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Lessons From El Salvador

UN peace process, human rights focus offer encouraging examples

WITH all the seemingly intractable problems facing the United Nations - in Bosnia, Somalia, and Angola, for example - its Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) stands out as a "jewel in a crown of thorns," in the words of one high-ranking UN official. The relative success of ONUSAL ended a decade-long civil war and has the potential for radically transforming the country, providing several important lessons the UN can apply elsewhere.

First, concerned about launching the UN on a peace process without adequate international support, the secretary-general secured the commitment of "four friends" - Colombia, Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela - to remain engaged until the accords were signed and implemented. Working in tandem with the US, the "four plus one" added critical weight and authority to the meditation efforts, and convinced the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front that the international community would guarantee the implementati on of the accords. The UN and these five key states were able to persuade, cajole, and pressure the two sides into making the compromises necessary to keep the peace process alive. This arrangement allowed the US to use its enormous influence in El Salvador without having to play the unpopular role of "global policeman."

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A second lesson can be drawn from the centrality of human rights to national reconciliation in El Salvador. The deployment of human rights monitors before a cease-fire was achieved, unprecedented in UN history, helped pave the way to a broader political settlement. By agreeing to international human rights verification, President Alfredo Cristiani made the key concession that unlocked the stalemate. Futhermore, the UN presence demonstrated to both parties and to the Salvadoran people the UN's commitment to the peace process, making it difficult for them to back out.

Even more striking than the agreement to allow ongoing human rights monitoring was the decision to open the past to scrutiny by the Truth Commission. The report recommended extensive judicial reforms and banned the worst human rights abusers from public life for 10 years. By putting an official stamp on what nongovernmental groups had been reporting for years, the report set in motion a process through which Salvadorans are coming to terms with their past.

The secretary-general has described ONUSAL as a pioneering experience in post-conflict peace building, the third key lesson of El Salvador. The UN's current task is to help bring about the structural and institutional changes needed to prevent a return to the previous regime of violence and human rights abuses. It is overseeing the restructuring of the army, the public security services, and the judicial system, as well as the equitable redistribution of land.

Unfortunately, the institutions charged with implementing the accords, including the Legislative Assembly and the National Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (an internal oversight body composed of all political parties), have failed to ensure that the sometimes vague promises of the agreements are implemented in good faith. In those areas where progress has been made, such as purging the armed forces, senior UN officials and the "friends" had to apply intense pressure directly on the parties.

UN peacemaking, peacekeeping, and peace-building in El Salvador have indeed been a pioneering effort, the lessons of which have not been lost elsewhere. In Haiti, another group of "friends" - Canada, France, the United States, and Venezuela - helped the UN and OAS broker the deal that will return President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power. A truth commission, discussed there as well, would be particularly important since the army has resisted any proposal that would lead to the purge of top military offic ers. Futhermore, Mr. Aristide recently requested UN assistance in creating a new police force and reforming the military.

Interestingly, in Guatemala the former president tried to appropriate a version of the Salvadorian "friends" process by inviting the same four countries to be "friends of the president," hoping to enlist their support in the peace process while keeping the UN, long critical of the government's human rights record, at a distance. Without the active participation of the UN, the role of honest broker, so crucial to getting both sides to make the necessary sacrifices for peace in El Salvador, went unfilled. The importance of human rights to peace and reconciliation in Guatemala is another lesson from El Salvador appropriated by the Guatemalan leadership. Former President Jorge Serrano Elias offered to accept international verification of human rights, and the new president, Ramiro de Leon Carpio, appointed with the approval of the military, was the former human rights ombudsman.

In Bosnia, a truth commission could complement the planned war crimes tribunal.

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The UN "friends" approach strikes a chord in Africa, as the role of Zimbabwe and Uganda in support of UN mediation in Mozambique illustrates. And visitors to El Salvador from as far away as Rwanda, the Philippines, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka have come to learn how, through a combination of regional pressure, emphasis on human rights, and sustained commitment to peace-building, the UN can successfully shepherd a country to peace.

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