The United States v. Nicaragua, 1984

In 1984, Nicaragua went to the highest court in the land, the International Court of Justice, created by the UN in 1946, to complain that the US had

a) laid mines in all of its harbors in order to prevent it from using them;
b) funneled money, arms, and intelligence to a small insurgent group of ruthless militias known as the contras (former police squad members of the former dictator, Somoza); and
c) violated Nicaragua’s sovereign right to make the domestic policies that it’s people want.

In response, Reagan said things like:

a) but the contras were “the moral equals of our Founding Fathers” (1985);
b) the democratically elected Nicaraguan government is actually part of “a confederation of terrorist states” (even though it had committed no hostile acts against the US) that was “run by the strangest collection of misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich”; and
c) that the noble contras were “freedom fighters” and heroes who “deserve our support.”

Meanwhile, the CIA had provided planes, arms, intelligence, training, and logistical support to the contra militias so that they could, in the words of the CIA’s illustrated manual prepared for the contras, “paralyze” the industry and infrastructure of “the traitorous Marxist state.” Concretely, besides the infamous laying of mines, this had involved blowing up bridges, attacking factories, fishing boats, hospitals, schools, oil storage tanks, and on and on. This all sounds pretty terrible, and it is, and one wonders how decent people could ever be involved in such a thing. That is a good question.

In fact, it gets far, far worse. Reagan’s “freedom fighters,” the contras, grew out of the former (Somoza) dictator’s National Guardsmen–essentially paid death squads who had fled to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala when the Sandanistas took over in 1979, but were ripe for CIA recruitment in 1981. They had long internalized a culture of terror and ruthlessness, which apparently perfectly fit with CIA intentions, and by the early 1980s they regularly slaughtered the population in the most gruesome fashion, as was regularly documented by numerous human rights groups and other institutions. Yet year after year, Reagan petitioned congress to increase funding and arms for the “freedom fighters”, our heroes Nicaragua enforcing US business interests against the democratic desires of the local population.

For extensive documentation, see, among much work, (former assistant NY Attorney General) Reed Brody’s 1985 book Contra Terror in Nicaragua, or Leslie Cockburn’s 1987 book Out of Control. To cite some examples (which are exorbitantly violent and exceedingly repulsive), opening the Brody report almost at random:

Digna Barreda de Ubeda, mother of two from Esteli, who was kidnapped by the contras in May 1983:

Upon returning [the five contras] beat my husband brutally… And then, the three who [had] talked to my uncle [who had denounced them as Sandanistas] raped me so brutally that I still have scars on my knees. They put me face down They raped me through my rectum too. And all this in front of my husband.” The captives were then taken further on where they met a group of 55 contras. There they were interrogated and beaten and Digna was again raped in front of her husband….After eating, they continued on until at 4 am they reached a camp of tents marked “made in the USA.” There…[they] interrogated Digna “torturing me, pressing my eyes, separating my toes, and raping me brutally again.” That day, the contras called one of the hostages, Juan Valladares, and asked him if he loved [the Minister of the Interior] and the [Sandanista] revolution. When Valladares replied that he did, “they laid him down on the ground and they gouged out his eyes with a spoon, then they machine-gunned him and threw him over a cliff.”… On the fifth day “five of them raped me at five in the evening… They had gang-raped me every day. When my vagina couldn’t take it any more, they raped me through my rectum. I calculate that in five days they raped me 60 times.” Brody, 119-120.

Another incident, also chosen at random among many similar ones, involves an October 28, 1982 attack. Father Evaristo Bertrand, who lived in the norther region of El Jicaro-Murra, reported that the contras had consistently attacked this region since 1982, producing “hundreds of deaths and thousands of displaced people.” He testified that

five armed men…broke down the door of the house where Maria Bustillo, 57, was living with her husband, Ricardo…and five of their children. The intruders ordered everyone to the floor, face down, and warned that whoever moved would be killed….they tied up [the children] two by two and led them away…
When Maria went out the next morning to look for her family, she found her five children dead, about 50 yards from her house. “They were left all cut up. Their ears were pulled off, their noses and other parts were cut off.” Her husband Ricardo was found dead in a nearby town along with another man…They were also left broken up…his arms were broken and his hands were but up.” Brody, 63.

These are but two passages, but there are similar ones, with equally disturbing levels of extreme violence and disdain for human dignity, throughout the pages of the Brody report and any of the other human rights documents provided by Americas Watch or other human rights institutions. Yet these contras, responsible for such acts, were also Reagan’s “freedom fighters” whom “we should support” because they were “the moral equals of our Founding Fathers.” Quite the insult, both to our Founders and to the intelligence and integrity of the American public. But also quite a tribute to the power of state propaganda in a democratic society like the US, where the press is in principle free and open, but in fact overwhelmingly influenced and controlled by the business elite. In blissful ignorance, the American public largely took Reagan at his word, and did little to stop his support for the contras. It all blew up of course with the Iran-Contra scandal, and now the full details of the ensuing 1987 congressional hearing can be seen on youtube.

So we know now that the US was indeed involved in these gruesome activities, which have now been extensively documented. One of many damning documents was the CIA’s handbook prepared for training the contras, entitled “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare,” which infamously advised that “it is possible to neutralize [ie, assassinate] carefully selected and planned targets such as [judges], police and State Security officials, etc.” Congress, upon finding out about the CIA manual, was appalled. But they kept on funding the contras anyway, apparently convinced by Reagan’s perfectly uninformed and Orwellian talking points.

The most convincing and authoritative evidence is the ICJ’s actual judgment, produced in 1986, two years after Nicaragua had lodged its complaint against the US. The case was telling at a number of levels, both in the courts verdict, and the response of the US.

