WASHINGTON -- The report of the United Nations commission on human-rights violations in El Salvador puts to an early test President Clinton's campaign resolve to make protection of human rights around the world a guiding principle of his foreign policy.
The report, which came down hard on military leaders and other officials on both sides of the 12-year civil war in the small Central American country, also by implication criticized the Reagan and Bush administrations for their support of Salvadoran army and ,, government leaders accused of responsibility for the infamous death squads and other killings that marked that brutal period.
The Clinton administration met the report with a certain wariness, its State Department spokesman declining to take the predecessor Republican administrations to task. But one influential Democrat on Capitol Hill in the human rights area, Rep. Robert G. Torricelli of New Jersey, a former Carter White House official, says the report demands a forthright acknowledgment of what happened in the past so that the past is not repeated.
Torricelli says he understands if President Clinton feels personally restrained in blowing the whistle on predecessors Ronald Reagan and George Bush, but says American policy in the human rights field must never again be handled as it was regarding El Salvador during the Reagan era.
He recalls that under specific legislation governing aid to El Salvador all the president had to do to keep American aid flowing to the authoritarian right-wing government there was to certify to Congress annually that human-rights progress was being made. President Reagan "in deciding to lie," Torricelli says, undermined the integrity of American foreign policy in the whole region. Reagan's willingness to look the other way in the face of demonstrable abuses was "absolutely despicable," he says.
The rationale for the policy then was the Cold War, and the perceived threat of communism moving deeper into the Western Hemisphere in the presence of the Marxist guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Salvadoran regime. But with the Cold War over, and the civil war ended, that rationale has been shattered, Torricelli says.
Nevertheless, says the congressman and former aide to then Vice President Walter F. Mondale, there remains considerable resistance to change within the foreign-policy bureaucracy, with much of it still "running on automatic pilot" regarding support for authoritarian regimes. As the world's sole remaining superpower, Torricelli says, the United States should now demand strict compliance with human rights as the price for future American aid, and the Clinton administration should insist that individuals named in the U.N. report be barred from further government or military service.
One of the major casualties of the defeat of President Jimmy Carter in 1980 was his insistence on human rights as a cornerstone of American foreign policy.
As a private citizen he has become a sort of human-rights ambassador without portfolio, particularly in Central America, where he has monitored elections and urged stronger stands against human-rights abuses.
Clinton in the 1992 campaign promised to restore the issue to the prominence it enjoyed under Carter, who, he said in a speech in Milwaukee last October, "challenged dictators of the left and the right when finally he put human rights on America's and the world's agenda."
No foreign policy, Clinton said, "can long succeed if it does not reflect the enduring values of the American people."
Yet Clinton's first serious, visible act in the field was his decision to retain for the present the Bush administration's policy of turning back Haitian refugees trying to reach U.S. shores in makeshift boats. He pleaded concern over the hazards they face. He has said less risky means of considering political asylum must be established.
So the jury is out on whether Bill Clinton will prove to be another Jimmy Carter on human rights. The end of the Cold War makes it easier for him to do so, but also raises expectations that he will.