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
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. …