Salvador's Grievous Loss

Truth Commission finds violations of human rights in El Salvador, with an overwhelming number of instances linked to the military

A SPANISH Jesuit once remarked, "It is harder to tell the truth than to hide it." An important component of the United Nations-sponsored peace agreement for El Salvador was fulfilled March 15 when the three-member Commission on the Truth issued its report on what it called "some of the worst and most widespread violations of human rights in El Salvador." To nobody's surprise, the UN Commission found that the overwhelming majority of the cases studied, involving some 18,000 victims, were linked to the Sal vadoran military.

In the wake of the Commission's report, those who tried for more than 10 years to hide the truth about the record of the Salvadoran military now want to bury it by granting amnesty to the accused. By ignoring the crying need for justice in the human rights abuse cases investigated by the Truth Commission, El Salvador's political leadership may cause permanent damage to the reconciliation effort.

It is time to stop rewarding the brutal and the corrupt. Twelve years and $6 billion in United States aid later, it is time to learn and understand the truth. Those who spread tyranny and death throughout El Salvador for 10 years should not be protected under the umbrella of peace. The Salvadoran National Assembly seeks to do this with its passage of legislation providing general amnesty for those who are named by the Commission on the Truth. Ruben Zamora, the vice president of the Assembly, walked out o n the vote, proclaiming that "justice must come before forgiving and forgetting."

The stakes are high for US foreign policy. The members of the Truth Commission, Belisario Betancur, former Colombian president; Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart, former foreign minister of Venezuela; and Thomas Buergenthal, professor of law at George Washington University, have boldly and bravely identified by name the military leadership responsible for atrocities such as the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the killing of four American churchwomen, and the murder of six Jesuits, their cook , and her daughter. The Truth Commission has confirmed what many of us have believed for a long time: The US was bankrolling the Salvador military at a time when it was killing with impunity.

Those who continue to justify the role of the US in the Salvadoran civil war take several lines of defense. Many involved in Latin American policy through the 1980s claim ignorance of what was happening around them. Others skip over the bloody history, preferring to argue that the cost of not being involved would have been greater. We cannot accept either excuse in light of the truth. For a decade the US was willing to allow its policy to be shaped by the dictum that the "ends justify the means." This mi sguided policy must be abandoned.

The civil war in El Salvador brought no gains or freedom to the Salvadoran people. It brought only destruction of the country and death to tens of thousands of men, women, and children. This was obvious even eight years ago, when the Congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, which I have twice chaired, initiated its first report on US involvement in El Salvador. In 1985 we issued a report from the Caucus detailing the effect of US assistance on El Salvador's economy and living standards. We c oncluded that US aid programs were not helping end the war. Instead, we found that the US was perpetuating the conflict. Our report argued that it was futile to pursue a military solution to a civil conflict that had its roots in poverty and deprivation.

In the frenzy of the Central American "red scare," the Caucus report fell on deaf ears. During the mid-1980s, only a handful of us argued against involvement in El Salvador or Nicaragua. Neither Congress nor the administration was willing to shut off the pipeline of support to the crippled Salvadoran government and the corrupt Salvadoran military.

The shameful truth of the military's involvement in the killings did not sink in until the brutal killing of six Jesuits and their assistants. From the beginning it was suspected that the attack was a military operation. Yet the early discovery of the military's involvement in these murders was played down.

As always, there was a desire to avoid staring at the facts. But we in the Caucus could no longer avert our eyes to the truth. The Caucus issued its third report on El Salvador just six months after the Jesuits died, and once again the subject was the military leadership.

In 1990, we evaluated the Salvadoran high command and the record of documented human-rights abuses carried out by their troops. The findings indicated that 14 of the 15 officers in El Salvador's primary commands rose to their positions despite documented abuses. And in none of the more than 50 violent cases listed in the reports was justice served. No officer was brought to trial.

In 1991 Congress began withholding some military aid to El Salvador. But just last year the US government continued to argue against the complete withdrawal of our support from the Salvadoran military, lest the commanders decide to walk away from the peace accords drafted under the guidance of the UN.

There have been more than 75,000 victims of the Salvadoran conflict. We can only hope that justice will not be the final victim. The US should press the Salvadoran government to reconsider the National Assembly's vote to provide general amnesty to those identified by the Truth Commission, and there should be a full public accounting of our own government's knowledge of the record of abuses committed by the Salvadoran military while it was accepting US aid.

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