Lessons from El Salvador UN Peace Process, Human Rights Focus Offer Encouraging Examples

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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 implementation 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."

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. …


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