In a 1981 memo, written weeks before his confirmation by the Senate, Abrams stated that “human rights is at the core of our foreign policy.” His record says otherwise.
Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, or any other country that respects human rights do not have fond memories of Elliott Abrams. The Biden administration’s nomination of Abrams to the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is wrong and, given his track record, is an insult to diplomacy.
Abrams gained prominence when he served as President Ronald Reagan’s Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs. He later became Assistant Secretary for Inter-American Affairs. And yet, Abrams has been accused of covering up atrocities carried out by the military forces of U.S.-backed Central American governments in Guatemala and El Salvador and of supporting the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. With characteristic chutzpah, he accused his critics of being “Un-American” and “unpatriotic.”
In a 1981 memo, written weeks before his confirmation by the Senate, Abrams stated that “human rights is at the core of our foreign policy.” In 1985, The Lawyers Committee, Americas Watch and Helsinki Watch charged Abrams for developing a policy that undermined the purpose of the human rights bureau in the State Department.
Abrams dismissed the gravity of the massacre, stating to a Senate committee that the reported number of deaths at El Mozote was not “credible” and that “it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.”
What has Elliott Abrams done to receive such harsh criticism? In 1983, as Assistant Secretary of State, Abrams advocated aid to Guatemala then ruled by dictator General Efraín Ríos Montt. Abrams stated that Ríos Montt’s ruling “brought considerable progress” to human rights in that country.
Ríos Montt came to power in 1982. In 2013, he was found guilty of overseeing a mass campaign of murder and torture of Indigenous people in the country. Ríos Montt’s defense was that he had no operational control of the military forces involved in the massacre.
In El Salvador, on December 10, 1981, the Salvadoran military bombarded El Mozote, a small town in the Morazán district of El Salvador. An estimated one thousand people were massacred, with almost half of the victims being minors. After the massacre, the troops returned to their headquarters to inform their superiors of the operation’s “success.” To this day, the El Mozote Massacre marks the largest massacre to occur in Latin America.
Abrams dismissed the gravity of the massacre, stating to a Senate committee that the reported number of deaths at El Mozote was not “credible” and that “it appears to be an incident that is at least being significantly misused, at the very best, by the guerrillas.” A 1992 Human Rights Watch report criticized Abrams for downplaying the massacre.
The Salvadoran deaths squads—commanded by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, who proclaimed himself “The Fuhrer of El Salvador”—didn’t even spare religious figures. The most noted victim was Archbishop Oscar Romero. Romero was assassinated while presiding a memorial Mass in the Carmelite Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia on March 24, 1980.
He had issued an appeal to soldiers carrying out assassinations to disobey their orders. “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to Heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!” In 2001, Abrams said that Washington’s policy in El Salvador had been a “fabulous achievement.”
In Nicaragua, Abrams worked closely with Contra rebels who were trying to overthrow the Government. In 1982, Congress shut down funding for the Contras through what was known as the Boland Amendment. Behind the scenes, Abrams worked closely with Colonel Oliver North secretly seeking contributions to assist the Contra rebels.
In 1986, to obtain additional funds for the Contras, Abrams met with Brunei’s defense minister General Ibnu Basit bin Apong in London, to solicit a $10 million contribution from the Sultan of Brunei. Because of a clerical error in Oliver North’s office, the money was sent to the wrong Swiss bank account, and the Contras never received the funds. As an intelligence operation it was a total failure; the blunder, however, made someone extremely happy.
In 1991, Abrams admitted in his Congressional testimony that he knew more about the case than he had acknowledged, and reached a plea agreement in which he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress. Abrams was sentenced to a $50 fine, probation for two years, and 100 hours of community service. He was later pardoned by President George H. W. Bush in December 1992.
Abrams also left traces of his nefarious political involvement in Venezuela. Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela, carried out a series of reforms that infuriated Washington. The U.K. Observer reported that Abrams had advance knowledge of these reforms and had approved the military coup that removed Chávez from power for 47 hours.
Abrams was also one of the intellectual architects of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. In 1998, he co-authored a letter to President Bill Clinton urging regime change in Iraq. It is now widely accepted that the invasion of Iraq was a failure. It didn’t produce any substantial economic development, improve the country’s judicial institutions, or create a better standard of living for the Iraqis.
Abrams’ track record on human rights is the antithesis of public diplomacy. Nominating him for a diplomacy post is wrong. It means that a man who has shown a tremendous disregard for human rights, democracy, and the rule of law can still be rewarded and celebrated.