United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL)

International Information

International Operation Name: Misión de Observadores de las Naciones Unidas en El Salvador

International Mission Name: United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL)

Mandating Organization: United Nations

Region Name: Central America

Location: El Salvador

Mission Date: 20 May 1991 - 30 April 1995

Mission Mandate: ONUSAL, a Spanish-only speaking mission, was established on 20 May 1991 by Security Council Resolution 693. Its mandate was to verify the implementation of all agreements between the Government of El Salvador and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional aimed at ending a decade-long civil war. The agreements involved a cease-fire and related measures, reform and reduction of the armed forces, creation of a new police force, reform of the judicial and electoral systems, observance of human rights, and land tenure reform as well as other economic and social issues. After the armed conflict had been formally brought to an end in December 1992, ONUSAL verified elections, which were carried out successfully in March and April 1994. 

ONUSAL tasks as set out in Resolution 693 included actively monitoring the human rights situation in El Salvador and investigating and reporting on specific cases of alleged human rights violations. 

On 14 January 1992, the Security Council enlarged the mandate of ONUSAL with Resolution 729. The mandate now included the verification and monitoring of the implementation of “all the agreements once these are signed” at Mexico City between the Government of El Salvador and FMLN. In particular this included the Agreement on the Cessation of the Armed Conflict and the Agreement on the Establishment of a National Civil Police. 

By Resolution 832 of 27 May 1993, the Security Council decided to enlarge ONUSAL's mandate to include observation of the electoral process, and requested the Secretary-General to take the necessary measures to this effect.

Mission/Operation Notes: Of the Central American nations wracked by civil war in the 1980s, perhaps none suffered as much as El Salvador, where more than 80,000 people were killed between 1979 and 1991. 

While there had been some guerrilla activity in El Salvador in the 1960s and 1970s, the level and intensity of violence escalated and broadened following a 1979 coup d’etat which promised widespread reform but could not deliver quickly enough to satisfy all parties. Given continuing human rights abuses, dissatisfaction with the government mounted, and in January 1980 a number of opposition groups formed a common front under the name Coordinadora Revolucionaria de las Masas (CRM – Revolutionary Coordinator of the Masses). Two other groups joined the CRM in October 1980 to form the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN – Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), a coordinating body for five guerrilla groups. The FMLN launched an offensive against the regime in the cities of El Salvador in January 1981. This was defeated, forcing the FMLN to take their fight to the rural areas and operate from neighbouring countries. 

With violence extending throughout most of Central America, the Contadora peace initiative was launched, but eventually failed. However, ideas and proposals advanced during the Contadora process became part of the Esquipulas II peace agreement, signed in August 1987 in which, among other things, the Central American nations agreed to respect each other’s sovereignty and to reduce their own, internal, human rights abuses. In part as a result of Esquipulas II, and in part because the civil war was becoming drawn out, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN began negotiations in September 1989. That the two sides were talking did not bring an end to the violence – 2,000 people were killed in November alone – but the work of ONUCA, the overarching UN presence in Central America, was having an effect on the guerrillas’ use of neighbouring countries and that had a helpful effect on the El Salvador situation. 

In July 1990, the government and FMLN finally signed an Agreement on Human Rights and requested UN assistance. Although it took some time, the Security Council created the Misión de Observadores de las Naciones Unidas en El Salvador (ONUSAL- United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador) on 20 May 1991 through Resolution 693. The mandate was to verify that both parties were complying with the Agreement on Human Rights and to investigate any allegation of breaches. Fifteen military observers, including one from Canada, deployed in early July to serve as liaison between the two sides and with ONUCA. 

The apparent stability and the desire of both sides to end the conflict produced the Act of New York on 31 December 1991, after two weeks of negotiations at UN headquarters. It incorporated all previous agreements and also indicated that the final Peace Agreement would be signed in Mexico City on 16 January 1992. The Security Council supported the enlargement of ONUSAL’s mandate, unanimously voting for Resolution 729 on 14 January. ONUSAL now had three divisions: a Human Rights Division, a Police Division and a Military Division. 

The Human Rights Division had already been initiated under Resolution 693 to monitor human rights. The Police Division was created to overhaul the civilian police in El Salvador and creating and training the new National Civil Police. 

