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Message from Houston for Freedom and Peace

By Jimmy Carter

Published by the Houston Chronicle.

The year 1991 is one we will remember for the remarkable advances toward freedom and democracy in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. We will also remember it for the continuing brutality of armed conflict. While world attention was focused on the end of the war in the Persian Gulf, most of us didn't realize that at least 30 other battles continued to rage around the globe - from a distant desert to a cornfield to an urban street.

Significantly, these deadly flare-ups are not between sovereign nations. Instead, the conflicts that threaten to engulf our world today are among struggling factions within national borders. While this may seem a gloomy prospect for peace, there is hope.

This year too, there has been a growing commitment to the peaceful resolution of civil and military strife. In a few cases, international organizations such as the United Nations and the Organization of American States have played an active role in helping resolve explosive issues. Increasingly, private organizations are joining this effort.

The peaceful resolution of conflict can involve such techniques as monitoring elections or acting as mediator between governments and dissident factions, work we carry forward at the Carter Center in Atlanta. In Zambia this year, for example, our 11-nation team of monitor's assisted in the implementation of a multiparty electoral system. On election day, voters withstood long hours, long lines and debilitating heat to cast their ballots in Zambia's first truly democratic election.

We had witnessed this same phenomenon in Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Haiti, where we've also served as official election monitors. To have played a small role in the birth of democracy is inspiring. Everywhere I go, I am moved by the fierce determination of the people to be free.

Each invitation to monitor elections or hold a human rights inquiry opens the possibility of a greater democratization and peace. In advancing the prospects for reconciliation among the civil warriors throughout the world, such slender hopes can sometimes turn to reality. It is against that backdrop of fragile hope that we honor in Houston this weekend the work of six remarkable men who gave their lives in the belief that a negotiated settlement is possible to end the tragic cycle of civil strife in El Salvador.

The six Jesuits who were assassinated in their home at the Central American University Jose Simeon Canas on Nov. 16, 1989, were all distinguished teacher who believed education would enrich their nation. Five of the six, born in Spain, became citizens of El Salvador. One, born to an elite Salvadoran family, devoted his life to the health and education of his country's children. Together, they served a university that became a beacon of civilized light.

The rector, Father Ignacio Ellacuria, was an articulate spokesman for the poor of El Salvador. He was a widely acclaimed philosopher and theologian and was among the first to call for a negotiated end to that nation's civil war. Father Ignacio Martin Baro, a psychologist, pioneered polling in El Salvador and examined the effects of war on Salvadorans mental health. Sociologist Father Segundo Montes was one of the country's leading experts on refugees and those displaced by war. Father Juan Ramon Moreno taught philosophy and helped direct the Oscar Romero Reflection Center. Father Armando Lopez was the director of Faith and Joy, a countrywide network of programs and health clinics for children.

Then, on a single day, a group of military soldiers - opposed to any negotiations with the opposition - brutally murdered these men in an attempt to destroy the spirit of their work. A trial this fall, which resulted in the conviction of two officers, is still an uneasy and inconclusive end to the tragedy. It is not at all clear that everyone who was responsible for this crime had been held accountable.

Less than a month ago, a special panel of U.S. House of Representatives concluded there is strong circumstantial evidence suggesting that the murder of the Jesuits was masterminded by a group of senior Salvadoran army officers, including the current defense minister. A continuing inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of the six is a necessary exercise in democratic rights and dues process.

Thus, it is important for us to honor the commitment of the six Jesuits through the posthumous Carter-Menil Human Rights Prize, which we award to the current rector and vice rector of the Central American University in San Salvador for their human Rights Institute. The Rothko Chapel ceremonies in Houston give us an occasion to reflect on the global need for peace. We are also heartened by the example of Bishop Rondolfo Quezadatoruno's peace efforts in Guatemala, for which he is presented the Rothko Chapel Oscar Romero award.

The importance of calling attention to these heroes is underscored by the presence of Nelson Mandela, who agreed to give the keynote address at the chapel ceremony. Mandela's presence and words lift the spirits of all those who seek justice and freedom.

These awards highlight the need to understand that the resolution of conflict in Third World areas, where shockingly high numbers of people lack even basic survival necessities, must include a recognition of the economic, social and historic realities of the region.

Although war is the most blatant form of conflict, there are other kinds of strife that tear apart individuals, families and countries. Poverty, autocratic regimes and human rights abuses all create conflicts that lead to a degradation of the quality of human life.

Political oppression, racial discrimination and environmental deterioration because of deforestation, loss of arable land, siltation of streams or forced abandonment of historical home sites all create a sense of hopelessness and despair, leading in many cases to revolution and violence.

It is my hope that by drawing attention to the courageous lives of these six slain Jesuits of El Salvador, we will help raise the world's awareness of the largely ignored but horrendous suffering in the world.

Former President Carter is founder and chairman of The carter Center in Atlanta and co-founder, with Houston art patron and human rights advocate Dominique de Menil, of the Carter-Menil Human Rights Foundation, which is presenting its human rights awards at the Rothko Chapel here this weekend.

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