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Books and reviews : "The United Nations Mission in El Salvador: A humanitarian law perspective"

30-04-1997 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 317, by Maria Teresa Dutli

 Maria Teresa Dutli  , ICRC Legal Division  

 Tathiana Flores Acuña, The United Nations Mission in El Salvador: A humanitarian law perspective,   Nijhoff Law Specials, Vol. 14, Kluwer Law International, The Hague/London/Boston, 1995, 253 pp.  

The value of this book lies both in the topicality of its subject and in its innovative approach to the study of international humanitarian law. Based on the author's Ph.D. thesis, it draws a number of lessons from the conflict in El Salvador, a case that is of particular importance in that field of law since it was the first internal conflict in which 1977 Additional Protocol II supplementary to Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions was applied.

Tathiana Flores Acuña sought to examine the activities of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) in terms of the implementation of international humanitarian law. As the UN's first attempt to mediate the settlement of a non-international armed conflict, this mission played a substantial role in reducing the incidence of human rights violations and breaches of that law.

The deployment of ONUSAL throughout the territory of El Salvador, and the broad powers that were conferred on it, helped at tenuate the consequences of the conflict and, to a certain extent, eased the suffering of its many victims; at the same time, the political activities which ONUSAL engaged in as a mediator between the two parties paved the way for the signing of the peace agreement.

Owing to the highly political nature of its mandate, ONUSAL frequently encountered difficulties in seeking to fulfil it; nevertheless, such difficulties were offset by the " human factor " , the will to conclude an agreement shown by both parties to the conflict and the determination and ability of the people involved in the process, who played a decisive role in ensuring that the UN force was set up and the peace agreement negotiated.

The preliminary agreement concluded between the parties to the conflict in San José granted ONUSAL very broad powers to monitor the implementation of international humanitarian law. However, ONUSAL made limited use of these powers, and the ICRC continued to carry out its humanitarian work for civilians as long as the conflict lasted. It was with the consent of this organization, and thanks to its experience, that ONUSAL gradually took over such tasks. ONUSAL might have been able to act with less restraint had it not been forits specific nature and limitations as a UN body.

According to the author, the sphere in which ONUSAL achieved the greatest degree of success was the administration of justice: particular efforts were made to ensure that judicial guarantees were respected during criminal procedures and to reorganize the judicial system as a whole. In other areas, however, ONUSAL could have played a broader role.

In drawing the lessons from this case study, Tathiana Flores Acuña makes a number of observations and offers some proposals for action. She also stresses the fundamental role played by ONUSAL in putting an end to the conflict in El Salvador and the importance of respect for internatio nal humanitarian law as a factor for peace.

Annexed to the study are the three ONUSAL reports, which provide readers with a valuable reference source.

In conclusion, this book deserves a place on the bookshelves of all those who are interested in international humanitarian law, especially students of the law applicable to non-international armed conflicts.