On June 20, the White Warriors Union, a right wing terrorist organization in El Salvador, notified 47 Jesuit priests that they must leave the country in 30 days or risk becoming "military targets."
That kind of report from a small Central American country would probably have received only routine attention at the State Department at one time. But the Department's response in the era of President Carter's human rights policy has been anything but routine.
Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance has become personally involved in the effort to protect the priests (even though none are American), and U.S. diplomatic steps also have been taken in San Salvador.
The El Salvador situation indicates the way human rights has begun to affect United States relations with dozens of nations. Officials say it also shows the diplomatic dilemmas, if not limitations, of government advocacy of human rights.
Last Tuesday, deputy assistant of state Richard G. Arellano stopped off in El Salvador on his way to a meeting in Mexico. Arellano reportedly discussed the priests with President Carlos Humberto Romero.
Earlier, the United States indicated it might oppose a $90 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank for a new hydroelectric plant in El Salvador because of human rights abuses. The El Salvador government withdrew the loan application.
State Department officials and other sources say there is a "climate of violence" in El Salvador. The White Warriors Union has labeled the Jesuits "Communists", and taken credit for six bombings at the Jesuit university and the assassination of one priest since the start of the year.
Warren L. Miller, El Salvador's attorney in Washington, said Friday that "the government does not sanction or acquiesce in this and will prosecute vigorously any unlawful actions."
However, Catholic officials here claim that the White Warriors have at least been tolerated by the government.
In April, anti-government terrorists captured foreign minister Mauricio Borganovo, 37. He was killed in May.
In May, army units moved into the town of Aquilares after unrest, sealed it off and, according to reports received by Roman Catholics here, beat and killed people. According to some reports, persons found with pictures of a priest who had been slain there in March were beaten.
El Salvador attorney Miller denied these reports and said the violence occurred during a "shoot out" with terrorists.
U.S. officials said they are moving cautiously because of the extreme volatility of the situation. They acknowledge that a failure to act forcefully could be taken as a sign that the Administration's commitment to human rights is weakening. But too forceful a step could cause a reaction in El Salvador against outside pressure and possibly forfeit what U.S. leverage there is.
"The guts of the human rights program isn't to make us feel good -- it's to help people", said one official.
The backdrop for the El Salvador situation is a widening discussion in the Carter Administration about the future dimensions, techniques, priorities and guidelines for U.S. human rights diplomacy. A Presidential Review Memorandum requested by the National Security Council on the subject is now making its way through the bureaucracy.
Some parts of the State Department, however, are critical of the human rights effort, particularly in Latin America, sources say. The critics argue that strong American intervention could jeopardize other U.S. foreign policy objectives, as well as interests of American citizens and businesses.
On July 1, Rep. Edward I. Koch (D-N.Y.) charged that "certain segments of the State Department" want to undercut the President's human rights policy. On June 22, assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Terence A. Todman wrote four congressmen backing restoration of military aid funds to Nicaragua. The State Department had stipulated earlier that rights violations existed there.
But senior administration officials say the policy will be maintained and strengthened, with the laying out of a range of steps to deal with threats to human rights. These range from diplomatic contacts to the cutting of economic and military aid.
An Interagency Committee on Human Rights and Foreign Assistance was set up in april to review the loans from international banks in which the United States is represented.
One result of that was a U.S. decision to abstain from voting on two World Bank loans to Ethiopia for road building and irrigation. Officials who reviewed conditions under the regime of Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam concluded that repression was increasing. Officials said that the abstentions "signaled dismay" but stopped short of opposition to the loans, because a stronger stand might have endangered Americans still in Ethiopia.
Recently, the Interagency review group has begun focusing on bilateral U.S. economic aid programs.
In June, the Carter administration deferred a decision on giving $11 million in aid to Chile. The announcement cited a need to "see how the human rights situation develops."
Deputy Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher said last week that he expects food aid loans under Public Law 430 (the Food for Peace program) to come before the interagency review group on human rights.
The United States ships about $1 billion worth of food abroad a year under that program. About one quarter of the food is given away to needy people and would not be affected, he said. However, about $750 million worth of food is purchased with U.S. food aid loans. That food does not necessarily go to hungry people and will be subject to a review of whether the country receiving the loans shows adequate concern for human rights, Christopher said.
Officials acknowledge that cutbacks in Public Law 480 food shipments based on human rights factors could annoy U.S. farm lobbies which count on the program to get rid of surplus agricultural commodities.
"The implementation of the human rights policy could well cause comment from domestic groups," Christopher said. "It's a very complicated, delicate policy to implement."
The U.S. Export-Import Bank, which finances the sale of American equipment abroad, has also been brought into the interagency human rights review process.
A bank spokesman said human rights conditions in Chile were a factor in a decision not to reconsider a policy against financing trade with that country.
In one case, the bank told the U.S. Steel Corporation that it would not give loans so Chile could purchase offshore oil drilling equipment from the American company.
The Carter Administration is also reviewing applications for licenses to export weapons even when no government financing is involved in the sales. For instance, applications for licenses to sell small arms to Britain were approved only after it was determined that England was not violating human rights in Northern Ireland.
Similarly, the sale of pistols to Indonesia was approved after the administration decided that that country was making progress in safeguarding the human rights of political prisoners.
As the policy unfolds, administration officials concede that numerous difficulties are becoming apparent. In a speech on April 30 at the University of Georgia's Law School in Athens, Ga., Vance defined human rights as personal freedoms, enjoyment of civil and political liberties and adequate food, shelter, health care and education.
That American definition of economic rights is so broad that some officials say privately that some nations might have to undergo radical social and economic change in order to qualify.
But U.S. officials say that a policy that encourages normal change is less "interventionist" than a policy which gives economic and military assistance to regimes that oppose such changes and crush political dissent. Romania provides an example of the complexity of defining human rights. The Carter Administration has urged Congress to continue preferential trade relations with Romania, citing the Communist government's policy of allowing Jews to emigrate abroad. However, Communist affairs analysts say Romania is one of the most repressive regimes in other respects.
Protestants in that country have circulated a petition charging harassment and job discrimination.
And a number of Romanians living abroad are separated from their families and unable to get permission from the government in Bucharest for a reunion.
Constantin Rauta, a former Communist party member who was granted political asylum in the United States in 1973, said last week that all efforts to get the government to permit his wife and three year-old son to rejoin him have failed. Authorities in Bucharest also cut off his phone calls to his wife, Rauta said here last week.
Another complicated case is Yugoslavia, According to Amnesty International, that Communist country has a substantial number of political prisoners. But it also allows its citizens to travel freely abroad and its economy is based on a system of workers' democracy.
Vance acknowledged in his April 30 speech that a "doctrinaire" approach to the human rights question would be "as damaging as indifference."
"A sure formula for defeat of our goals would be a rigid, hubristic attempt to impose our values on others," he said.
In Brazil, the United States has an interest in improving human rights conditions -- but also in influencing the government to prevent fuel used in future nuclear reactors from being reprocessed into material usable in atomic weapons.
Reports of torture in Brazil have stopped. State Department officials say. That is one of a number of small signs that countries abroad may be responding to the new emphasis of the U.S. Government on human rights.
In May, Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos ordered Trinidad Herrera, 35, a slum leader, freed from prison, apparently as a result of U.S. concern over reports that she had been arrested and tortured.
In Iran, investigators of the International Red Cross recently were permitted to visit 30 prisons and submit a report to the Shah. The Iranian government has also submitted a bill to Parliament requiring the naming of defense lawyers in political arrest cases.