The Road to Reconciliation in El Salvador

ON March 20, El Salvador's parliament hurriedly approved a general amnesty, ignoring the protests of opposition legislators and members of nongovernmental organizations. The amnesty law was approved in the wake of a report of the "Truth Commission," appointed by the United Nations to examine a decade of violence during El Salvador's civil war. Among the cases examined were the November 1989 killings of my fellow Jesuits and two women.

After an eight-month investigation, the commissioners concluded that five officers, including three members of the Armed Forces' high command, stayed behind following a larger gathering of officers on the night of the murders. According to the report, El Salvador's defense minister told Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, the military academy director later convicted of the crime, to "eliminate Father Ellacuia and leave no witnesses."

That members of El Salvador's military high command ordered the Jesuit murders confirm the institutional nature of the crime. As described by the Truth Commission, the murder and the coverup were more extensive than we had envisioned. The report provides names of additional soldiers and units involved, as well as that of a civilian attorney who conspired with the military to conceal the identities of those who ordered the crime. Indeed, the report as a whole makes a compelling case that the abuse of huma n rights in El Salvador was systematic and institutional.

The report also makes clear that the system of abuse was at times nurtured and supported by the very institutions mandated to protect the rights of Salvadorans. In the Jesuit case, both units assigned to investigate the killings were under military rule. Instead of uncovering the truth, both conspired to conceal facts. Specifically, the chief of the United States-trained and -funded criminal investigative unit helped orchestrate the coverup by suggesting that key evidence be altered and destroyed.

We have consistently urged that the "intellectual authors" of the Jesuit murders be identified so that they too may traverse a process of truth, justice, and forgiveness. On the day our brothers were killed we said we sought justice, not revenge. We have never harbored hate toward those who murdered the Jesuits and women, and from the beginning have extended them Christian forgiveness. Yet we believe that true reconciliation can only be based on the full truth. Adopted prematurely, a general amnesty only

hides the truth and impedes justice. Pardons should be extended; yet we believe that a pardon must be conditioned on an admission of guilt. Alternatively, those accused should stand trial.

Even more important than the names and faces behind the Jesuit murders and the thousands of others committed during the civil war are the institutional structures that made these kinds of crimes possible and the intolerance and hate that fostered them. Both must change. With that in mind, I offer the following observations:

* The Truth Commission report makes clear the many failings of El Salvador's justice system. That system must be thoroughly reformed and the rule of law strengthened if El Salvador is to build a society capable of protecting the rights of its citizens and of holding those who break the law accountable. For the first time, judicial reform is being given serious consideration. These efforts must be strengthened.

* More important than removing offenders from public office is transforming the socio-political structures that allowed people to commit crimes with impunity. As Salvadorans grapple with building basic institutions mandated to protect human rights, international support is needed. The world community must buttress Salvadoran efforts by sharing its expertise and resources.

* The Truth Commission's report is only a first step toward establishing the full truth behind more than a decade of violence committed by both sides of the conflict. Many Salvadorans overcame their fears and for the first time provided testimony to commission staff. Salvadorans must now carry that process forward so that one day the complete history of the war can be written.

* The US bears responsibility for the violence along with the Salvadoran Armed Forces, and the US role should have been included in the Truth Commission report. We recommend recent steps taken by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and by some members of Congress to constructively examine the US role in El Salvador's tragedy. The end of the war provides a good opportunity for Washington to share its intelligence findings on death squads and military abuse. Only by making a positive contribution to esta blishing the full truth can a new relationship be established between the US and El Salvador based on mutual respect.

* The world is vastly different today than it was in the late 1970s, when US officials committed to the policies that caused the Salvadoran people such great hardship. The Truth Commission report makes abundantly clear the consequences of these failed policies. Washington should now reexamine its foreign policy over the last decade with an eye toward launching an epoch of new relations with the third world.

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