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Guatemala's Unfinished Civil War

Disagreement over human rights commission stalls effort to end a 32-year-old war that sputters on in the hills

`THE war?" repeats Gabriela Solares, looking up in puzzlement. "Oh, the war," the Seventh Avenue street vendor says after a split-second of reflection.

When Guatemalan human rights activist Rigoberta Menchu officially receives the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize next week, the international spotlight will fall on Guatemala's brutal 32-year civil war - the oldest in Central America. An estimated 100,000 people have died in the conflict, and human rights violations continue to be a major problem.

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For many Guatemalans, however, the war remains distant. The kidnappings and killings in urban areas can be rationalized as the acts of criminals or political extremists. The skirmishes between leftist insurgents and the military occur in the jungle highlands - far from the daily life of Ms. Solares and many others.

"Ending the war is not an urgent problem for the majority who live in cities," says Congresswoman Ana Caterina Reyes Soberanis. "It's different than in El Salvador. The Guatemalan government doesn't need to end the war to win votes. More important to most people is what it's doing to make economic progress and reduce crime."

Against this backdrop, the Guatemala peace negotiations scheduled to resume by the end of November have yet to materialize.

The mediator, Roman Catholic Bishop Rodolfo Quezada Toruno, intended to seize upon what he described as a new climate of conciliation stimulated by the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Shuttling between the government representatives and the leaders of the Guatemala National Revolutionary Unity (URNG), who are in Mexico, Bishop Quezada now says the talks are in a "difficult phase." `Past' vs. `Truth and Justice'

The two sides have met sporadically throughout most of this year, slowly chipping away at disagreements stalling a human rights accord, which is only the first of an 11-point negotiating agenda.

The current impasse centers on the "Commission of the Past," as government negotiators call it. The URNG favors "Commission of Truth and Justice." The commission would provide a written history of human rights violations during the past three decades. It would have no judicial powers and would not assign accountability to individuals.

The key disagreements are not over the name of the commission, but when it will start and who will be on it. The URNG wants the commission to begin work as soon as both sides can set a date, rather than waiting until an overall peace agreement is reached. Indeed, the rebels want the entire human rights accord to go into effect now, with United Nations oversight.

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President Jorge Serrano Elias's government is willing to let the commission be formed now.

To avoid disrupting the talks, however, officials argue that the commission should not start working until after a peace pact is signed, and that the human rights accord should not be verified earlier.

The government wants the commission to be composed of three Guatemalans. The URNG wants a representative of the UN and the Catholic Church on the panel too.

"International participation is fundamental to the credibility of the commission and the complete human rights accord," says Luis Bekker Guzman, a URNG negotiator. "A Guatemalan would be subject to a multiplicity of pressures and threats against his life and family."

But the government's firm position from the start has been that this is a Guatemalan war and Guatemalans will resolve it. Unlike El Salvador, where the UN is directly involved in mediating and implementing a peace accord, the UN has been allowed only observer status in the negotiations. Army keeps eye on El Salvador

There is concern on the part of the government and the military, particularly having seen what the leftist guerrillas won at the negotiating table in El Salvador, that international participation would tilt the talks in favor of the URNG.

The military is deeply concerned by the the political crisis in neighboring El Salvador caused by a pending purge of high-ranking military officers named by a commission set up to investigate human rights abuses and corruption.

Guatemala's chief government negotiator, Manuel Conde Orellana, says the Salvadoran peace process has both helped and hindered the Guatemalan talks.

"At the level of the public, it has helped develop confidence that peace can be attained here," he says. "But there's also some confusion that what happened there could happen here."

But as everyone, including the URNG, says, "Guatemala is not El Salvador." More precisely, the URNG does not have the clout to get the deal El Salvador's Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) got. Rebels are relatively weak

"The URNG's influence is limited. They don't have much to negotiate with militarily or even politically," says Carlos Ochoa Garcia of Guatemala-based Institute of International Relations and Peace Research.

For example, the FMLN numbered about 8,000 troops. Most estimates of the URNG place their forces at about 1,000. The FMLN controlled an estimated 20 percent of El Salvador. The URNG controls small patches of the highlands.

"The government believes it has won this war. The URNG knows it can't mount a military offensive like the FMLN. But after 30 years its commanders want to leave the table with something to show for their efforts," says one diplomat here.

The URNG also lost one of its main negotiating points and a source of sympathy for fund raising in October - the war-refugee population living in squalor just over the border in Mexico.

On Oct. 8, the Guatemalan government and the refugee leaders agreed on a plan to begin repatriating the 45,000 Guatemalans in exile.

"The refugee agreement is one example of the government not waiting for the URNG to set the agenda," Mr. Ochoa says. "It has also passed labor-reform laws and begun discussing constitutional reforms. Even among military officials they've begun discussing restructuring the armed forces for a peacetime role."

If the two sides can clear the human rights hurdle, Mr. Conde predicts a faster pace to the negotiations. "We are now in the most difficult point of the negotiations because of the political and military implications of the subject," he says. "Once past this point, I think the other points on the agenda will fall more rapidly."

The next topic is likely to be indigenous rights, and both sides say Ms. Menchu could have a role in these discussions.

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