UN Urged to Sharpen Its Focus on Salvador Human Rights Abuses UN May Have Softened Criticism of Salvadoran Government's Human Rights Record to Enhance Neutral Image in Negotiations, Report Says

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AN Americas Watch report card released Sept. 2 on the first ever United Nations human rights mission in a member state credits the UN for "dramatically" improving the observance of law in El Salvador. But the Washington-based human rights group castigates the UN for pulling punches and allowing its role in overseeing the peace accords to impede investigations into rights abuses.

"Human rights problems are treated with the same kind of cautious diplomacy that one might use in attempting to solve political disputes.... When investigations have touched an especially raw nerve, ONUSAL {the UN Observer Mission in El Salvador} has been timid in criticizing the government," the report says.

For example, Americas Watch cites the case of a former UN human rights worker who claimed in July that he was not permitted to follow up on a series of purported death-squad killings.

Iqbal Riza, head of ONUSAL, admits that scarce resources forced him to scavenge personnel from the human rights division to perform other duties. But he denies ever obstructing an investigation or taking a kid-gloves approach to rights abuses for the sake of political expediency.

"On every human rights report issued, we've received strong criticism from the government for being anti-government. And we've received criticism from NGOs {nongovernmental organizations} for not being anti-government enough," Mr. Riza says. "NGOs expect us to work as they do. We can't possibly do that. They publicize cases, appear in court. They're more crusaders than verifiers."

ONUSAL began human rights monitoring in July 1991, before the brutal 12-year civil war here had ended. It set up six regional offices with 100 police and human rights observers. Its investigators are endowed with the unprecedented power to visit any government office without prior notice.

With the Jan. 16 signing of a peace agreement, the UN role expanded to include verifying compliance with the cease-fire, demobilization of armies, and the broad range of civilian and military reforms.

The Americas Watch report also acknowledges the challenges confronting ONUSAL:

* Human rights officials have been subject to numerous death threats from shadowy ultra-right-wing groups.

* Salvadoran officials have interfered with ONUSAL's selection of personnel.

* Some Salvadoran judges have not felt bound to cooperate with ONUSAL, a serious impediment since investigations here are carried out primarily by judges. Indeed, after months of battling with El Salvador's notoriously corrupt and ineffective judiciary, ONUSAL officials called for its "complete overhaul" in a June report. …