El Salvador: Effecting Change from Within

By Hertvik, Nicole | UN Chronicle, September 1, 2002 | Go to article overview

El Salvador: Effecting Change from Within


Hertvik, Nicole, UN Chronicle


Ten years after a United Nations-brokered peace plan I brought an end to El Salvador's twelve-year civil war, the institutionalized human rights violations associated with that war have been drastically reduced.

While the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) was successful in addressing politically-motivated human rights violations, a new threat has risen out of the ashes of the war--urban violence--keeping fear and insecurity at the centre of life in El Salvador. Today, crime is cited as the major concern of most Salvadorans.

When peacekeepers went into the country in 1989, the violent war was still raging. Rooted in a system of persistent social and economic inequality, the fighting between government forces and the revolutionary Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) left 75,000 dead and over a million displaced.

As agreed in the 1990 Geneva Agreement, one of the central aims of the peace process would be "to guarantee unrestricted respect for human rights". At a later stage, then Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar established the Truth Commission, which was authorized to investigate the starkest human rights violations of the civil war. While conducting its work, the investigative body received more than 22,000 complaints of extrajudicial executions, torture and forced disappearances that had occurred between January 1980 and July 1991. Ninety-five percent of the violent acts documented were found to have been committed by the military, government security forces and death squads. Intimidation, death threats, executions and disappearances were found to be common tools used against opposition voices, human rights activists and suspected rebels. In addition, the judicial system was found to be "incapable of fairly assessing and carrying out punishment".

Since the Truth Commission had no authority to prosecute or punish offenders, they were limited to making recommendations. However, the recommendations made in its report met with stiff criticism. Many of those accused retained high-level positions in various government offices. And to the chagrin of all involved, the day after the report was made public on 15 March 1993, Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani announced his intention to ask the National Assembly to pass an amnesty law which would favour everyone named in the report.

Although the limitations restricted the changes ONUSAL could bring to the country, the Mission contributed successfully to eradicating political violence. By the time the Commission's report was published, enforced disappearances, torture and killings had been nearly eliminated. Government security forces had been abolished and a new security force--the National Civilian Police--was being trained on human rights by the United Nations.

While setbacks did occur, such as a slower than hoped-for change in the judicial system, ONUSAL left El Salvador secure in the knowledge that rather than an institutionalized part of the political system, human rights abuses were anomalies in a system bent on reforming itself. But while instances of political violence were decreasing, another kind was growing in its shadow. Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America says: "Although 'classic' human rights abuses like execution and disappearances are not much of a problem in El Salvador today, the country is facing many challenges centred on economic and development issues." He classifies urban violence as one of the most pressing problems. His view is echoed by the World Bank, which lists "micro-insecurity", or urban street crime, as a problem of epidemic proportions.

Many international non-governmental organizations are currently focusing their work on economic development issues, but the resources devoted to El Salvador have been greatly reduced since the end of the civil war. Where human rights violations, such as extrajudicial murders and disappearances, once made headlines, the world is largely unaware of the country's new insecurity. …

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