On September 12, U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations. He was there to make the case for vigorous action against Iraq. Bush told delegates that the U.N. had been born in “the hope of a world moving toward justice, escaping old patterns of conflict and fear.” He then reeled off a list of Saddam Hussein’s transgressions against Security Council resolutions. Hussein’s actions, the president said, proved “his contempt for the United Nations.” “Are Security Council resolutions to be honored and enforced or cast aside without consequence?” Bush asked. “Will the United Nations serve the purpose of its founding or will it be irrelevant?”
Much the same question could have been asked in 1986, and was asked by a few dissident voices. In June of that year, the International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court)–the leading institution for the adjudication of international law–issued its verdict in the case of Nicaragua vs. the United States.
The U.S., under President Ronald Reagan, had spent the first half of the 1980s waging a massive campaign against the revolutionary Sandinista government of Nicaragua. U.S. strategy included direct attacks by CIA operatives, and tens of millions of dollars in support for the U.S.-created and -trained “Contra” rebel forces.
The World Court found that the U.S. actions constituted “an unlawful use of force …. [that] cannot be justified either by collective self-defence … nor by any right of the United States to take counter-measures involving the use of force.” A good argument can be made that the court was, in fact, convicting the United States of international terrorism, which the U.S. Congress has defined as “any activity that … appears to be intended … to intimidate or coerce a civilian population … [or] to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion.” The court ordered the United States to pay reparations, estimated at between $12 billion and $17 billion, to Nicaragua.
All of this was, of course, irrelevant to the course of actual events. The United States had announced, as soon as the World Court accepted jurisdiction in the case, that it would boycott the proceedings and not recognize the verdict. Two weeks after that verdict was issued, the U.S. Congress voted an extraordinary $100 million for the “Contras,” thereby expressing its determination to pursue the terrorist campaign regardless of international law and global public opinion.
It is true that the U.S. did not have to worry about ignoring Security Council resolutions, as Saddam Hussein has done over the last decade. As a permanent member of the Council, the U.S. can simply veto any resolution it dislikes. Shortly after the World Court decision, Nicaragua appealed to the Security Council, with a motion calling on all states to respect international law. The U.S. killed the resolution (the vote was 11-1, with 3 abstentions). Nicaragua then took its case to the General Assembly, where it secured a 94-3 vote demanding that the U.S. respect the World Court’s verdict. The Assembly, though, had no way of enforcing the resolution, given the U.S. veto in the Security Council.
“From these events,” wrote Noam Chomsky in 1988, “we perceive with great clarity the self-image of American elites: the United States is a lawless and violent state and must remain so, independently of such nonsense as international law, the World Court, the United Nations, or other international institutions … Meanwhile starry-eyed ideologues pay their tributes in awed and reverential tones to our unique commitment to the rule of law.”
In 1990, the Sandinista government of Nicaragua was defeated in elections and replaced by a coalition headed by Violeta Chamorro. That government agreed to abandon Nicaragua’s claim for compensation, in return for a paltry $60 million in U.S. aid to assist with the program of economic privatization and “shock therapy” then being imposed on Nicaragua’s long-suffering population. This did not, however, affect the World Court’s verdict, which still stands. It serves as a lonely reminder of the U.S.’s “unique commitment to the rule of law”–unique, that is, in the U.S.’s determination to preserve its immunity from the rule of law.
On the same day as President Bush’s speech to the General Assembly, The Washington Post published an article about Nicaragua’s plight today. It noted that the country is now the second-poorest in the western hemisphere, after Haiti. The dramatic improvements in nutrition, health care and literacy associated with the Sandinistas’ first years in power were crushed by the U.S.-led terrorist campaign, and further “rolled back” after the U.S.’s favoured politicians took power in 1990.
Violeta Chamorro was succeeded, in 1996, by Arnoldo Aleman. Aleman, according to the Post article, now stands accused of looting more than $100 million U.S. from the country’s scarce resources during his six years in power. He had been vocally supported by the United States throughout the period of his alleged thievery. As the Post put it: “Aleman was long a protege of the United States, which focused on his staunch anti-Sandinista credentials rather than the mounting evidence that he was fleecing his country.”
Nicaragua’s new president, Enrique Bolanos, inherits the automatic U.S. support given to any conservative politician in the Third World who conforms to Washington’s agenda, at home and abroad. But even he seems unable to wring much in the way of assistance out of the United States. With a loan of $100 million, Bolanos says, “I could work wonders.” This is approximately equal to the money that Arnoldo Aleman is said to have stolen from his people, with enthusiastic U.S. support. It is a small amount compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that the U.S. devoted to overthrowing the Sandinista government in the 1980s, and a tiny fraction of the billions owed to Nicaragua under the World Court verdict.
Nonetheless, it appears doubtful that the money will be provided, even as a loan. “I’m not sure that just giving him [Bolanos] $100 million is going to solve his problems,” said an anonymous U.S. official. George Bush, meanwhile, was telling the U.N. General Assembly of America’s “commitment to human dignity,” and its “joining with the world to supply aid where it reaches people and lift up lives.”
This cynical record–of trampling international law, ruining a small Third World country perhaps beyond recovery, and then looking elsewhere while starvation and misery reign in the aftermath–should be borne in mind when we listen to the Bush Administration’s lectures on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. It is hardly a coincidence that many key personnel associated with U.S. policies toward Central America in the 1980s–policies that directly contributed to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, in Nicaragua and throughout the region–have returned to power under George W. Bush. (Think of Otto Reich, Elliott Abrams, and the former ambassador to Honduras, John Negroponte–today, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.) There is no reason to expect that the commitment of these figures to the rule of law, and that of others within the Bush Administration, will be any less selective this time around.
The world community should not allow its agenda to be dictated by a U.S. regime that sees international law and the United Nations as useful weapons to be used against designated enemies, but nuisances to be ignored in conducting its own foreign policy.
Adam Jones is professor of international studies at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico City. He is editor of the forthcoming volume, “Genocide, War Crimes, and the West: Ending the Culture of Impunity” (Zed Books). Email: email@example.com