The US, when it saw that it would probably lose the case, promptly declared that it was going to unilaterally withdraw its consent to the court’s jurisdiction in this case. As Georgia law Professor Spiro put it more recently, in an analagous case, “It’s a sore-loser kind of move.” “If we can’t win, we’re not going to play.” But, as the Times reported in 1985,

Since Nicaragua filed the suit in April 1984, the Administration has said that the World Court, as it is commonly called, has no jurisdiction to decide the case or others involving ongoing armed conflicts. The Court rejected this position by a vote of 15 to 1 in November.

So the US apparently holds a perfect double standard when it comes to international law–it applies to you, but not to us.

But here, for the record, are some of the ICJ’s 1986 rulings regarding Nicaragua’s complaints against the US. It should be noted that the ICJ had no army to force the US to comply, so it could only make its rulings according to internantional law and hope that the US would have enough dignity and respect for such decent moral concepts as international law and universality of application that it would comply with the findings.

Alas, that was expecting too much. As a state, and with no morally-passionate domestic public to comply it to act properly, the US acted as states act–in its own interest. It totally ignored the ruling, and in 1992, after six years of silence and noncompliance by the US, Nicaragua had little choice but to remove the case from the ICJ’s books.

The main point here both to underline the hypocrisy of the US when it calls on people like Qaddafi and Assad to abide by international law; and to recall the common-sense truism expressed by Senator William Fulbright who, when asked about the lessons to be pulled from Vietnam, replied that one is “not to trust government statements.” The, reason, quite simply, is that “they fit the facts to fit the policy.” Or, as I.F. Stone put it even more succinctly, ALL GOVERNMENTS LIE! (–so we should really stop believing them). If we can assess state actions more accurately, and quit giving serious attention to their rhetoric or their propaganda, then we can more effectively collaborate to resist them and bring them under real democratic control.


Excerpts from the 1986 ICJ ruling, which can be read in full here:

(2) By twelve votes to three,
Rejects the justification of collective self-defence maintained by the United States of America in connection with the military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua …

(4) By twelve votes to three,
Decides that the United States of America, by certain attacks on Nicaraguan territory in 1983-1984, namely attacks on Puerto Sandino on 13 September and 14 October 1983, an attack on Corinto on 10 October 1983; an attack on Potosi Naval Base on 4/5 January 1984, an attack on San Juan del Sur on 7 March 1984; attacks on patrol boats at Puerto Sandino on 28 and 30 March 1984; and an attack on San Juan del Norte on 9 April 1984; and further by those acts of intervention referred to in subparagraph (3) hereof which involve the use of force, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to use force against another State ….

(6) By twelve votes to three,
Decides that, by laying mines in the internal or territorial waters of the Republic of Nicaragua during the first months of 1984, the United States of America has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligations under customary international law not to use force against another State, not to intervene in its affairs, not to violate its sovereignty and not to interrupt peaceful maritime commerce…

(8) By fourteen votes to one,
Decides that the United States of America, by failing to make known the existence and location of the mines laid by it, referred to in subparagraph (6) hereof, has acted in breach of its obligations under customary international law in this respect…

(14) By fourteen votes to one,
Decides that the United States of America is under an obligation to make reparation to the Republic of Nicaragua for all injury caused to Nicaragua

VII. The facts imputable to the United States (paras. 75 to 125)

1. The Court examines the allegations of Nicaragua that the mining of Nicaraguan ports or waters was carried out by United States military personnel or persons of the nationality of Latin American countries in the pay of the United States. After examining the facts, the Court finds it established that, on a date in late 1983 or early 1984, the President of the United States authorized a United States Government agency to lay mines in Nicaraguan ports, that in early 1984 mines were laid in or close to the ports of El Bluff, Corinto and Puerto Sandino…

The Court observes that the laying of mines in the waters of another State without any warning or notification is not only an unlawful act but also a breach of the principles of humanitarian law underlying the Hague Convention No. VIII of 1907….

Appraising the facts first in the light of the principle of the non-use of force, the Court considers that the laying of mines in early 1984 and certain attacks on Nicaraguan ports, oil installations and naval bases, imputable to the United States constitute infringements of this principle, unless justified by circumstances which exclude their unlawfulness. It also considers that the United States has committed a prima facie violation of the principle by arming and training the contras…

The Court finds it clearly established that the United States intended, by its support of the contras, to coerce Nicaragua in respect of matters in which each State is permitted to decide freely, and that the intention of the contras themselves was to overthrow the present Government of Nicaragua. It considers that if one State, with a view to the coercion of another State, supports and assists armed bands in that State whose purpose is to overthrow its government, that amounts to an intervention in its internal affairs, whatever the political objective of the State giving support. It therefore finds that the support given by the United States to the military and paramilitary activities of the contras in Nicaragua, by financial support, training, supply of weapons, intelligence and logistic support, constitutes a clear breach of the principle of non-intervention. …

the Court finds that the acts of which Nicaragua is accused, even assuming them to have been established and imputable to that State, could not justify counter-measures taken by a third State, the United States, and particularly could not justify intervention involving the use of force. …

The Court finds that the assistance to the contras, the direct attacks on Nicaraguan ports, oil installations, etc., the mining operations in Nicaraguan ports, and the acts of intervention involving the use of force referred to in the Judgment, which are already a breach of the principle of non-use of force, are also an infringement of the principle of respect for territorial sovereignty.…

The Court has found the United States responsible for the failure to give notice of the mining of Nicaraguan ports.…

The Court also upholds the contention that the mining of the ports is in manifest contradiction with the freedom of navigation and commerce guaranteed by Article XIX of the Treaty.…

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3 Responses to The United States v. Nicaragua, 1984

  1. Pingback: US policy in El Salvador in the early 1980s: Reality versus rhetoric | Political Crumbs

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