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Appointments insult human rights cause

Whatever qualities President Bush may recognize in his recent appointments to several key foreign policy posts, what much of the rest of the world sees is a brusque affront to the cause of human rights and a particular insult to several countries in Central America.

At a time when El Salvador and Guatemala grope toward democracy while dealing with horrific memories of slaughter, torture and genocide at the hands of official armies and paramilitary units, the United States is rewarding those who bore major responsibility for the U.S. role in the brutality (see story page 7).

The record is disturbing.

John Negroponte, nominated by Bush to be U.N. ambassador, should be sitting before a congressional committee, but not for a confirmation hearing. He should be there to answer questions and cough up documents regarding his role as U.S. ambassador to Honduras in the early 1980s when a U.S.-trained death squad known as Battalion 3-16 was on the rampage.

The battalion tortured and murdered scores of anti-government activists during that period.

Otto Reich, who ran the Office of Public Diplomacy out of the State Department in the 1980s, also ought to be sitting before a congressional committee, again not for a confirmation hearing but to answer tough questions about his role in illegal domestic propaganda activities. During the 1980s, his office, taking orders from Oliver North, conducted a campaign to discredit opponents of the administration-funded contra war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

It is unsettling that someone whose idea of public service would include misinformation campaigns against fellow citizens should be rewarded with nomination as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.

One of the more confounding appointments is that of Elliott Abrams, who escaped congressional scrutiny because his new position -- senior director of the National Security Council’s office for democracy, human rights and international operations -- does not require senate confirmation.

In the past, Abrams has flippantly dismissed the findings of Catholic church human rights committees in El Salvador and Guatemala and the findings of U.N. truth commissions that conducted extensive investigations in both countries. It is not surprising that he dismisses the findings. They are chilling in their precise documentation of human rights abuses and their conclusions that the United States was complicit for years in aiding and abetting some of the bloodiest dictators and militaries in the hemisphere.

Abrams left government service last time in disgrace, convicted of withholding information from Congress -- in other words, lying -- during the Iran-contra investigations, and at that he got off lightly. The current president’s father pardoned Abrams.

Abrams’ rehabilitation as a government employee should not come so quickly or easily. For starters, he owes the American people a detailed explanation of his involvement with Oliver North and for seeking illegal funds during the Iran-contra scheme.

Even more, he owes the American people a detailed account of his tenure as President Reagan’s chief of U.S. policy in Latin America, first as assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs and later as the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs. During that period, massacres occurred in El Salvador. Genocide, in the words of the U.N. truth commission report, was carried out in Guatemala. Further, the United States government contributed to the undermining of a legitimately elected government in Nicaragua.

Bush should be demanding answers and disclosing classified documents from that period, not rewarding Negroponte, Reich and Abrams with new jobs. These are people who have betrayed, not earned, the public’s trust.

National Catholic Reporter, August 10, 2001