The Military Division was responsible for verifying that all fighting had ceased, that Salvadoran armed forces returned to their barracks, and that FMLN forces assembled in UN-created “designated locations”. The FMLN forces were required to remain in these designated locations, while Salvadoran military forces were excluded from them. FMLN forces could only leave these areas with an ONUSAL pass and an ONUSAL escort. Once in the designated locations, the FMLN troops would be counted, demobilized and reintegrated into society. ONUSAL would then destroy all weapons, while the FMLN had to declare and destroy all weapons in arms caches. ONUSAL observers also had to verify that the government had eliminated its death squads. The Military Division also helped coordinate and control the clearing of 425 mine fields. 

The greater part of the 372 UNMOs for the Military Division arrived in January 1992, including personnel who had transferred from ONUCA to ONUSAL when ONUCA terminated. After the assembly of FMLN forces and the return of government forces to their barracks had been completed in February and March, the number of UNMOs was reduced to 224. The timetable for demobilization was retarded, however, by political developments, most particularly over the issue of land distribution. By 15 December 1992, after assistance from the UN to resolve outstanding issues, the conflict between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN was formally declared to have terminated. This allowed ONUSAL headquarters to further reduce the Military Division. 

The Military Division nevertheless remained busy. Mine clearance was a consistent and continuing task, while there were also FMLN arms caches to investigate, especially after one exploded in Managua, Nicaragua, on 23 May. The peace process was not derailed by this incident and a date was set for the first elections involving the FMLN. ONUSAL’s mandate was accordingly expanded. Although there were some irregularities in the 20 March 1994 elections, they were not significant enough to nullify the results. Further Presidential run-offs were held on 24 April. 

With elections complete and the FMLN and paramilitary forces demobilized, ONUSAL began reducing its strength. The mandate was extended one last time to 30 April 1995 in order to allow ONUSAL to assist in institution-building, such as supporting the parliament, the national police and the Supreme Court. Although there remained problems within El Salvador when the ONUSAL mandate lapsed, ONUSAL was successful in ending the civil war.

Canadian Forces (CF) Information (MATCH)


Date: 1 July 1991 - 31 August 1994

CF Mission/Operation Notes: Canadian participation in ONUSAL was named Operation MATCH. The first Canadian Forces officer arrived in July 1991, at the very start of the mission. Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Morris joined the Human Rights division as the military liaison officer. He went on to serve as ONUSAL Deputy Chief Military Advisor, Chief of Operations at a regional headquarters, but more significantly, was called upon to provide technical assistance during the final negotiations between the FMLN and the government of El Salvador in December 1991. He would play an important role in the New York Agreements. 

CF participation increased on 17 January 1992 when the remaining twenty-three Canadian members of ONUCA were transferred to ONUSAL. At the request of the UN, Canada provided an additional thirty officers to ONUSAL within a week, giving it the second largest number of UNMOs within the mission. They served mainly in El Salvador on cease-fire verification duties, and when this work was completed, fourteen of the ex-ONUCA officers returned to Canada in early March. The thirty augmentees followed later in the month. That left the Canadian contingent with eleven UNMOs, reduced to ten when LCol Morris retired in July. 

The next rotation of Canadian UNMOs came in August 1992 and comprised nine officers, two of whom had been augmentees in January. Eight of the former ONUCA UNMOs also left at that time, reducing Canada’s overall ONUCA contingent to eight. (Its commander would now be the Canadian Forces Attaché in Mexico City.) Two UNMOs were subsequently assigned to UNPROFOR, in the former Yugoslavia, on a temporary basis for eight weeks beginning 27 October, reflected the broad scope of Canada’s peacekeeping efforts in these years. With further reductions in ONUSAL coming in January 1993, the services of six Canadian UNMOs were no longer required, and six volunteered to transfer to the United Nations Mission in Mozambique (ONUMOZ). When two UNMOs were repatriated to Canada and another transferred to the United Nations Operation in Somalia II (UNOSOM II), the Canadian contingent fell to two. 

The final Canadian ONUSAL rotation occurred in August 1993, when two officers who had previously served with ONUCA arrived. They remained for their one-year tour, and when they departed in August 1994 Canadian participation in ONUSAL came to an end. 

During their participation in ONUSAL, Canadian officers held a large number of key appointments, including Chief of Staff, two chiefs of operations at regional headquarters and one at a verification centre, commanders of GOM, and two Deputy Operations Officer at ONUSAL headquarters. The main task of the UNMOs, of course, was observation – the straightforward task of recording whether or not the two parties were complying with the accords. However, observation was supplemented by more difficult tasks such as meeting with local and factional leaders, setting up demobilization centres, patrol and escort duties and personnel documentation. They thus found themselves to be diplomats one day, policemen the next while maintaining a presence that would bring stability to an area or assisting in delivering aid.

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