UN Urged to Sharpen Its Focus On Salvador Human Rights Abuses

UN may have softened criticism of Salvadoran government's human rights record to enhance neutral image in negotiations, report says

AN Americas Watch report card released Sept. 2 on the first ever United Nations human rights mission in a member state credits the UN for "dramatically" improving the observance of law in El Salvador. But the Washington-based human rights group castigates the UN for pulling punches and allowing its role in overseeing the peace accords to impede investigations into rights abuses.

"Human rights problems are treated with the same kind of cautious diplomacy that one might use in attempting to solve political disputes.... When investigations have touched an especially raw nerve, ONUSAL [the UN Observer Mission in El Salvador] has been timid in criticizing the government," the report says.

For example, Americas Watch cites the case of a former UN human rights worker who claimed in July that he was not permitted to follow up on a series of purported death-squad killings.

Iqbal Riza, head of ONUSAL, admits that scarce resources forced him to scavenge personnel from the human rights division to perform other duties. But he denies ever obstructing an investigation or taking a kid-gloves approach to rights abuses for the sake of political expediency.

"On every human rights report issued, we've received strong criticism from the government for being anti-government. And we've received criticism from NGOs [nongovernmental organizations] for not being anti-government enough," Mr. Riza says. "NGOs expect us to work as they do. We can't possibly do that. They publicize cases, appear in court. They're more crusaders than verifiers."

ONUSAL began human rights monitoring in July 1991, before the brutal 12-year civil war here had ended. It set up six regional offices with 100 police and human rights observers. Its investigators are endowed with the unprecedented power to visit any government office without prior notice.

With the Jan. 16 signing of a peace agreement, the UN role expanded to include verifying compliance with the cease-fire, demobilization of armies, and the broad range of civilian and military reforms.

The Americas Watch report also acknowledges the challenges confronting ONUSAL:

* Human rights officials have been subject to numerous death threats from shadowy ultra-right-wing groups.

* Salvadoran officials have interfered with ONUSAL's selection of personnel.

* Some Salvadoran judges have not felt bound to cooperate with ONUSAL, a serious impediment since investigations here are carried out primarily by judges. Indeed, after months of battling with El Salvador's notoriously corrupt and ineffective judiciary, ONUSAL officials called for its "complete overhaul" in a June report.

The latest ONUSAL human rights report, released last week, shows slow progress and hints at growing frustration. It notes a decline in the number of summary executions or unnatural deaths over the last year.

The report acknowledges some progress in getting authorities to apply the basic techniques of investigation, such as conducting autopsies after a suspected murder occurs. But it notes that "deficiencies" pointed out in previous reports continue to go uncorrected.

In a press conference in San Francisco last week, President Alfredo Cristiani denied his government had fallen short on the human rights front. He attributed the cited abuses to a common crime wave.

But the recent deaths of labor unionists, police, and ex-combatants from both sides seems to indicate that death squads also continue to be active. For example, a lawyer with a military intelligence background was killed last week in a method used by paramilitary organizations.

"The situation is worrisome. The number of violations is increasing but it's not clear how many are politically motivated," says Roberto Rodriguez, director of the UN human rights division.

Indeed, one strong criticism in the Americas Watch report is ONUSAL's failure to establish a methodology for classifying types of human rights violations, which would allow comparison of data compiled by different human rights groups.

Although the war is over, two commissions appointed by the UN secretary-general continue to dig into past wrong-doing. The peace accords established an "Ad Hoc Commission" to "purify" the Salvadoran Army of human rights violators. This commission is expected to report its findings in September.

The accords also established a "Truth Commission" with a six-month period to investigate major human rights abuses since 1980. One theory is that death squads may be targeting witnesses who have testified or may testify before these commissions.

The ONUSAL report cites a continuing high level of death threats, even after the signing of the peace accords. It says the government has not taken the steps necessary to put an end to such practices.

Mr. Rodriguez allows that El Salvador's malfunctioning judicial and police system, exhibiting the weaknesses of many Latin American nations, cannot be changed overnight.

But he adds, "We hope the political will [to make such changes] will be manifested more clearly."

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