FOR Guatemalan elementary school teacher Am'ilcar M'endez Urizar, the choice was a simple one. Not to have taken an active role in opposing glaring human rights abuses committed against Guatemala's Indian majority by the armed forces would have been to condone injustice. Yet Mr. M'endez readily concedes that members of human rights advocacy groups, such as the one he founded in his home two years ago, run high risks. Ten members of his Council of Ethnic Communities ``Runujel Junam,'' known as CERJ, have been killed and another five have ``disappeared'' (apparently abducted and presumed dead) during the group's short history.
In the last four years more than 113 human rights monitors around the world have been killed, according to Human Rights Watch, the New York-based watchdog group. Just within the last year 31 such workers have been killed (Guatemala leads the list with 8 dead) and another 8 have ``disappeared.''
To pay tribute to such courage and remind authoritarian regimes that killing the messenger does not kill the message, former President Jimmy Carter and Houston philanthropist Dominique de Menil this week awarded their fifth annual human rights prize to two groups in the forefront of the action.
Splitting the honor and the $100,000 prize are CERJ of Guatemala, which has now gathered some 10,000 members, and the Civil Rights Movement of Sri Lanka, a small, inter-ethnic group of professionals formed 19 years ago to protect the civil and political rights of the ordinary citizen.
``Both do just fantastic and irreplaceable human rights work,'' says Holly Burkhalter, Washington director for Human Rights Watch.
The awards ceremony at New York University was punctuated by frequent standing ovations for Mr. Carter and award representatives. Suriya Wickremasinghe, a lawyer and founder of the Sri Lankan group, said human rights work is often tedious and discouraging.
Yet in commenting on the fear exhibited by ordinary citizens over such apparently small matters as whether or not to vote or open their shops on a ``strike'' day, or to voice unpopular views in what she called the atmosphere of increasing intolerance, she seemed to signal the vital need for continued work by groups such as hers.
In Guatemala, ostensibly a democracy but still dominated by its armed forces, some 100,000 people have been killed and another 35,000 are missing in the Army's battle against guerrillas and suspected guerrilla sympathizers over the last three decades.
CERJ was founded to rebut a common practice since 1982 of forcibly recruiting Indians at no pay to serve periodically on civilian patrols in highland villages. Though CERJ has eliminated the practice in 300 villages, Dr. M'endez says those refusing to take part continue to be harassed, and he stresses that 600,000 Indians are still active in such patrols.
At the ceremony Mr. Carter warned that the military domination of Latin American democracies, and ensuing human rights abuse, is often protected by law. Military forces in Chile, for instance, can name senators to the legislature, but the president cannot remove the head of the armed forces.
In El Salvador, Carter says, the law stipulates that only security forces can provide evidence of human rights crimes committed by one another. Laws elsewhere - such as in Sri Lanka, where emergency legislation allows shortcuts of usual trial and detention procedures - also foster human rights abuse by authorities, he says.
Yet exposing such abuse and keeping the pressure on does pay, insist rights advocates. Carter cites the recent adoption of human rights laws by the Soviet Union's Supreme Soviet. ``I think it's only because of the continuing pressure and the fact that the Soviets see in other nations a recognition that human rights are of fundamental value ...,'' said Cyrus Vance, who was President Carter's secretary of state.