In 1986, the United States was found guilty by the International Court of Justice of breaching international law by engaging in international terrorism. The case is known the Case Concerning the Military and Paramilitary Activities in and Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America).
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which has its seat in The Hague, is the principal judicial organ of the United Nations. The ICJ is sometimes called the World Court and its principle function is to settle disputes between member countries by applying the principles of international law.
The International Criminal Court (ICC) is different from the International Court of Justice. The main difference is that ICJ settles arguments between countries, but the ICC punishes people for their crimes.
The United States if not a member of the ICC for very obvious reasons, but it is a member of the ICJ.
On June 27, 1986, the Court made the following ruling:
Thus the assistance to the contras, as well as the direct attacks on Nicaraguan ports. oil installations, etc., referred to in paragraphs 81 to 86 above, not only amount to an unlawful use of force, but also constitute infringements of the territorial sovereignty of Nicaragua, and incursions into its territorial and internal waters.
For those interested in political language, the phrase “unlawful use of force” is the technical term for international terrorism.
This is the language of the UN Charter, article 2:
All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.
In the absence of a Security Council authorization, no country may use force against another country, except in self-defence against an armed attack. This rule was enshrined in the United Nations Charter in 1945 for a good reason: to prevent states from using force as they felt so inclined”, said Louise Doswald-Beck, Secretary-General International Commission of Jurists.
The case had a 13 judge panel from countries all around the world. Only three judges (US, Japan, and UK) voted against the charges brought by Nicaragua.
The American judge, Stephen Schwebel, gave the following reasons for the “use of force” in his dissent:
Pg. 362, Appendix, Paragraphs 199-200:
The United States has officially declared itself to be of the view that “the policies and actions of the Government of Nicaragua constitute an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States…” (Executive Order of the President of 1 May 1985 (Nicaraguan Supplemental Annex B, Attachment 1)). In his address of 16 March 1986, President Reagan spoke of:
“a mounting danger in Central America that threatens the security of the United States… I am speaking of Nicaragua… It is not Nicaragua alone that threatens us, but those using Nicaragua as a privileged sanctuary for their struggle against the United States. Their first target is Nicaragua’s neighbors.”
If the United States (and El Salvador) were to be adjudged not under the Charters of the United Nations and the OAS and the pertinent Inter-American Treaties, but under customary international law, it is equally clear that the United States and El Salvador are entitled to join together in exercising their inherent right of collective self-defence, and to do so without the prior authorization of international organizations, universal or regional. In the pre-United Nations Charter era – or, at any rate, in the pre-Pact of Paris and pre-League of Nations era – States were free to employ force and go to war for any reason or no reason.
In other words, the US can use force whenever it see fit. The judge even reminisces on a time where the US was not under any obligation to international law or any pesky organization!
But that’s not all.
The court also found that the US encouraged human rights violation by providing the contras with a manual titled: Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare
Judgement, Pg. 129, paragraphs 254-256:
The Court now turns to the question of the application of humanitarian law to the activities of the United States complained of in this case…
Nicaragua is accusing the contras of violations both of the law of human rights and humanitarian law, and is attributing responsibility for these acts to the United States. The Court has however found (paragraphs 115, 216) that this submission of Nicaragua cannot be upheld ; but it has also found the United States responsible for the publication and dissemination of the manual on “Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare“ referred to in paragraphs 118 to 122 above.
The Court has also found (paragraphs 219 and 220 above) that general principles of humanitarian law include a particular prohibition, accepted by States, and extending to activities which occur in the context of armed conflicts, whether international in character or not. By virtue of such general principles, the United States is bound to refrain from encouragement of persons or groups engaged in the conflict in Nicaragua to commit violations of Article 3 which is common to all four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949.
The Court takes note of the advice given in the manual on psychological operations to “neutralize” certain “carefully selected and planned targets”, including judges, police officers, State Security officials, etc., after the local population have been gathered in order to “take part in the act and formulate accusations against the oppressor”. In the view of the Court, this must be regarded as contrary to the prohibition in Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, with respect to non-combatants, of
“the passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgment pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording al1 the judicial guarantees which are recognized as indispensable by civilized peoples” and probably also of the prohibition of “violence to life and person, in particular murder to all kinds,…”
It is also appropriate to recall the circumstances in which the manual of psychological operations was issued. When considering whether the publication of such a manual, encouraging the commission of acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law, is unlawful, it is material to consider whether that encouragement was offered to persons in circumstances where the commission of such acts was likely or foreseeable. The Court has however found (paragraph 121) that at the relevant time those responsible for the issue of the manual were aware of, at the least, allegations that the behaviour of the contras in the field was not consistent with humanitarian law; it was in fact even claimed by the CIA that the purpose of the manual was to “moderate” such behaviour. The publication and dissemination of a manual in fact containing the advice quoted above must therefore be regarded as an encouragement, which was likely to be effective, to commit acts contrary to general principles of international humanitarian law reflected in treaties.
So what happened next? Sadly, nothing.
The United States refused to participate in the proceedings after the Court rejected its argument that the ICJ lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The U.S. also blocked enforcement of the judgment by the United Nations Security Council and thereby prevented Nicaragua from obtaining any compensation.
But it’s not all bad news. The case set a precedent and confirmed what many of us already knew to be true:
The U.S. is “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today” (MLK, Beyond Vietnam, 1967)
Thanks for reading,
Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America): http://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/70