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The irksome yes-no choice on El Salvador

Reagan administration officials are unhappy with the process for certifying that El Salvador is improving its record on human rights. But continued American military aid to El Salvador depends on it.

Many senators and congressmen are not entirely happy with the certification process either.

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But when the legislated requirement for certification comes to an end next July, the Congress is likely to renew it in one form or another. This is because the Congress does not seem to have found an alternative to certification that allows it to express its discontent with the administration's Salvadorean policy without taking greater responsibility for determining what that policy ought to be.

Defenders of the process argue that it has kept the pressure on both the United States and Salvadorean governments to put an end to human rights violations.

The administration recently certified that progress is being made in El Salvador on several fronts. Starting in January 1982, it has been required to attest at six-month intervals that the Salvadorean government is, among other things, making a concerted effort to comply with internationally recognized standards of human rights; is achieving substantial control over all elements of its armed forces; and is making continued progress in implementing economic and political reforms.

Congressional hearings on the subject will begin soon, and much criticism is likely to be heard from senators and congressmen both when it comes to administration policy and to the certification process itself. But aside from perhaps strengthening the language of what is required from the US government, Congress is not likely to recommend any radical departure from the certification process.

As one key congressional aide explained it, certification allows senators and congressmen to have it both ways. They can tell critics of the administration's policy they are using the process to hold the administration accountable for monitoring human rights. But supporters of that policy can't accuse them of cutting off aid or of selling out the anticommunist Salvadorean government.

''It's simply a congressional cop-out,'' said one highly placed Reagan administration official who is unhappy with the certification process.

''The mail is running 100 to 1 against administration policy,'' says a congressional specialist on Latin America. ''So most congressmen want to position themselves as opposing the policy. . . . At the same time, the majority do not want responsibility for voting to cut off aid to El Salvador. They don't want to be accused of 'losing' El Salvador to the Communists.''

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Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, argues that certification asks the administration the wrong questions. Mr. Abrams says the administration ought to be asked who the people of El Salvador support - the government or the guerrillas? He notes that the Congress does not ask about human rights violations by the guerrillas. Nor does it ask whether an aid cutoff would curb human rights violations.

Defenders of certification in the Congress argue, however, that it has served the purpose of stimulating public debate about El Salvador. Perhaps more important, they say, it has forced the administration to press human rights issues with the Salvadorean government. Some also contend it shows the Salvadoreans that the US Congress and people oppose human rights abuses and care about how American aid is used.

Among those making the latter point is Rep. Jim Leach, a liberal Republican from Iowa. He and Rep. Stephen J. Solarz (D) of New York want to strengthen the language of the certification requirement, thus placing a greater burden on the administration to produce results. Representatives Solarz and Leach helped formulate the original certification legislation.

Leach says that the legislation ought to be amended to require that military aid to the Salvadorean government be halted unless that government puts an end to assassinations of unarmed civilians by death squads.

Solarz has proposed that future military aid be tied to the El Salvador government's willingness to enter unconditional talks with the leftist-led guerrillas.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D) of Connecticut, chief author of the original certification legislation, says, however, that some entire new formula may have to be found - possibly outside the certification process - to foster a negotiated settlement of the Salvadorean conflict. Senator Dodd wants to encourage Mexico, Venezuela, and Panama in their attempts to find a solution. The senator says these nations, rather than the United States, should take the lead in this effort.

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