SINCE its supporting role in Nicaragua's peaceful transfer of power last spring, the United Nations has become a crucial player in moving Central America toward peace. The Nicaraguan election is the most dramatic example of its role so far. But the UN is increasingly involved in providing key help on everything from dispute mediation and verification of elections to technical advice to countries in the region.
The Organization of American States (OAS) has long been the first resort when disputes developed in the region. But the five Central American governments that signed the 1987 Esquipulas II peace agreement - Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica - deliberately turned to the UN hoping that internationalizing the peace process would help it succeed.
The UN's first major involvement in the region came when it accepted the request of former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to monitor the February 1990 vote. Though the OAS and others were involved, the UN took a front and center role. Later the UN took on the sensitive task of demilitarizing and repatriating contra troops, winning high marks for its professionalism and neutrality.
``It was a remarkably successful effort,'' says former US Attorney General and Secretary of Defense Elliot Richardson, who led the UN team of election observers. ``I think everyone in the area feels the UN made an indispensable contribution.''
Last month in Haiti, the UN monitored and verified its second set of elections in the hemisphere within 10 months.
UN's larger regional role
That track record explains in part why the UN has slowly assumed a growing role in other peace efforts in the region:
In El Salvador, at the request of both the government and the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels, senior UN official Alvaro de Soto is actively mediating peace talks. Though the government has also asked the UN to monitor legislative and local elections in March, the UN is unlikely to agree unless a cease-fire precedes them.
Since last March, UN representatives have also been observers at Guatemalan talks between a coalition of guerrilla groups and various sectors of society from unions to business leaders. The UN could assume a mediation role if the Guatemalan government becomes formally involved as expected after the Jan. 6 presidential runoff elections.
The UN also sits in with the OAS as an advisor at summit meetings of the five Central American governments.
The UN involvement has grown with each meeting as presidents have realized only the UN could implement many peacemaking procedures they were setting up, says William Goodfellow, director of the Center for International Policy, a Washington-based research center.
At the request of the five governments, more than 150 members of a UN military observer or peacekeeping group will remain on security patrol in the five capitals until at least May 7. The UN is also advising the five countries in their efforts to reduce arms and military personnel in the region, and may be called on to verify the results.
The growing UN role in Central American peace efforts also stems in part from the thaw in US-Soviet relations and changes that have brought in UN dialogue and activity. For years the US viewed the UN as a third world forum that would automatically side with guerrilla groups.
``The administration has discovered that multilateralism can be a useful tool,'' says Viron Vaky, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Another reason Central America has welcomed a UN role is the fact that both Mr. de Soto in El Salvador and UN Secretary-General Javier P'erez de Cu'ellar are Latin.
But how successful the El Salvador peace talks will be in ending that nation's 11-year-old civil war is unclear.
``At least there's a [negotiating] structure through which progress can be made,'' says Peter Hakim, staff director of the Inter-American Dialogue.
Both sides in El Salvador signed a human rights accord last summer that calls for a UN verification mission to investigate and publicize abuses. Implementation of that and any other agreements, however, hinges on achieving a cease-fire. Though both parties agreed in October that future talks would be confidential, press leaks indicate that Mr. de Soto recently proposed a plan to cut El Salvador's armed forces back to 15,000 from 55,000 troops.
De Soto's emerging plan
His plan would also put the nation's police under civilian rather than military control, and delegate investigation of human rights charges to an impartial three-person commission appointed by Mr. de Soto.
Most experts agree that if the UN were not mediating the El Salvador negotiations, the two sides would not be talking.
``The level of distrust on both sides is intense - they really do need a mediator,'' says Susan Kaufman Purcell, a Latin expert with The Americas Society, Inc.
Last summer the region's five presidents agreed philosophically on the need to reduce weapons and troop levels in each country. They set up a Security Commission, which has been meeting monthly since then with both UN and OAS representatives as advisers. A February 26 deadline has been set for agreement on principles of inventory and respective security needs.
John Burstein, who keeps a close watch on disarmament issues for the Washington Office on Latin America, says he would not be surprised if the five reach a formal agreement within two years that at least sets ceilings on the regional forces and weapons. Both Panama and Nicaragua deserve credit, he says, for substantially reducing their military establishments. Nicaragua's force, once 60,000, is now at 28,000 according to official tallies.
Still, Mr. Burstein says the ceiling figures now under discussion in the region are still too high in his view. ``When calculations are being made about reasonable, overall levels of military force, the strong US presence kind of ups the ante,'' he says.
All five governments trying to end internal conflicts in the region are technically democratic. Reducing their military establishments could help ensure against not just wars, but military coups.
Both the UN and the OAS have worked closely in the region's peace efforts and both have emerged stronger, says many Latin experts.
``Instead of undermining or replacing the OAS, the UN efforts seemed to create a partnership which somehow gave the OAS a new vitality,'' Mr. Hakim says.