September 7th, 2006

US v Nicaragua

Reflections and Reports
The Comedy of Terror
Cedric J. Robinson

In an earlier time, before the formulation of notions like war crimes, crimes against humanity, the genocide convention, and global human rights, later observers might have constructed the anarchy of international law as an absent brake. However, when the International Court of Justice, the world court, was established in the mid-1940s, this was no longer the case. Under the signature of President Truman, the United States consented to the jurisdiction of the court. For forty years, the United States remained within the adjudication of the International Court. But in 1986, the Reagan administration unilaterally rescinded the court's authority, preferring international anarchy to the public humiliation of a formal judgment on its conduct of foreign policy in Central America. The occasion was Nicaragua v. United States of America, a suit brought by the Nicaraguan government to the International Court. On June 27, 1986, the court published its findings, among them rejecting the United States' assertion that it had no jurisdiction. Some of the world court's decisions doubtlessly concern state terror:

By twelve votes to three: Decides that the United States of America, by training, arming, equipping, financing and supplying the contra forces or otherwise encouraging, supporting and aiding military and paramilitary activities in and against Nicaragua, has acted, against the Republic of Nicaragua, in breach of its obligation under customary international law not to intervene in the affairs of another State.

By fourteen votes to one, Finds that the United States of America, by producing in 1983 a manual entitled " Operaciones sicológicas en guerra de guerrillas ," and disseminating it to contra forces, has encouraged the commission by them of acts contrary to general principles of humanitarian law. 1

Mark Weisbrot recently recalled just what "principles of humanitarian law" were violated in Nicaragua: "They [the U.S. agencies and the contras] waged war not so much against the Nicaraguan army as against 'soft targets': teachers, health care workers, elected officials (a CIA-prepared manual actually advocated their assassination). . . . They blew up bridges and health clinics, and with help from a U.S. trade embargo beginning in 1985, destroyed the economy of Nicaragua." 2 The corporate American press said and wrote little about these actions. And when they were infrequently noted, there was nothing like the apocalyptic language of today ("threats to civilization," etc.) to suggest that an American government and its surrogates had violated the basic principles of democracy.

The court awarded Nicaragua $17 billion. And beyond U.S. shores, the decision was applauded widely. Unreported in the American press, Pope John Paul II, for one, congratulated the court on its vindication of international law. The debt was, however, "forgiven" by a new government in Nicaragua, installed as a beneficiary of the undeclared American war on that country. [End Page 166]

What the Reagan government fomented in Nicaragua was merely a complement to the actions of preceding American governments in Central America. For thirty years, in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, U.S. officials, covert operatives, and military personnel had supported state terrorism that left hundreds of thousands dead, among them peasants, priests, nuns, unionists, political leftists, and the like. Much of this, too, was unreported, or at best misreported at the time. So a few years back, when President Clinton issued a public apology to Central Americans for (some) of the actions of his predecessors, it came somewhat as a surprise for a majority of the American public.

1. The particulars of the decision included: "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." Nicaragua v. United States of America, International Court of Justice, June 27, 1986, available at

2. Mark Weisbrot, "What Everyone Should Know about Nicaragua," Z Magazine, November 9, 2001.

Cedric J. Robinson teaches black studies and political theory at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is author of Black Marxism, Black Movements in America (1983), and, most recently, An Anthropology of Marxism (2001). He is also cohost (with Elizabeth Robinson) of a Third World News Review, a program on Public Access in Santa Barbara.