United States v. Nicaragua–ICJ 1984-1986

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 the following:

a) but the contras are “the moral equals of our Founding Fathers” (1985);

b) the democratically elected Nicaraguan government was actually part of “a confederation of terrorist states,” even though it had committed no hostile acts against the US, and that was “run by the strangest collection of misfits, looney tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich”;

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 mining of Nicaragua’s harbors and ports, this had involved blowing up bridges, as well as  attacking factories, fishing boats, hospitals, schools, and oil storage tanks.

In fact, it gets worse, far worse. Reagan’s “freedom fighters,” the contras, grew out of the former (Somoza) dictator’s National Guardsmen. These Guardsmen were essentially death squads paid by Somoza to crush political dissent. After Somoza fell, they had fled to nearby countries: Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. When, in Nicaragua, the leftist Sandanistas took over in 1979, the former Guardsmen were ripe for CIA recruiting. They had long internalized a culture of terror and ruthlessness, which apparently fit quite well with CIA intentions. A read through the CIA manuals on effective torture techniques and sabotage strongly reinforces this conclusion. By the early 1980s, the Guardsmen, with CIA support, aid, and instruction, were regularly slaughtering and brutalizing the Nicaraguan peasant population, a major source of support for the Sandanista government. The slaughter frequently happened in the most gruesome fashion imaginable, as regularly documented by human rights groups.

But year after year, the US supoort not only continued, but increased.

For extensive documentation, see, among much work, (former assistant NY Attorney General) Reed Brody’s 1985 book Contra Terror in Nicaragua, Leslie Cockburn’s 1987 book Out of Control., Thomas Walker’s many books on the subject, and La Feber’s Inevitable Revolutions. Amnesty International’s contemporary reports on the subject, as well as those by Americas Watch, are also highly informative and offer well-documented glimpses.

The accounts are uniformly repulsive in the extreme. To cite at random, here is one among many similar accounts appearing in Reed Brody’s report on his field visits. The following account is extremely disturbing and I recommend not reading it, but I include it because it is so mundane in its typicalness.

According to the Brody report, Digna Barreda de Ubeda, mother of two from Esteli, who was kidnapped by the contras in May 1983. Her account follows, verbatim:

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)

Below is another sample incident, again typical and chosen at random from among much testimony and documentary evidence.  This is the account of a Contra attack occurring on October 28, 1982.

According to the Brody report, 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.” The Father testified as follows:

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, again, only typical accounts, of which one encounters many volumes. The consistency of the gruesome methods of violence and brutality employed systematically by the Contras is astonishing. Perhaps equally astonishing though is the fact that their power was almost exclusively enabled by the US, without which they would have been quickly overcome and crushed by the Sandinista movement.

In blissful ignorance, the American public largely took Reagan at his word, and did little to effectively halt US support for the Contras until the Iran-Contra scandal emerged.

We now know that the US was intimately involved in these gruesome activities. Among many damning documents are the CIA’s two handbooks prepared for training the Contras in counterrevolutionary terror, respectively entitled “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare” and “The Freedom Fighter’s Manual.” The former infamously advised its readers 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 manuals, was appalled, but continued to fund the Contras.

The most convincing and authoritative evidence is the ICJ’s actual judgment, finally 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. When the US realized that it would lose the case, it withdrew recognition of the court’s jurisdiction.

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.

For the record, below are a few of the ICJ’s 1986 rulings on the Nicaraguan case against the US’s complaints against the US.

The US proceeded, sadly but predictably, to act as states always do–according to narrow state interests, with real power being the determining factor, ethical considerations or international justice norms entirely out of sight. In other words, the US simply ignored the ruling and rejected it.

In 1992, after six years of noncompliance by the US (and under further US pressure), Nicaragua had little choice but to withdraw its complaint from the ICJ’s books.

Here are some excerpts the 1986 ICJ ruling, which can be read in full here. The Court ruled as follows:

(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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