean armed forces' human rights record is in some way subversive,'' charges Aryeh Neier, vice-chairman of the Americas Watch human rights organization.
The State Department, meanwhile, counters that Americas Watch's latest report on El Salvador ``is full of distortions, exaggerations, half truths, out-of-context characterizations, and condescending attitudes.''
This characterization of the 325-page, Aug. 30 report on the 1986-87 civilian toll of the war is in an unusual cable written by US ambassador to El Salvador Edwin Corr.
The ambassador wrote the cable in an attempt to refute an Americas Watch official's Sept. 23 testimony before the House of Representatives' Western Hemisphere and Human Rights Subcommittees.
Mr. Corr says in the cable, which was sent to the subcommittees' members, that Americas Watch ``cannot seem to get the story straight on what is going on here.''
An angry Mr. Neier sees the cable as ``a fairly explicit threat to restrict our monitoring of El Salvador,'' and as an attempt ``to intimidate those who might want to testify about El Salvador before Congress.''
Americas Watch has compiled 10 ``highly documented and detailed'' studies and numerous shorter reports on El Salvador since 1981, Neier says in an interview.
The group, affiliated with the Helsinki and Asia Watch committees, is ``the leading source of information on human rights in El Salvador outside of the State Department,'' he adds.
Underlying the rhetorical warfare between the administration and Americas Watch is the understanding that Congress has the power to curtail the huge US aid program to El Salvador if it becomes convinced that the human rights situation there is deteriorating or not improving sufficiently.
In fiscal year 1987, Washington provided San Salvador with $116.5 million in military aid, $360 million in economic assistance and balance-of-payments support, and $125 million to help the country recover from the devastating October 1986 earthquake. For fiscal year 1988, the White House is seeking $122 million in military aid and $319 million in economic assistance and balance-of-payments support for fiscal year 1988.
Americas Watch and the State Department agree that El Salvador's human rights situation is vastly improved from the early 1980s, when the Salvadorean Army and paramilitary death squads killed tens of thousands of civilians.
Now, they agree, the government kills a few dozen noncombatants annually - roughly the same number as the guerrillas kill.
The rights group expresses much more impatience than the administration with the slow pace of overall judicial reform in El Salvador, and in particular with the failure of President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's government to convict any military officers for human rights violations.
The administration and Americas Watch have clashed more dramatically over the arrests, disappearances, and killings of anti-Duarte labor activists.
On May 29, Americas Watch submitted a petition to the US trade representative (the USTR) requesting a review of El Salvador's labor rights record to determine whether it should remain listed under Congress's generalized system of preferences for tariffs. US legislation requires GSP countries - which receive tariff relief on some imports to the US - to adhere to internationally recognized labor rights standards.
Although the petition listed 43 cases of arrests, disappearances, and killings of trade union and peasant union members dating back to September 1985, the US refused to consider Americas Watch's request.
Explaining the unprecedented denial to 14 inquiring members of Congress, US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter wrote, ``All of the arrested union members named in the petition were members of organizations known by the US government to be front organizations of the insurgent Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN).
``We have no reason to believe that any of the arrests were intended to prevent workers from exercising their rights to associate, organize, and bargain collectively,'' added Mr. Yeutter.
Noting that the union referred to as a ``front'' is a legal labor confederation, Americas Watch pointed out in a written response to the GSP rejection that ``the labor rights standard described in US law does not distinguish between pro- and anti-government unions. The USTR's attempt to justify imprisonment and abuse of trade unionists for their political views is obnoxious and inappropriate,'' the rights group said.
The key to understanding the administration's analysis of San Salvador's human rights performance is an FMLN document captured in April entitled ``Preparatory Phase of the Strategic Counteroffensive.''
This paper, prepared for a November 1985 meeting of the rebel general command, discusses how labor unions, student groups, and human rights organizations sympathetic to the guerrillas could step up their political activities against Mr. Duarte's government.
Faced with this rebel plan, the security forces are justified in arresting activists in pro-FMLN unions and other groups, the State Department argues. In addition, the administration discounts a detainee's uncorroborated claim of torture or mistreatment if the arrested individual is believed to belong to the FMLN or to a ``front group.''
``The implicit consequence of this attitude,'' Neier asserts, ``is that whatever happened to these union activists, students, and others was legitimate.'' Although some of the victims of the killings, arbitrary arrest, and torture may have been ``acting with bad motives, extrajudicial killings and torture are never justified,'' Neier adds.
Americas Watch officials point to Monday's death-squad-style assassination of Herbert Ernesto Anaya, president of El Salvador's nongovernmental human rights commission, as further proof of their argument.
The State Department's continuing denunciations of the rights commission as an FMLN ``front'' increased the chances that Mr. Anaya would fall victim to ``a death-squad attack, even if that wasn't the intention,'' according to Juan Mendez, director of Americas Watch's Washington office.
While stressing the administration's condemnation of the killing, a US official counters that Anaya was nevertheless ``playing a riskier game'' than ``ordinary politicians'' because he was ``clearly identified with the guerrilla movement.''