Progress on Rights Boosts Guatemala's Hopes for Peace

THE stalled Guatemalan peace talks are rolling again with breakthrough agreements on human rights.

The United Nations-brokered talks, which ended Tuesday in Mexico, also produced a schedule for considering further points with the goal of peacefully solving Central America's longest-running conflict by the end of this year.

``It's a breakthrough for Guatemala because this is one of the most difficult issues Guatemala has had to face: human rights and the opening up to international monitoring,'' says Richard Nuccio, a senior US State Department policy adviser and coordinator of the US role as a ``friend'' to the talks.

The United States, along with local and international human rights groups, has blamed Guatemalan security forces for the majority of the cases of extrajudicial killings, disappearances, and torture. The abuses take place against a backdrop in which about 100,000 people were killed in more than three decades of civil war between leftist guerrillas and Guatemalan Army. Peace talks began in 1990 and made intermittent progress until a little more than a year ago when an impasse was reached over human rights, the first item on an 11-point agenda.

The main sticking point was the Guatemalan Army's objection to the establishment of a commission to investigate past abuses. A similar commission was set up as part of the peace accords signed in 1992 in El Salvador and names specific Salvadoran Army officers (and rebels) in extrajudicial killings. Guatemala's Defense Minister Mario Rene Enriquez Morales has dubbed the concept a ``revenge commission,'' which would only serve to polarize society.

The breakthrough was achieved when guerilla leftist leaders of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) agreed to remove the so-called ``Commission of Historical Elucidation'' from the 10-point human rights accord. Instead, this issue will be dealt with in separate talks over the next two months.

Among the highlights of the human rights agreement:

* The immediate establishment of a UN human rights verification team within the country.

* A government commitment not to pass an amnesty law to protect wartime violators of human rights (as the Salvadoran government did) and to promote passage of tougher laws to deal with kidnapping and summary executions.

* A government promise to combat death squads, professionalize security forces, and tighten gun ownership laws.

* A ban on forced military recruitment.

Mexican diplomat Rosario Green praised the negotiators for reaching a ``new stage.'' Mexico is one of six countries (along with Colombia, Norway, Spain, US, and Venezuela) participating as ``friends'' of the peace process. Diplomats say the URNG and the Guatemalan government have approached the negotiations with more ``seriousness'' and ``flexiblity'' since January.

Several reasons are given for the attitude change.

Since the birth of its own guerrilla movement in January in Chiapas, the Mexican government has taken greater interest in ending Guatemala's war, which sometimes spills across the border. Another factor is that US interest and financial aid to the region is diminishing. ``Both sides know that they better find a way to take advantage of the resources now before they disappear,'' one US official says. The US is a major source of funding for programs established under the Salvadoran peace accords.

Guatemalan President Ramiro de Leon Carpio - a former human rights ombudsman - has more time to focus on the peace talks since he resolved a bitter dispute of congressional corruption.

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