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A Spotlight on Guatemala

THE Nobel Peace Prize committee has often used its award to highlight human-rights struggles in various parts of the world. Last year, the prize went to the leader of Burma's democratic opposition, Aung San Soo Kyi, whose heroic efforts to end military repression in her country exemplify courage and sacrifice.

This year's winner, Rigoberta Menchu, has been a leading voice for the rights of native peoples in her homeland, Guatemala, and throughout Latin America. The Columbus quincentennial has given her cause increased visibility and drama.

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Ms. Menchs father, mother, and brother lost their lives in the violent struggle between Guatemala's Army and its peasant insurgency. She knows first-hand the extreme cruelty that has marked her country's civil war.

But the conflict in Guatemala has never received the sharp attention given wars in its Central American neighbors, El Salvador and Nicaragua. It has been a low-level, brutal affair that didn't stir the same images of communist dominoes falling toward the southern US border. Guatemala's record of torture, forced military induction, and "disappearances," however, has been a focal point of attention for human-rights monitors.

It's this record that Ms. Menchu has striven to change through her writings and her service on international forums. Her autobiographical work, "I Rigoberta Menchu," is a graphic account of life in the Guatemalan hinterland.

Menchs selection was greeted grimly by some officials in Guatemala, who consider her a traitor. She has refused to condemn the armed rebellion in her country, which includes among its adherents two of Menchs sisters. The Nobel committee noted this, yet concluded that the thrust of her work is toward understanding and peace.

She has supported the Guatemalan peace negotiations underway in Mexico. Progress in those talks has been slow, with the main stumbling block the government's hesitancy to agree to strong human-right safeguards. Menchs prize should underscore that issue and move the little-noticed negotiations - as well as Guatemala's smoldering turmoil - more squarely into the world's view.

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