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

Article excerpt

`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.

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.

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. …